On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States of America gave its decision on the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, deeming racial segregation of schools unconstitutional. After its 9-0 ruling, the Court stated that: “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
This ruling emboldened the civil rights movement, eventually resulting in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which sparked the desegregation process. Out of this movement came the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the ruling in Runyon v. McCrary which stated that private schools that denied admission based on race would be in violation of the law, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin illegal. Throughout the United States’ history, the federal government has clearly put effort into desegregating the country’s systems.
So, why are so many schools still feeling the deep-set effects of racial segregation in American history, and what needs to be done to change this?
In order to find a solution to America’s still segregated public school systems, the country needs to return to the origin of the issue. First by looking into the history of redlining, then into policies held by states for the funding of schools that promote unequal funding, and finally into the school-to-prison pipeline that is the result of America’s institutionalized racism that has deeply infected its public school system.
In the 1930s the American public was faced with a housing shortage. In response, the federal government institutionalized a program that was particularly fabricated to segregate and increase America’s housing stock, as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The term “redlining” originated from this program. The federal government had started a loan program and in order to manage it, it mapped every metropolitan area in the country. Green areas on the maps were considered ‘safe’ to loan and provide mortgage insurance to, whereas red areas were considered ‘risky’. Any primarily African-American neighborhoods were colored red, indicating that they were too risky to insure. This essentially ensured that minority neighborhoods were systematically prevented from getting home loans, which pushed them out of suburbia and into urban projects.
When suburbs were being first developed, their developers were allowed to have blatantly racist policies for their neighborhoods. A prime example of this practice can be found in the policies of William Levitt. Levitt is credited as the father of modern suburbia and was a prime example of someone who helped further institutionalize discrimination. The twenty-fifth clause of a 1947 Levittown lease explicitly stated: “Levittown homes must not be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race” and the effects of clauses like this are still being felt in the present. Even now, Levittown is less than 1% black.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) further advanced housing segregation by refusing mortgage insurance in the vicinity of African-American neighborhoods, thus beginning the practice of redlining. Simultaneously, the FHA contributed to builders to mass-produce suburban homes for whites, requiring that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans. Time and time again it’s been proven that these old policies have had a detrimental effect on American society.
The FHA managed to justify this discrimination through quite simple means: declining property value. The organization claimed that if African-Americans bought homes in or even near the suburbs, property values would plummet, therefore putting the residents’ home loans at risk. Of course, this claim was baseless and reality proved to be quite the opposite. When African-Americans attempted to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods property values would actually rise, as the average African-American was willing to pay more for a home than the average white American — the reason for this being that their housing supply was significantly more limited. Essentially, the FHA’s claims were not based in reality in any capacity.
In its Underwriting Manual, the FHA stated: “…incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” The manual also suggested that highways were an effective method to segregate racial neighborhoods and this method was implemented frequently in black neighborhoods. These methods were not legal matters, they were policy matters, which meant the Underwriting Manual’s contents were allowed to remain improper and unethical.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed which forced the removal of blatant discrimination but because of the increased price of housing, the Act’s passing was essentially meaningless. Since whites were able to purchase these homes for less money in the past, as the homes increased in value, they gained equity and eventually wealth. Those high-value homes were no longer available to people of color because at this point they were double the national housing average which significantly reduced the level of integration suburban neighborhoods would have.
How does the history of redlining and white wealth gained through discrimination play into the funding issues of supposedly desegregated schools?
In short, it has kept black Americans poor and white Americans wealthy. As of 2018, African-American household income averages at about sixty percent of average white income; however, African-American wealth is approximately five percent of white wealth. A majority of middle-class American homes gain wealth from in-home equity, placing the blame almost entirely on the federal housing policies implemented in the 20th century for the sixty percent income ratio and the five percent wealth ratio in African-American communities.
Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, states, “The segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads… to stagnant inequality because families are much less able to be upwardly-mobile when they’re living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent… If we want greater equality in this society, if we want a lowering of the hostility between police and young African-American men, we need to take steps to desegregate.”
The segregation of neighborhoods deeply affects education quality which deeply affects the quality of life of its residents. Public schools are funded mainly by property taxes, so the wealthier the neighborhood, the higher the property taxes, and the higher the quality of the schools.
A prime example of this disparity is in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Block High School, located in Jonesville, Louisiana is located in the poorest section of Catahoula Parish. As of 2019, nearly 70 percent of the seniors are black and 60 percent of those seniors do not go on to college after graduation. Block High School has not been staffed appropriately — the school’s athletic coach, Benny Vault, was told to start teaching US history, world geography, and standardized test prep, despite the fact that he is only certified to teach physical education. Students are given moldy textbooks at the beginning of the year and the school’s campus isn’t much better. The campus has leaking water that develops into mold, their B building is considered completely unsafe, and despite that, it is still used for its auditorium.
Yet, only thirteen miles away, in the same parish, there’s another high school that is the complete opposite of Block High, Harrison High School. Almost ninety percent of Harrison High’s senior class is white — these students perform better academically and enroll in college at a significantly higher rate. The school’s campus is notably cleaner and based on academic performance, it can be assumed the classes are taught by teachers who are certified to teach the subjects they are teaching. When asked about the disparity between the schools, the district superintendent, Dr. Gwile Freeman, explained: “Several of the other schools, and communities, have passed bond issues specifically around facility renovation and refurbishment and in recent years Jonesville hasn’t passed any such issue to address their schools.”
Louisiana gives a set amount of money to school districts but individual towns can get more money to put into the schools by issuing a bond or tax. This policy allows districts to create incredible inequities from school to school which creates a district that is essentially economically segregated and, by extension, racially segregated. When asked if the results of these policies were fair, Dr. Freeman replied: “Well, that’s a perception issue. Overall funding for public education for our district has reduced over a period of time. The demographics and population of our parish has decreased and, quite frankly, because of economic conditions, a lack of business and industry.” The district’s issues can be solved by a policy change that would implement a fairer method of running the district’s schooling so all of the students in the public school system can receive the highest quality education possible.
This situation with public schools in Catahoula Parish is merely a symptom of a larger issue in America’s public school system. Our tendency to blame a system instead of addressing the real root of American racism has consistently come up short. The systems, policies, and laws that have been put in place have regularly been circumvented in order to maintain functional racism. In turn, this allows racism and discrimination to be perpetuated under the guise of progress. In order to address this issue successfully, the actual problem needs to be acknowledged; people in real power sustain racism behind the shields of ineffective laws and policies, thus distracting the American public from the real root of the problem. Until this is addressed, it is unrealistic to expect any significant progress towards equality.
Featured Illustration by Yasmine Gateau