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Linda Brown and the unfinished work of school integration in US.

Image Credit: AFP By Fawaz Turki, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

Linda Brown wasn't allowed to attend the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas, just seven blocks from her home. That school was for white children. Instead, she had to attend the Monroe School, 21 blocks away, crossing a dangerous rail yard and catching a school bus to get there.

In defiance of segregation, her father tried to enrol her in the white school when she was seven, but they were turned away. Fed up, he became the lead plaintiff in Brown vs Board of Education.

Last Sunday, Linda Brown died at 75. She and thousands of children risked enormous harm as the foot soldiers in the battle to integrate schools. More people should celebrate their achievements. But no one is really talking about school segregation anymore. That's a shame because an abundance of research shows that integration is still one of the most effective tools that we have for achieving racial equity.

At the height of school desegregation, from 1964 through the 1980s, high school graduation rates for black students improved significantly. So did standardised test scores. Desegregation led to higher income, more years of education and better health outcomes for blacks, and integration also reduced racial prejudice among whites, according to studies by the economist Rucker Johnson. Numerous studies show that being around people who are different improves cognitive skills, like critical thinking and problem-solving.

Why does school integration command such little attention? Most of the blame lies with the United States Supreme Court, which has eliminated some of the most effective tools we have for carrying it out. In 1974, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to integration in the North in Milliken vs Bradley when it struck down a lower court's decision to require two-way busing between Detroit's black schools and the white schools in the suburbs. As a result, segregation in Northern states is more entrenched than in the South, where school systems tend to be countrywide and cover a larger geographic area.

That's right -- school segregation in Michigan, New York, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey is worse than in the former Confederacy. Housing segregation in the North exacerbates the problem because many state laws require students to go to school where they live.

Even in the South, integration has declined. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court made it easier for many Southern school districts to slide out from under court orders that had required them to integrate. Although the NAACP Legal Defence Fund is still litigating about 100 school desegregation cases from the Brown era across the South, the Supreme Court has, in practice, halted any new federal lawsuits that would challenge school segregation.

The Supreme Court not only has limited integration through the courts but has also hamstrung school districts that want to integrate on their own. In 2007, the court struck down school districts' voluntary use of race in Parents Involved in Community Schools vs Seattle School District No 1 on the grounds that it discriminated against whites.

Integration has also fallen out of favour because many of its practices fail to adequately consider the needs of black communities. For example, scores of black teachers were fired in the wake of Brown vs Board because some white administrators refused to allow black people to teach white students. This segregated teachers, and it cut off a pathway to a good career and the middle class.

In addition, poorly designed school-desegregation policies have scarred black students by focusing too narrowly on removing legal barriers to integration rather than creating inclusive school environments that value the abilities and dignity of all children. As a result, new discriminatory policies that cater to white parents, like tracking, as well as other policies that target black children for punishment, have emerged in schools that are supposedly integrated.

And so, school segregation endures. We can see its impact in poor academic and life outcomes and in the overlooked harms to white students who miss the chance to learn from and among black and Latino children. It's also a major driver of inequity in metropolitan areas dominated by racial divides. Segregation often undermines property wealth in black and Latino communities because of the close relationship between the demand for housing and the perceived quality of local schools. This has the effect of limiting the pool of available tax revenue for funding local school districts.

Today, most people have come to assume that de facto segregation is "just the way things are" and that our society is destined to remain deeply divided by race and class -- forever separate and unequal.

But integration is possible. Lawmakers should redraw school district boundaries to include more diverse populations. They must end laws that require students to attend school where they live and instead work to create schools that bring together students from different neighbourhoods and class backgrounds. They should also promote housing and land-use policies that eliminate residential segregation.

Integration would strengthen state schools. And it would move this country much closer to the democratic ideals that Linda Brown and so many others like her sought to achieve.

-- New York Times News Service

Elise Boddie (@eliseboddie), a law professor at Rutgers, directed litigation at the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Legal Defence and Educational Fund Inc., where Dennis D. Parker (@DennisDParker), the director of the Racial Justice programme at the American Civil Liberties Union, oversaw hundreds of desegregation lawsuits.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Apr 4, 2018
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