Next year will mark seven decades since the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. Even the current Supreme Court’s conservatives have embraced that Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Yet, 70 years after Brown, a key obstacle to racial equality in education continues to be white resistance to racial integration and to adequate funding for the education of Black and Latino children.
In the 1950s and 1960s, white resistance took the form of a revolt against integration and busing.
Private “white academies” — also known as segregation academies — sprang up to preserve the advantages held by the previously white-only public schools.
Today, one form of ongoing resistance is what scholars label “hoarding opportunities.” By using zoning and districting to create and perpetuate overwhelmingly white spaces and declining to share resources with Black and Latino children, white Americans limit the reach of integration and perpetuate inequality.
Not surprisingly, in 2022, the Government Accountability Office declared that school segregation continues unabated. The agency reported that even as the nation’s student population has diversified, 43 percent of its schools are segregated, and 18.5 million students, more than one-third of all the students in the country, are enrolled in highly segregated schools (75 percent or more of the students identify as a single race or ethnicity).
The Midwest — with 59 percent of all schools classified as segregated — is the leader in segregation.
The same GAO study showed that when new school districts are formed, they tend to be far more racially homogeneous than the districts they replace.
A key obstacle to racial equality in education continues to be white resistance.
Direct evidence of white resistance to racial equity in education can be seen in a survey experiment my co-authors and I conducted in 2021 that closely replicated findings from earlier periods. The study shows that white Americans continue to be reluctant to support increased funding for schools for Black children.
In our experiment, 552 white Americans were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group was asked: “Do you favor or oppose expanding funding for pre-kindergarten programs so that it is available for poor children nationwide? The $24 billion a year cost would be paid for by higher taxes.”
The second group was asked the same question, except that “poor children” was replaced by “poor Black children.”
About 75 percent of respondents in the first group said they favor spending tax dollars for such a program. However, in the group asked about “poor Black children,” just 68 percent were in favor. This is a significant gap in support.
The experiment suggests that among white Americans, support for public education funding for poor children is robust. But less so for poor Black children.
White resistance to desegregation and school funding for Black students has severe consequences for racial equality and the economy.
Research published this month shows that Black students who attended Southern desegregated schools in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s experienced positive lifelong cognitive effects.
And data from the U.S. Department of Education still shows “substantial” racial gaps in reading and math competencies, high school graduation rates and, inevitably, college entry.
A recent Brookings report estimated that if the racial gap in education and employment had been eliminated, the U.S. GDP from 1990 to 2019 would have been $22.9 trillion larger. This would benefit us all.
The great promise of Brown was one of equal access to high-quality education. The hope was that income and other social disparities among white, Black and Latino people would dissipate over time. White resistance contributed to America not keeping this promise.
Policymakers, funders and education advocates must overcome white resistance to strengthen support for programs geared toward Black and Latino children.
This will help America’s quest to fulfill the promise of Brown. It’s time.
Alexandra Filindra is an associate professor of political science and psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She is also the author of “Race, Rights and Rifles.”
This story about segregation in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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