Source: CNN

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote speech at an inaugural conference on Black literacy exploring what the organizers called an “alarming literacy gap” between Black students and their peers. I was honored to give the address but saddened and angry that, in 21st century America, such an event should even be necessary.

We were once promised a very different future. On May 17, 1954, in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court found the “separate but equal” doctrine, which had underpinned legalized racial segregation in US schools for generations, to be unconstitutional. An education system that trapped Black children in poor quality, underfunded schools, the court declared, was anything but “equal.” It was a pivotal moment for race relations, paving the way for subsequent victories for the Civil Rights movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act.

However, the positive effects of desegregation were certainly not felt overnight. The school system in which I was a student in the 1970s and early 1980s, deep in the Louisiana bayou, was very much still grappling with integration, with Black and White kids coming together in the classroom but pretty much nowhere else. The White students even had their prom at the local country club while the Black students’ prom was held in the school gym.

I’m relieved things are different for my nine-year-old son. His school is truly diverse and that mix is reflected in the friends who invite him for sleepovers on the weekend. Both those things make him exceptionally lucky.

The political activist Angela Davis has often said that education is the means by which we obtain freedom. I believe that education has the potential to deliver both freedom and justice, by equipping a whole generation of American citizens with the collective desire and the tools to dismantle systemic racism from the ground up.

This week, we are marking the 70th anniversary of Brown as a nation that has never had a more ethnically diverse student population; More than half of the children enrolled in our K-12 public schools are Black or brown. Yet, despite the progress made in desegregating schools during the three decades or so that followed Brown, backpedaling has derailed integration.

new report by researchers at Stanford and the University of Southern California (including an accompanying interactive tool) showed racial and economic segregation has actually increased dramatically in large school districts over the last 30 years. Researchers found that legal decisions, such as districts under desegregation orders being released from court oversight, and policies to expand school choice are mainly to blame.

Today, Black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander children, more likely than not, attend a public school in which at least 75% of their classmates are also children of color. And it has always been the case that racial and economic injustice go hand in hand — the majority of students in those schools are likely to be eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches (FRPL), a key indicator of poverty. And since schools with high numbers of poor Black and Brown students tend to be drastically underfunded the correlation between poverty and lower academic achievement is hardly surprising. The result is a negative cycle of educational disparities perpetuated by a lack of resources and opportunities.

Meanwhile, nearly half of White students are enrolled in schools where most of their peers look like them. Like students of color, they too live in economic isolation — but at the opposite end of the wealth scale. More than two-thirds attend schools in which only a minority of students are eligible for FRPL, schools where better funding and opportunities mean better outcomes.

There can be little doubt that the integrated, equal education for all that should have been Brown’s legacy is still shockingly out of reach. We should all be outraged by this betrayal, and not just because of the attainment gap. Why? Because high levels of racial and economic school resegregation are preventing students, communities and our beleaguered democracy from benefiting from our greatest national resource — our diversity.

We need all children, whatever the color of their skin or their family’s income, to leave school ready to contribute fully to America’s increasingly multi-faceted society. Only a truly racially and economically integrated education system will make that possible. Research shows that integration raises the attainment levels of all students — not just those who are Black, Brown and poor. Integration also fosters positive intergroup relationships, reduces stereotypes and promotes empathy.

Put another way, it’s hard to dehumanize someone who reminds you of your school friends. And if you can’t dehumanize a person, it becomes very difficult to deny them equal rights or tolerate injustice. Or vote for a candidate who seeks to stir up racial hatred for electoral gain. And lest we forget, education provides the fertile ground without which democracy itself cannot flourish. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” With disinformation posing what may well be an existential danger to the democratic process, the quality of our public education system has perhaps never mattered more.

I would urge all Americans to lobby school districts and federal and state decision makers to actively promote integrated education. This may mean redistributing resources more fairly, rethinking school choice policies, improving public transport networks, or redrawing school boundaries. It will mean helping school leaders create inclusive environments by training them in what Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” calls “the ABCs: affirming identity, building community, and cultivating leadership.”

In many areas, integrating education will require the desegregation of whole neighborhoods to forge diverse communities that will be mirrored in their local schools. Although inclusive housing policies are essential in this, they cannot bring about the required scale of change without an accompanying shift in attitudes across society. We must convince every parent that a child who learns in a racially or economically isolated classroom and then goes home to a racially or economically isolated neighborhood is a child who is missing out.

We may not be able to rely on the current US Supreme Court, which has recently trampled on women’s reproductive rights and abolished affirmative action in college admissions to guide the country towards justice and equality. But perhaps, for the sake of all our children’s futures, we can finally fulfill the promise of a fairer America encapsulated by Brown v. Board of Education.

Better seven decades late, than never.

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