By Annie Ma

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separating children in schools by race was unconstitutional. On paper, that decision — the fabled Brown v. Board of Education, taught in most every American classroom — still stands.

But for decades, American schools have been re-segregating. The country is more diverse than it ever has been, with students more exposed to classmates from different backgrounds. Still, around 4 out of 10 Black and Hispanic students attend schools where almost every one of their classmates is another student of color.

The intense segregation by race is linked to socioeconomic conditions: Schools where students of color compose more than 90% of the student body are five times more likely to be located in low-income areas. That in turn has resounding academic consequences: Students who attend high-poverty schools, regardless of their family’s finances, have worse educational outcomes.

Efforts to slow or reverse the increasing separation of American schools have stalled. Court cases slowly have chipped away at the dream outlined in the case of Brown v. Board, leaving fewer and fewer tools in the hands of districts to integrate schools by the early 2000s.

The arc of the moral universe, in this case, does not seem to be bending toward justice.

“School integration exists as little more than an idea in America right now, a little more than a memory,” said Derek Black, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s actually an idea that a pretty good majority of Americans think is a good idea. But that’s all.”

MORE THAN JUST DIVERSE SCHOOLS

The dream of Brown was never as simple as diversity. It was about equality, and the opportunity that came with it.

From the beginning, funding and integration have been inseparable.

“Whiter schools and districts have more resources, and that is wrong,” said Ary Amerikaner, a former Obama administration official and the founder of Brown’s Promise. “But it is a reality. And that undermines opportunity for students of color, and it undermines our future democracy.” 

We remember Brown v. Board as the end of segregated schools in the United States. But stating values does not, alone, change reality. Though the case was decided in 1954, it was followed by more than a decade of delay and avoidance before school districts began to meaningfully allow Black students to enter white schools.