By Denise Dick
Sixty years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled separate isn’t equal in public education, segregation still exists.
Mahoning Valley educators and civil-rights leaders say the problem stems from a combination of subsequent court decisions and economics.
“The bottom line is the Brown decision has effectively been nullified by recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Judge Nathaniel Jones, who is retired from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and a Youngstown native.
He was referring to the decision affecting education from the elementary level through college. Judge Jones sits on the board of KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati-based education-reform organization.
In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision ruled that schools separating black and white children based on race denied black children the equal protection afforded by the 14th Amendment. The decision struck down the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the court found that separation by race was permitted as long as the same services or facilities were afforded.
“We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1954 decision. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
In deciding to hear the case, the high court actually consolidated five cases brought by the NAACP in five jurisdictions: Kansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina and Virginia.
Attorneys representing the school districts in each of the jurisdictions argued they were guarded by separate- but-equal protection and states’-rights provisions.
As general counsel for the NAACP, Judge Jones argued cases against segregated schools in northern states including several Ohio school districts in the 1970s.
One of those cases in 1974 began the erosion of Brown v. Board of Education to which Judge Jones refers.
In a class-action suit against Detroit public schools, parents argued that the school system was segregated because of state and city policies and sought a plan to create an integrated school system.
A lower court sided with the plaintiffs, ordering that the district’s desegregation plan include the surrounding suburban area. It was upheld on appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected it, saying that the suburban schools hadn’t done anything to create the problem.
“That’s why we have schools in cities that continue to be predominantly of one race, and schools in suburban areas are overwhelmingly white,” Judge Jones said.
It’s frustrating, he said.
“The Supreme Court as it’s now constituted is not allowing its lower courts to really use race as a basis for desegregating schools,” he said.
It’s been rendered virtually inapplicable as a method of desegregating schools, the judge said.
Charles Howell, dean of Youngstown State University’s Beeghly College of Education, also referred to the Detroit case and its effect on desegregation.
It put an end to regional desegregation plans between suburbs and cities, he said.
“Typically, in states that have a regional school system or a countywide system, like Charlotte, you have many more opportunities for racial balance,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to achieve in metropolitan areas with a lot of smaller school districts. Students of color are effectively excluded from other districts.”
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown case for the NAACP, wrote the court’s dissenting opinion in the 1974 Detroit case.
There are two types of segregation, Howell said. One is de jure, or segregation enforced by law; the other, de facto segregation, or segregation dictated by widespread preferences. The landmark 1954 Brown decision dealt with the former.
“De facto persists for a variety of reasons,” Howell said.
Internal segregation also is an issue in some schools, he said.
A building is integrated, but because of programs where students are selected by choice, test scores or other factors, students effectively are divided by ethnicity even though they’re in the same building, the dean said.
Steven Mickel, president of the NAACP’s Youngstown Unit, said some of the same issues that led to the 1950s lawsuits persist today depending on where students live.
“Now it’s expanding to black, brown and poor kids,” Mickel said. “Depending on where you live and where you go to school, you’re facing the same phenomenon of not having the same types of materials, up-to-date materials to support the students.”
Performance also is tied to support, he said.
“In the Youngstown City Schools, you have some schools in some neighborhoods that perform quite well based upon support,” Mickel said. “That’s not a difficult thing to discern.”
He said he was referring to support not just from the state or federal government but from the community as well.
“Communities, if they are able, should also support the school system,” Mickel said.
Robert Faulkner Sr., a 24-year member of the Warren City Board of Education, said that even 60 years after the Brown decision, there’s still evidence of disparity between the performance of white and minority students.
“The gap keeps getting wider,” he said.
Faulkner attended a segregated school in his native Kentucky.
With all of the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, he believes some of those tests are biased in the way questions are formulated, leading to poor performance by poor or minority students.
“Students in more of a wealthy district have more opportunities to be exposed to those types of things — museums, art centers,” Faulkner said. “In urban districts, some kids never get out of their neighborhood.”