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The Strange History of School Desegregation

By Robert Lowe

Every decade since 1954 it has been obligatory to celebrate Brown, and this is particularly so at the half-century mark. Yet over time it has become increasingly difficult to understand what there is to celebrate. Today, given the racial demographics of many cities, little desegregation is possible within urban borders; the courts have steadily been releasing resegregated school districts from judicial oversight; and the promotion of desegregation has been replaced by the pursuit of policy instruments like school choice, neighborhood schools, and small schools—policies that often are indifferent—or even hostile—to desegregation.

While I think the strange career of school desegregation has contributed to cynicism toward desegregation's capacity to create equal educational opportunity, I also think it is important not to lose sight of how big an advance Brown was for racial justice at the time of the decision and how it spurred further advances.

Recently, a number of publications have fondly recalled certain features of black life in the South before the era of desegregation—a tendency that Adolph Reed unkindly, though not necessarily inaccurately, has labeled "romancing Jim Crow." Work in this vein partly has focused on African-American schools, the earliest study I know of in this regard being Thomas Sowell's "Patterns of Black Excellence." There is no doubt that there were outstanding black schools, high schools in particular, some probably better than any white schools. The most famous was Dunbar in Washington, D.C., and there was the other Dunbar in Little Rock. There also was Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C., whose teachers inspired three of the participants in the first Woolworth's sit-in, and obviously there were many more. But I think it is important not to underestimate how dangerous an educated black population was to the white supremacist social order and often how adamant white opposition was to anything but the most rudimentary African-American schools.

Leon Litwack in Trouble in Mind reminds us that after the Civil War, "The sight of blacks carrying books often had the same effect on whites as the sight of armed blacks, and many would have found no real distinction between the two threats." Not all that much had changed by the 1930s when the NAACP launched its effort to achieve equal schools. One manifestation of white hostility was the effort to starve black schools of resources. Over the first three decades of the 20th century the funding gap between black and white schools in the South increasingly widened. NAACP studies of unequal expenditures in the mid to late 1920s found that Georgia spent $4.59 per year on each African-American child as opposed to $36.29 on each white child. A study by Doxey Wilkerson at the end of the 1930s found that only 19 percent of 14- to 17-year-old African Americans were enrolled in high school. (This was in part because public high schools remained unavailable to African Americans in much of the rural South.) This meant that for African Americans to act on their aspirations for education, as James Anderson, Vanessa Siddle Walker, and others have pointed out, they had to donate their own labor and money—a kind of double taxation to use Anderson's phrase—to create minimally viable schools. Another manifestation of white hostility to black education was the personal costs— job loss, harassment, death threats—that black plaintiffs would pay when they sought equalization of resources or, more boldly, desegregation itself.

The NAACP began its effort to achieve desegregated schools in the early 1930s but initially did so within the "separate but equal" framework of Plessy v. Ferguson. It tried to make separate schools more equal in facilities, teachers' salaries, school terms, and transportation as a way of putting financial pressure on the South to dismantle a dual system of education. The NAACP won a number of victories, particularly around salary equalization, but triumphs at the graduate school level from the mid 1930s to 1950—resulting in token desegregation and findings that segregation produced intangible inequalities regardless of resources—inspired the confidence to lead a direct assault on segregation that commenced in 1950. As late as 1954, black schools got only 60 percent of the funding white ones received, but the litigation leading to Brown had made a tremendous difference as school systems moved in the direction of equalization. This trend continued after Brown, largely in order to reduce black pressure for desegregation. The Brown decision at once represented greater parity attained over the previous two decades, and in forbidding legally enforced segregation it also outlawed a major bulwark of white supremacy.

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