Brown v. Board Wasn’t a Total Failure

To go by the rending of garments over resegregation of schools (for example, in the long New York Times Magazine article I discussed a few months ago), you would think that desegregation has been a total failure and Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka might as well have never happened. But this isn’t really the case. Here, from one of the NCES reports I linked to earlier today, is a confusing but very interesting graph of the racial distribution of the schools American kids attend:


The graph says that most whites go to mostly white schools, a slight majority of Hispanics go to mostly-Hispanic schools, but only 48 percent of black students attend mostly-black schools. Another 26 percent of black students go to mostly-white schools, 8 percent go to mostly-Hispanic schools, and the rest go to schools without a majority group.

Most of the confusion comes from using “desegregation” to mean “around lots of white people.” But most of the kids in public schools aren’t white, so most kids aren’t around a lot of white people.


I’m sympathetic to some of the concern around resegregation; even though I don’t think it is all that causally related to student achievement, I think the forces that have made us, at a community level, more stratified by class if not always race over time (see graphs below) are harmful to our civic culture:


But there are real epistemological problems with always thinking of America’s racial politics in terms of white versus non-white. For example, everyone remembers Ahmed Mohamed and the clock he “built,” that may or may not have been intended to be a hoax bomb, that the school district may or may not have seriously erred in arresting him for, that President Obama may or may not have overstepped in interceding and passing judgment on, and on and on.


As I’ve said before, I’m willing to give Ahmed the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t intend anything more serious than a prank- I’ve known a lot of 9th grade boys, and they all did stupid things from time to time. But while there were dozens upon hundreds of discussions of the incident, excoriating the school district and police department for arresting Ahmed in terms of white privilege and Islamophobia, exactly none of them from what I could tell mentioned this:


Those are the demographics of Ahmed’s school- predominantly Hispanic and black, less than 20% white, and predominantly low income. The rapid dropoff in enrollment from 9th grade to 10th grade is a clear signal that the school has trouble moving its students up through the grades at an even clip, and may or may not have a serious dropout problem.

In any case, was this the environment you pictured from the media reports? Teachers desperately trying to get a majority of 9th graders to stay on track to graduate, a lot of noise and disruption most likely, and suddenly a kid opens up this briefcase that starts beeping and flashing lights…

Ahmed and his family’s story has mostly faded from our consciousness (though not from his school’s, which is still fighting his $15 million law-suit). But the changes in demographics, especially among kidsthat mean that racial politics are not always about white versus non-white, are here to stay.

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