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Understanding Brown v. Board of Education

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Today marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a case which is known around the world, even if it remains somewhat poorly understood. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of another desegregation decision, Milliken v. Bradley, which is far less well-known. This is a bit ironic because to understand the impact of Brown, it is crucial to understand Milliken and, indeed, the latter decision has in many ways had a more lasting impact on education than Brown.

Brown sought to tie the fates of white and black students together by declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," but the promise of Brown has never fully been realized. For more than a decade after Brown, southern states and school districts did little to desegregate their schools, and the Court tolerated this foot dragging and in some ways encouraged it by proclaiming, ambiguously, that desegregation had to occur with "all deliberate speed." All the while, metropolitan areas were changing rapidly, with middle-income whites leaving cities in droves and moving to all-white suburbs, which often excluded minority residents through a host of devices intentionally designed to promote housing segregation. The Supreme Court finally lost its patience in 1968, when it declared in Green v. New Kent County, that the time for "all deliberate speed" had come to end and that school districts had to actually integrate their schools.

In many urban areas, however, this was too little, too late: integrating urban schools was becoming increasingly difficult by the late 1960s and early 1970s because there were so few white students left in city school systems. As a result, some lower courts began fashioning desegregation decrees that required busing between suburbs and cities. This controversial remedy provoked huge outcries from parents and legislators, Democrats and Republicans, northerners and southerners. President Nixon even addressed a national audience to criticize busing for desegregation, especially busing that crossed the line between cities and suburbs.

In Milliken v. Bradley, decided in 1974 by a 5-4 vote, the Court sided with the protestors and effectively ended the experiment in cross-district busing. The Court ruled that school district lines could not be crossed to desegregate schools absent proof that states had essentially gerrymandered school district boundaries -- which was hard to show because, in most places, there was no need alter district boundaries. Housing segregation ensured that there were few African-American residents in the suburbs, so the school district lines separating city and suburban schools could remain the same and housing segregation would ensure school segregation. As a result of the Milliken decision and residential segregation, poor, minority students would stay in the cities, and the suburbs would be spared from busing for desegregation.

The Milliken decision effectively ended any hope that the educational fortunes of urban and suburban schools, students and parents would be bound together through school desegregation. Additional attempts to bind the fate of urban and suburban students have similarly failed, leaving the two worlds of urban and suburban education largely separate.

Our country continues to live in the shadow of Milliken. Recent demographic changes are creating more diverse cities and suburbs, but these changes so far have had relatively little effect on schools. Most African-American and Latino students continue to attend urban schools. The higher the percentage of students of color in an urban school, on average, the higher the percentage of poor students. And students who attend high-poverty schools generally score lower on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate, and are less likely to go to college. School finance reform, the remedy sought by urban districts and activists in the post-Milliken era, has made less difference than one would have hoped and has done little to bring most urban schools up to par with suburban ones.

Brown asserted that separate is inherently unequal. One might quarrel with the term inherently. But even if separate is not inherently unequal, it quite often results in inequalities, especially where separation occurs along lines of socioeconomic status, race and political power. Milliken thus both limited the reach of Brown and confirmed the wisdom of its premise -- that we will not see truly equal educational opportunities as long as we continue separate the advantaged from the disadvantaged and educate them in separate school systems.

Milliken also helps put in perspective why the Brown decision failed, over the long-term, to produce integrated schools. It is not the case, as is often supposed, that great effort was made to integrate schools but those efforts failed. Instead, the Court did little between 1954 and 1968 to push for school integration. And then a mere six years later, in 1974, the Milliken decision rendered meaningful integration in most metropolitan areas all but impossible. Neither the Court nor the country ever pushed for integration over a sustained period of time. One is reminded of G.K. Chesterton's famous remark that "the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." That is largely true of school integration as well.