On Brown's Birthday, A Return to the Table of Brotherhood

Sixty years later, we must ask the question: Does the pursuit of school integration have a place on our 21st century agenda? For many, the short answer is no.
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Today we mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board Education -- the seminal Supreme Court decision striking down "separate but equal" in America's public schools. Fast-forward six decades, and the debate over what constitutes an equal education continues -- with one notable omission. Now, as we talk more and more about educational equity, we talk less and less about integration -- that "table of brotherhood," as Dr. King once called it, so central to our Civil Rights past.

Sixty years later, we must ask the question: Does the pursuit of school integration have a place on our 21st century agenda? For many, the short answer is no. From a practical standpoint, the problem of residential segregation makes school integration extremely difficult to achieve. Logistics aside, many consider integration schemes too color-consciousness and, thus, counterproductive. Most important, in today's data driven world, some view integration as cosmetic, not substantive -- an aesthetic, anachronistic distraction for which we simply don't have the time.

And so, the reality of segregation endures. Today, 40 percent of black and Latino children attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority. And as decades pass and educators buckle down to improve outcomes in all-minority schools, the principle of 'separate but equal' reasserts itself in our national consciousness -- we simply notice it a whole lot less. As it does, the experience of America's public school students converges with that of their pre-Brown grandparents. "Segregation was a part of my universe," writes Constitutional scholar Walter Dellinger of his 1950s childhood, "It seemed no more 'right' or 'wrong' than the placement of the planets in the solar system. It simply was."

When we step back, the danger of a passive acceptance of this status quo comes into focus. Public education is about more than just churning out graduates (though this of course matters a great deal). It's about building citizens. Separateness in school therefore has societal and democratic implications that no amount of equalization can address. "In the short run, it may seem an easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities -- one white, the other black," wrote Justice Marshall in 1974, "but it is a course I predict, our people will ultimately regret."

With this in mind, it may yet be possible to reclaim Brown's bold promise. To do so would rely on our ability to get beyond what integration can't do (magically improve test scores or ensure interracial understanding), to a vision of what it might. "The school should examine possibilities ... that the surrounding society is unable or unwilling to countenance," writes Cornel West, "It should be the voice of the future -- of alternative futures -- within the present." Integrated classrooms are not themselves the solution we seek, but they may offer the best possible conditions in which to continue our search.

At the end of the day, better outcomes for low-income students of color has to be priority one. And if pursuing integration stands in the way of closing the glaring opportunity gaps in our schools, we may need to shelve it for a while. But, whatever we do, let's just be careful not to abandon it by accident. And, most important, let's not forget to want it -- to reintegrate integration into our vision of an outstanding system of public schools. Sixty years later, let's celebrate Brown by reflecting on how charting a course for our Civil Rights future might depend on a recommitment to the guiding principle of our Civil Rights past.

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