Having been born a year after the Civil Rights Act was signed, I'm disheartened that resegregation of our schools is now an established fact.
In the 2006-07 school year, more than 50 years after the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education, approximately 40 percent of black and Latino students attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent minority.
The resegregation of schools has been going on for at least the last two decades, according to the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg, who head the project, presented a paper that demonstrated the inferiority of segregated schools for minorities.
"Aside from some rare exceptions," they wrote, "segregated nonwhite schools rarely offer equal education in terms of test scores, graduation rates or other achievement outcomes."
The neosegregationists of our time would have you believe that forced or even voluntary public school integration is a policy of political correctness that has long since outlived whatever usefulness it may have held for society and taxpayers. They say if schools are segregated, well, that's just tough. It's as if the savage economic inequalities in school funding have as little do with segregation today as when the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
But desegregating schools is not about political correctness or a cultural exercise. It's about the fundamental commitment to equality of opportunity.
The problem facing blacks prior to school desegregation was that a system that mandated racial separation also allowed for an unequal distribution of resources. Government-sponsored school segregation was a classic text in taxation without representation, a perverse trickle-down theory where the white hand on the spigot dripped pennies and hand-me down, out-of-date materials to minority schools. This unequal distribution of resources led to unequal opportunities.
Yes, black folks persevered, but perseverance should be an individual virtue, not a forced way of life for an entire race.
Desegregated schools set up a new paradigm. In this system, students of different races and classes are no longer punished or protected, rewarded or discouraged by where they come from.
White flight ended the idea of desegregated schools, and so did the exodus of middle-class minorities to the suburbs. As a result, America is slipping back to the time when little black girls and boys and little white girls and boys played on different grounds.
School resegregation is an issue that ought to be a priority of policymakers and parents. Congress and local school districts can attack the problem of school resegregation. They can foster diversity — from funding magnet programs and allowing intradistrict transfers to offering grants to charter schools that seek a racially and socially diverse student population.
Our educational past is steeped in shame. An even greater tragedy would be an unjust future. I can't believe that many in my 6-year-old son's generation will be stuck in schools that fulfill George Wallace's hateful pledge of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Let's stop going backward.
Fred McKissack, a former managing editor of the publication Rethinking Schools, wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with the Progressive magazine.
© 2010 Fred McKissack. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.