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Never mind chatter about the 'resegregation' of US schools. The landmark Supreme Court case did its job.
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Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library
In conventional liberal circles, there is never any good news about race. Thus, as the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation case nears, mainstream media outlets lately have been depicting American schools as resegregated.
Thus we read that in New York City “children trundle from segregated neighborhoods to segregated schools, living a hermetic reality,” the New York Times reports. The Los Angeles Times describes more Latino children increasingly attending segregated schools, while the segregation of black students is virtually unchanged from the early 1970s. That conclusion is drawn from the work of a research team led by UCLA professor Gary Orfield, the left’s go-to man on race and schooling. For decades Prof. Orfield has been successfully peddling a story of dashed hopes for school desegregation.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared in its unanimous Brown decision that state-imposed, single-race public schools violated the 14th Amendment. Separating children on the basis of race, the justices said, denied black pupils “equal educational opportunities” and hence deprived them of the “equal protection” of the laws, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. The watershed decision marked the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow South, applying to more than 10 million children who were enrolled in color-coded schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia. They made up roughly 40% of the nation’s public-school students, and more than two-thirds of all African-American pupils.
Some commentators (thinking wishfully) hailed Brown as a historic vindication of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s magnificent dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson , the 1896 decision that upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation of public facilities. Justice Harlan, a lonely voice on the court, declared the Constitution to be “colorblind.” But the Brown court said nothing of the sort. It spoke only of segregation’s psychological harm to black children and did not bar all racial classifications, as the NAACP had hoped it would. Thus racial preferences in higher education, contracting and employment—often called affirmative action—have been periodically sanctioned by the court.
Mr. Orfield and his admirers do not regret the court’s failure in 1954 to bar race-conscious public policies, of which they approve. They want more racially balanced schools and see Brown as a failed promise. But this comes from Mr. Orfield’s problematic definition of segregation. In his view, any school in which various minority groups together constitute a majority of the student body is “segregated.”
The number of such majority-minority schools has indeed increased. Seventy-four percent of black and 80% of Latino students are currently enrolled in them, up several points over the past two decades. But this is not, as Mr. Orfield argues, because federal court decisions have released many communities from desegregation orders issued many years ago. (Mr. Orfield seemingly favors permanent court supervision over most school districts.) The core problem is a stunning transformation in the racial demography of the school-age population that has resulted from immigration and the differential fertility rates of immigrants and natives.
In 1970, the federal government at last began to enforce Brown vigorously. Federal courts issued desegregation orders that forced the redrawing of school-attendance zones and imposed large-scale busing in many cities. At that time, four out of five public-school students were white. Today, that percentage is just over half (50.5%). In the South, whites already are a minority (47%), and an even smaller minority in the West, where barely 40% of public-school pupils are white. Whites are a still smaller public-school minority in the largest and most rapidly growing Southern and Western states: only 27% in California, 31% in Texas and 43% in Florida. These demographic trends are not expected to stop in the foreseeable future.
Mr. Orfield includes those numbers in his widely cited reports but shrinks from drawing the logical conclusion: It would be logistically impossible—without huge fleets of school buses full of children embarking on daily cross-country drives—to eliminate what he defines as “segregated” schools in much of America today.
If it were true that the educational achievement of minority children depended upon a large white presence in the schools they attended, profound pessimism would be in order. The share of non-Hispanic whites in the school-age population will almost surely continue to shrink. The only way to counter that trend would be to impose a complete ban on further immigration and to deport the 10 million-plus immigrants living illegally in the U.S. You won’t hear that proposal coming from those who insist that America’s schools are being resegregated.
It is demeaning, even racist, to assume that minority children can’t learn—or can’t learn as much—unless they are immersed in a student body in which whites are the majority. The most sophisticated research on the subject does not find that having white classmates notably improves the academic achievement of blacks and Hispanics.
The high test scores in the largely black or Latino charter schools run by the KIPP Academy, the Harlem Children’s Zone and many others illustrate the point. Mr. Orfield and his many supporters, though, resolutely oppose charter schools, and he even faults the Obama administration for its rather mild support for them. He dismisses charter schools because they are “the most segregated sector of schools for black students.”
It is true that the schools typically do not have many white students enrolled; that’s because the charter schools’ mission is to serve students who are most in need. Studies by Roland Fryer and many other social scientists reveal that black and Latino students actually learn more rapidly when they transfer into a good charter school (or private school where vouchers are available), even if the school has a racial mix—i.e., not a majority of white students—that passionate advocates of racial balance find objectionable.
The quality of American public schools is not what it should and could be, but the problem is not the lack of a proper racial balance in their student bodies. Schools with heavy black or Hispanic enrollment are not “segregated”; it is a gross misuse of the term to claim otherwise. The promise of Brown v. Board of Education has been fulfilled. Nothing resembling the Jim Crow South has re-emerged, and it never will. On Saturday we should celebrate a truly heartening American success story.
Mr. Thernstrom is a history professor at Harvard University. Ms. Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the co-authors of “America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible” (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
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