More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (PART 2)

Following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, many assumed that the problem of inequality in educational opportunity would no longer exist. By mandating the elimination of the racially homogeneous, dual system of educational apartheid in the United States, the Supreme Court had worked to create a public education system in which African Americans were no longer given inferior educational opportunity. The “equality jurisprudence” that was explicit in the Brown v. Board of Education decision was also embodied within many subsequent Supreme Court decisions on education policy, despite pervasive civilian and governmental opposition to the judicial directives.

In Aaron v. Cooper (1958), the Supreme Court affirmed the powers of the federal government to enforce desegregation. In Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1968), the Supreme Court rendered a decision to address the pace at which many school systems were desegregating. The requirement of “with all deliberate speed” was replaced by the requirement to “desegregate now.” In Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg (1971), the Supreme Court affirmed the legitimacy of school busing as a remedy to intradistrict school segregation, but rejected school busing across district lines in the Miliken v. Bradley (1974) decision. Moreover, across the decades there were several progressive state and federal level school funding decisions, which required equal per pupil funding for each district.

Despite the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, our K-12 public education system is what one educator has referred to as “The Shame of a Nation.” Even though American public opinion is decidedly in favor of equality in educational opportunity, data shows that segregation in the K-12 public education system persists and contributes to the phenomenon of unequal educational opportunity for some students within the public education system (Feagan & Feagan, 2008). In large, central city school districts and school assignment zones, an overwhelming majority of the students are racial and ethnic minorities.

According to one study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, the share of African Americans (nationwide) who attend majority white schools had declined from 1988 to the present, indicating a trend of more school segregation. During the 2003-2004 academic school year 73% of African Americans attended a predominantly segregated school, one in which racial and ethnic minorities constituted more than half of the population of the school. 38% of African American students (almost 2 out of every 5) attended a school in which at least 90% of the student body was comprised of racial and ethnic minorities (Feagan & Feagan, 2008).

The return to school segregation, particularly in the inner cities is the product of judicial and legislative policies that undermine mandatory and voluntary integration efforts, as well as state and local education policies that favor residential and neighborhood school assignment practices.

No one is suggesting that mandatory or voluntary school integration is the only answer to inequality in educational opportunity, or that equality of educational opportunity is impossible within the context of neighborhood schooling in racially homogeneous communities. We have seen the execution of successful models of teaching at and academic enrichment within predominantly minority schools; one notable example is the Urban Prep Academy in Englewood, Illinois. This specific high school, with an enrollment that is almost completely comprised of African American males from the inner city, has consistently boasted perfect or near perfect high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates. That feat is impressive indeed, and the model is one that should be replicated nationwide given the contemporary difficulties that most school districts face with regards to educating disadvantaged minority youth.

A key component of the view of school integration as a way to achieve equality of educational opportunity is the recognition that suburban schools tend to have more experienced teachers, higher rates of in-field teaching, more financial resources, and parents with a lower tolerance for administrative failure. Moreover, students at suburban schools do not have to deal with many of the problems that students in inner city schools have to deal with simply because of the concentration of large pockets of high-poverty students within a single school. Conversely in inner city schools, students experience higher rates of administrative and teacher turnover, out-of-field teaching, and problems stemming from fewer resources.

In sum, the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision was a very progressive and symbolic Supreme Court decision. However, the equality achieving mechanism of the decision was integration-driven as opposed to resource-driven. African American students were to experience equality in educational opportunity by attending schools in which they were the minority, schools with greater resources and more opportunity. What the decision failed to anticipate was white-flight from the cities, the creation of racially-exclusive, private academies, and the imposition of community-based schooling practices that left African American inner city students isolated within segregated schools with unequal resources (relative to their suburban counterparts).

In one opinion poll, 96% of African American youth between the ages of eleven an seventeen stated that they had hoped to be able to attend college in the future. However, only 56% of African American entered college after high school graduation in 2000. This was compared to 66% of white Americans (Feagan & Feagan, 2008). A crucial part of closing the gap between expectations and reality is figuring out how to more fully achieve the practical goal of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and several subsequent educational decisions, equality of educational opportunity.

This is the second of a series of posts that will examine how historic and contemporary public policies shape the lives of residents in urban and inner city communities within the United States. – PART 2: “Segregation and Education in the Inner City”

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