About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Book Excerpt: Today's Reforms Could Suffer Integration's Fate

 
image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.comThe following is adapted from Divided We Fail: The Story of an African-American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation (Beacon Press) by Sarah Garland:

On June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that officially ended the era of school desegregation that followed Brown v. Board of Education. Five of the nine Justices declared that race alone could no longer be used to assign students to a school, undermining the biggest civil rights cases of the previous century. Under the new interpretation of the law, school districts that had labored for half a century to integrate under plans once forced on them by the courts were told those plans were now unconstitutional.

Two cases led to the decision, one out of Seattle and another out of Louisville, Kentucky, the most racially integrated school system in America. The Louisville case had a long history. Ten years earlier, parents had gone to court to fight desegregation in order to save one school, Central High.

The parents were angry about busing, the main tool used in Louisville’s plan. Their children were being forced into the worst schools in the city when one of the best, located in their neighborhood, was being threatened with closure. They were frustrated that their children’s educational fates were decided solely on their race, with little attention to what parents and the community wanted for their kids. They believed the school system was violating their constitutional right to equal protection. They didn’t care that their case might jeopardize a central cause of the civil rights movement, school desegregation; a few of the plaintiffs hoped that desegregation would be dismantled because of their efforts. Although they were not the first to bring a federal case challenging desegregation, they were the first African Americans to do so.

To the plaintiffs and their supporters, the triumphant narrative of the civil rights battles that led to the long-awaited desegregation of the nation’s schools ignored some ugly truths. Americans commemorated James Meredith’s fight to attend Old Miss and the integration of the Little Rock schools, but they rarely talked about the mass firings of black teachers and widespread closings of traditionally black schools that followed. School desegregation reinforced assumptions about black inferiority, they argued, and it didn’t succeed in closing the racial achievement gap.

Central High School, located in the inner city amid housing projects and industrial warehouses, was Louisville’s traditionally black school. Under the district’s desegregation plan, every school had to maintain a white majority, and Central couldn’t attract enough white students to stay viable. It seemed the Louisville school district might close it. Represented by an ambitious personal injury lawyer, a group of African-American plaintiffs, most of them Central alumni, won a district court case to end racial quotas at the school and keep it open. The victory opened the door for other lawsuits against the city’s desegregation plan. Almost immediately, a group of white parents angry that their children couldn’t attend the schools of their choice hired the black group’s lawyer and took their cause to the Supreme Court.

The black parents’ lawsuit was largely forgotten, but the white parents’ case gripped the nation. Educators and civil rights activists worried that the justices were prepared to overturn Brown – that they would decide that 30 years of desegregation was enough to compensate for more than 300 years of slavery and segregation. Others hoped the justices would affirm their belief that racial preferences were self-defeating and that American society had entered a “post-racial” era. Both sides argued that the other was turning back the clock to an era when racial discrimination was the law.

In the Supreme Court case, white parents fought against mostly white school officials, and white lawyers argued in front of a mostly white Supreme Court. Few people watching the national case unfold knew about the black parents in Louisville who made it possible.

For the most part, it was not that the black activists opposed racial integration. Several saw it as a highly desirable goal. What they opposed was how desegregation had so often worked as a one-way exchange, and the lack of concern about how the loss of their schools and their voice might affect their community. They wanted equal outcomes for black children and they also wanted equal power, over the schools and over the content and trajectory of their children’s education—something they argued that racial integration in the schools never produced. Desegregation had been framed as a way to make up for what black people lacked. They wanted recognition that the African-American community also had something to add to American society, that their culture had strengths, not just weaknesses.

I was struck, as I listened to their criticisms of busing, at how similar their complaints were to the frustrations with the current set of education reforms: the charter schools and accountability systems that replaced desegregation. As the era of desegregation ended, black communities across the nation were once again facing unilateral school closings and mass firings of black teachers. Many felt disenfranchised, and wondered whether reformers cared about their own vision for their children’s education. Some took to the streets in protest. Others filed lawsuits.

In the end, the dissatisfaction with the way desegregation was implemented—among both whites and blacks—toppled it. In the case of black parents, they wanted more from their schools than just test score gains. The story of Central High School in Louisville, and why black community members valued it so much that they helped overturn a half-century of school desegregation, is not just a history lesson. It’s also a message to education reformers today.

Sarah Garland is a staff writer for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization based at Teachers College, Columbia University. 


Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.