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The Curry Report
Published: 04 July 2007

Integration Died Long Before the Supreme Court Ruling


The cover of Time magazine says it all, "Back to Segregation: After four decades of struggle, America has now given up on integration. Why?" The article states, "In fact, the high court's action has accelerated the pace at which cities across the country are moving to undo mandatory desegregation. And the federal judiciary, which long staked its authority on the enforcement of desegregation orders, appears eager to depart the field."

Chris Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City is quoted as saying, "The courts are saying, 'We still agree with the goal of school desegregation, but it's too hard, and we're tired of it, and we give up.' "

The article observes, "The combination of legal revisionism and residential segregation is effectively ending America's bold attempt to integrate the public schools."

Kevin Brown, a law professor at the University of Indiana and an expert on race and education, said, "We have already seen the maximum amount of racial mixing in public schools that will exist in our lifetime."

Were these fresh reactions to last week's Supreme Court setback severely restricting the use of race in the assignment of students to public schools in Seattle and Louisville? No. The above quotes were taken from the April 29, 1996 issue of Time magazine – more than 11 years ago. In essence, desegregation of public elementary and high schools was abandoned long before the Roberts court ruling put yet another nail in the coffin of integration.

The cruel irony is that at a time when the United States is rapidly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse -- in less than 50 years, Whites will become a minority in this country -- the judicial system is mandating a more segregated society.

Conservatives will no doubt hail desegregation as another failed American experiment. That's far from the truth. Like the War on Poverty, it has been a half-hearted experiment lacking courageous or consistent national leadership.

Although few people are willing to admit it, desegregation was never truly a national experiment. Most of the efforts to tear down the walls of segregation were aimed at the South while the rest of the nation, practicing more subtle forms of racism, looked on.

Because of the 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions, the South shifted from being the most segregated region in the nation to the most desegregated. The Harvard Civil Rights Project, using figures compiled by the Southern Education Reporting Service, has published a chart that captures the dramatic changes.

In 1954, 0.001 percent of Blacks attended majority White schools in the South. In 1960, the figure was only 0.1 percent. In 1964, a decade after the original Brown ruling, the figure stood at 2.3 percent. There was a tremendous spurt from 1968 to 1988 when the percentage of African Americans attending majority-White schools in the South jumped from 23.4 percent to 43.5 percent. After peaking in 1988, things started going downhill.

"One of the most consistent trends of the last decade is a reversal of gains in desegregation for Black students made in the South in the late 1960s and 1970s as a result of judicial and executive enforcement of desegregation orders," says a Harvard report. "In fact, court-ordered desegregation of Black students in Southern states resulted in the South becoming the most integrated region in the country, with 43.5 percent of Black students in majority-White schools in 1988.

"In the 1990s, as the desegregation plans have been dismantled across the South, however, the proportion of Black students in majority White schools has decreased by 13 percentage points. In 2000, Black segregation rates in the South continue to increase steadily as they have for over a decade. Today, only 31 percent of Southern Black students are in majority White schools, a rate lower than any year since 1968."

A study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project titled "Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation" observes, "For the first 19 years following Brown, the Supreme Court simply ignored segregation outside the 17 Southern and Border states and Washington, D.C., those with a history of state-imposed segregation."

"Since 1980, the Northeast remains the region with the highest share of Blacks attending predominantly minority schools, with almost four out of every five Blacks in these schools," the Harvard report states.

That Time magazine article carried an interesting quote 11 years ago by Harvard sociologist Gary Orfield: "The whole discussion of desegregation is corrupted by the fact that we mix up race and class. You don't gain anything from sitting next to somebody with a different skin color. But you gain a lot from moving from an isolated poverty setting into a middle-class setting."

The latest Supreme Court ruling makes it more difficult to travel that route.


George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.

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