Home > Uncategorized > This Just In: Brown vs. Board of Education Did Nothing to Help De-Segregate Schools

This Just In: Brown vs. Board of Education Did Nothing to Help De-Segregate Schools

Over the past several days there have been several articles written about the glacial speed our nation has moved to desegregate schools and why this has been the case. One of the most compelling (and damning) articles I read was written by Richard Rothstein for the Economic Policy Institute, who wrote a book on this issue titled “The Color of Law“. In the book Rothstein asserts that government policy on housing has hindered school desegregation and those policies have their roots in the New Deal.

Rothstein’s  EPI article describes the history of the school desegregation movement, which was intentionally incremental and slow. The NAACP decided to attack segregation in graduate program programs first, then work their way down to K-12 education. The process started in 1935 and culminated with the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954. As Rothstein writes, the desegregation of public schools has not occurred at the pace the NAACP anticipated:

 In 1954, a few hours after Brown was announced, Thurgood Marshall, leader of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, told reporters that it would take, at most, five years for schools to desegregate nationwide.

He didn’t anticipate the massive resistance of Southern states to the decision, yet that’s no longer the most important factor impeding integration. Rather, schools remain segregated mostly because their neighborhoods are segregated. Had civil rights lawyers been able to attack neighborhood rather than school segregation, they would have accomplished more for educational equality than by focusing on schools directly.

And the reason for the segregation in housing was not solely the fault of the racist tendencies of homeowners: Rothstein asserts it was aided and abetted by government policies put in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later reinforced by local and state politicians who established and enforced zoning regulations that, in turn, led to real estate agents “guiding” homebuyers to “desirable” neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, in turn, were assigned to schools based on income and race. Rothstein offers specific examples of these practices in the essay, noting that public housing was segregated beginning in FDR’s administration, new housing for defense workers in CA was explicitly segregated, and that the policies guiding suburbanization were also racist. Rothstein writes of the latter:

 It is well-known that the Federal Housing Administration had a “redlining” policy, generally refusing to insure mortgages in black neighborhoods. Less familiar is that the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration guaranteed development loans for entire suburban communities, provided that no homes be sold to African Americans.

One of the first and largest was Levittown, 17,000 low-cost homes in Nassau County, New York. William Levitt could never have independently amassed the capital for its design and construction. Instead, he obtained government-guaranteed bank loans by agreeing to exclude black buyers and to place language in every deed prohibiting re-sales to African Americans. The Federal Housing Authority also insisted upon zoning ordinances that banned future mixed-income development. Such practices everywhere created suburban white nooses around increasingly black cities.

Given these explicit government policies, Rothstein makes the case that the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation is completely bogus, noting that reversing these patterns today will be extremely difficult but, at the same time, extremely important:

Dismantling de jure residential segregation is incomparably more difficult now than it would have been 70 or 80 years ago. But that’s no excuse for avoiding it. Unless we desegregate neighborhoods, Brown’s promise of integrated education will remain unattainable.

The Color of Law asserts that “letting bygones be bygones” is not a policy worthy of a constitutional democracy. The achievement gap with which educators struggle can never be closed until we recognize that some of the most important education policy dilemmas cannot be addressed in isolation. Fundamentally, education policy is housing policy.

As noted in earlier blog posts, the term paper I wrote for an Education Law course in 1972 when I was a graduate student described how exclusionary zoning laws in one of the suburbs that helped create a “white noose” around Philadelphia. In retrospect, the citations in Rothstein’s book were hidden in plain sight in the literature at that time. But, as he notes in his essay, attacking the problem was impossible because the NAACP at the time was pushing back against lawsuits and laws designed to circumvent the Brown decision. Making the change now will be daunting. Avoiding the change, though, will exacerbate the economic and racial divide in opportunities.

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  1. Elyssa Gersen-Thurman
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