As far back as anyone can remember, Washington High School never had a black valedictorian. That changed last week when East Washington resident Ethan East collected his diploma before moving on to Brown University in the fall and joining its pre-med program.
Sixty years ago, such an achievement wouldn’t have been possible in many parts of the country, as school districts were allowed to maintain separate schools for blacks and whites. While officially mandated to operate them on a “separate but equal” basis as per the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, precious few school districts actually allocated resources with anything approaching equity – for every dollar that went to a white student, a black student would get a quarter. It was inherently unfair and stunted the educational and life prospects of African Americans for generations.
That all changed in May 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically and unanimously reversed Plessy vs. Ferguson with its landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. The court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, found the segregation of schools in Topeka, Kan., and across America, was unconstitutional. The court stated it had a “detrimental effect” on African American students and “the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the (African American) group.” Furthermore, the court said such a policy, when sanctioned by law, hobbled the development of African American children and deprived them “of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.”
In the first 15 years or so after Brown vs. Board of Education, the country made great strides in desegregating schools. And though it is no longer allowable under law, many schools resegregated thanks to residential housing patterns. Washington High School, East’s alma mater, is actually something of an exception, with 29 percent of its student population classified as black, with an additional 9 percent identifying as multiracial. But in many corners of the country, it’s possible for some students to go through their school day without seeing or interacting with any other students of another race or background. Along with diminishing their horizons, the de facto segregation of our schools weighs particularly hard on children in black or Latino families. It’s estimated three-fourths of African-American students and two-thirds of Latino students are enrolled in schools where the majority of students hail from low-income homes. Their schools, correspondingly, are often starved of resources, have higher rates of teacher turnover and fewer models of high achievement.
According to recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, “It is now apparent that we are stuck. Unless we desegregate neighborhoods, we can’t desegregate schools, and unless we desegregate schools, the doors to opportunity for too many black students will continue to be closed.”
Though few people would want to revive forced busing that was used to integrate schools in the 1970s, there are some methods that would increase integration, such as altering the boundaries of school districts to break their homogeneity or encouraging the construction of housing for lower-or-moderate-income families in suburbs.
Six decades after the fact, fulfilling the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education remains a work in progress.