By the time you read this, I expect the Supreme Court would have issued an opinion placing limitations on the use of race in assigning students to public schools. If that happens, it will continue a trend began in the 1990s that eroded significant desegregation gains, especially in the South.
This won't be the first Supreme Court decision that undermines the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawing so-called separate but equal schools. The Brown decision proved that the legal system could effectively change the makeup of targeted school districts. A report issued last year titled, "Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation," by Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, provides an array of data that illustrates this point.
For example, it noted that during the peak of the civil rights era, between 1964 and 1970, Blacks in majority White schools in the South jumped from 2 percent to 33 percent, making it the least segregated region in the country.
That progress was paved by President Lyndon Johnson, an outspoken advocate of desegregation, a sympathetic Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
After years of progress – and a less compassionate public climate — public schools are being resegregated.
The report notes, "The resegregation of Blacks is greatest in the Southern and border states, and appears to be clearly related to the Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s permitting return to segregated neighborhood schools."
In Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell (1991), the Supreme Court allowed school districts to return to segregated neighborhood schools. In Freeman v. Pitts (1992), the Supreme Court allowed districts to terminate desegregation programs even though integration had not been achieved. And in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), the Court emphasized the priority of local control of schools over desegregation.
Even with the adverse rulings, the report notes, schools in the South and border states are among the most desegregated in the nation. On the other hand, schools in New York, Illinois, California and Michigan were the most segregated, with the average Black students attending schools that had less than a quarter of students who were White.
Unlike the 1960s, school desegregation is no longer a Black/White paradigm. Latinos are the fastest-growing group in the United States and they, too, are pushed to the back of the school bus.
"Latino segregation is higher than Black segregation on some measures in the South and West," the Harvard study said. "In the West, where Latinos are concentrated, 81 percent of Latinos are in schools with non-White majorities, followed by 78 percent in the Northeast and South."
Schools are a preview of what is to come.
"Since the 2000 Census, a great deal has been written about the demographic transformation underway in many American communities as the U.S. moves toward the day when citizens of European background will no longer be the majority, but the changes are much more rapid and dramatic in the school-age population," the report stated.
Although the White population in the U.S. is not projected to dwindle to 50 percent until 2050, that ratio has already been reached in many schools systems.
But no one should be confused about why African Americans sought to enroll in desegregated schools.
"There is no evidence that the long struggle of civil rights groups to end segregation was only motivated by a desire to have minority children sit next to White children," the Harvard report stated. "There was a strong belief that predominantly White schools offered better opportunities on many levels…"
It is disturbing that at a time when the United States is undergoing a major demographic transition, few high-ranking officials have publicly voiced the need for all groups to prepare to live in a fast-approaching multi-cultural society in which Whites will be in a minority and no group will constitute a majority.
"In a survey conducted in 2003, more than half (57 percent) of adults surveyed believed that racially integrated schools are better for kids, and only 7 percent believed in the opposite," the Harvard report observed. "The fact that desegregation is not being discussed by political and most educational leaders does not mean that it is not highly important or that it failed or that there were no viable alternatives, only that it is controversial."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.