40 Years After Court Ruling, Segregation Persists

May 15, 1994|By LYLE DENNISTON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Four decades after Brown vs. Board of Education, it is a telling fact that two generations of the Brown family -- first Linda, then her children -- have completed their educations in Topeka, Kan., yet the public school system there remains segregated. The original Brown case, in fact, just went through a new trial last month.

That has both symbolic and real-world meaning as the nation on Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic desegregation ruling in the Topeka case.

That decision has not ended racial segregation in American education, and it may never do so.

In the Deep South, where the schools were separated by race as a legal mandate and thus were the first targets of the Brown decision, desegregation ran ahead of the rest of the nation for nearly 30 years. But now, even there, resegregation has set in: One major study, issued in December, showed that in 1988, that region's schools began turning back toward more segregation -- the first reversal since the Brown ruling.

In the North, never a prime focus of desegregation efforts, the schools remain heavily divided along race lines. The December study, made by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, summed up: "For more than a decade, the same four states, Illinois, Michigan, New York and New Jersey, have been at the top of the list of intensely segregated states for African-Americans."

Maryland, according to that report, ranks eighth nationally among the "most segregated states" (just between Alabama and Mississippi). The report said 36.7 percent of Maryland's black students go to schools that are at least 90 percent black -- up 6.4 points since 1980.

Those developments are an enormous disappointment for blacks and for civil rights activists.

But, if they are taken as signs that the Brown decision failed to make a difference, they are misunderstood. The 1954 ruling ignited a social revolution that clearly has not run its course, even if some say it has not yet gone far enough.

Christopher A. Hansen, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who in April was back in U.S. District Judge Richard D. Rogers' courtroom in Topeka dealing with the latest round of that first desegregation lawsuit, comments: "I'm very nervous that the Brown case, because we are still working on it, not be seen as a failure."

He adds: "I have very mixed sensations. I am a little depressed that it's 40 years later and I'm still litigating Brown. But you can overreact to that; the overall story is one of giant success. It was a revolution. . . . It has been an enormously powerful experience."

He and others trace all of the modern civil rights gains in some way back to Brown: the broader move toward racial equality in everything from restaurants to jobs to housing, the campaign for equality of the sexes, even the beginnings of a legal sensitivity toward rights for gays. It was "the anchor," says a Washington civil rights lawyer, William L. Taylor.

Mr. Taylor, who is an expert on school desegregation cases, says that the sometimes dismal data about what is happening in the schools 40 years after the Brown decision overlook the "great deal of progress that has been made."

He cites a single statistic, turned up in study done in 1991 by two Stanford University scholars of the results of national standardized testing, showing that "between 1971 and 1991, half of the deficit in educational performance between black and white students was eliminated." This finding, Mr. Taylor says, proves that "getting kids out of racial isolation" gets "real educational results." The Brown decision, he adds, "has produced that much."

Still, he, too, can lapse into pessimism. "I really think progress is now very much stymied, especially in the largest central cities. There is a great deal of racial and socio-economic isolation in the metropolitan areas. And there doesn't seem to be any movement -- in the schools or housing -- to break down those current forms of apartheid."

Pessimism runs even deeper in Gary Orfield, the Harvard professor of education and social policy and the author of the desegregation report that came out last December.

"The country and its schools," he said in that report, "are going through vast changes without any strategy. The civil rights impulse from the 1960s is dead in the water and the ship is floating backward toward the shoals of racial segregation."

It is one of the ironies of the history of the Brown decision and its aftermath that the Supreme Court, which started the civil rights revolution with that ruling in 1954 and then kept it going for years, began to surrender that role as long as 20 years ago.

The case that started it all goes back to Linda Carol Brown's childhood. When she was eight, she lived five blocks away from an elementary school in Topeka. But she caught a bus every school morning and rode 21 blocks to the school that blacks could attend.

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