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Desegregation's Legacy

Sonya Douglass Horsford, a scholar of education with The Lincy Institute, looks toward the future after evaluating the flawed aftermath of U.S. school desegregation.
Research  |  Apr 3, 2012  |  By Diane Russell
Image taken in Clinton, Tenn., in 1956 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Brown v. Board of Education often needs little in the way of explanation. The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. Along with Roe v. Wade, it is probably a court ruling most easily cited by the average American.

Some contentious efforts to desegregate (think busing in Boston) followed, but the nation's schools were largely desegregated and that was good. Right?

Maybe. While the intent of the ruling was good, the result has been a mixed bag that too often has left the nation's students of all races navigating a school system that remains racially divided even when students of different races walk the same hallways.

That dilemma and what we as a society should do about it, forms the basis of Sonya Douglass Horsford's book Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequity, Ideology, and (Dis)Integration.

Horsford, a senior resident scholar of education with The Lincy Institute at UNLV, interviewed eight black educators who had at one time attended segregated schools. They eventually went on to serve as superintendents for desegregated schools.

She coupled those interviews with research into what others -- from Martin Luther King Jr. to Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman -- have said about the results of desegregation. Edelman contributed the book's forward.

"One of the fundamental problems with U.S. school desegregation plans is that they never looked deeply into why this country had segregated schools in the first place," says Horsford.

The plans typically dealt largely with numbers, making sure that they broke up primarily black or white educational enclaves by mixing in students of the opposite race, says Horsford, who herself was part of Southern Nevada's now-abandoned sixth grade center desegregation plan. Ironically, she was among the many black students living outside the primarily black neighborhood known as the "Westside," who found themselves bused into that area for their sixth-grade year along with their non-black neighbors in order to help achieve desegregation.

"While the experience may have proved beneficial for many students, exposing them to children from various parts of the county, it was solely for one of 12 years of schooling," Horsford says. "For that reason, cross-racial friendships were made, but rarely maintained beyond the sixth grade experience."

To see how desegregation plans throughout the nation have too often failed, all one has to do is look at statistics, Horsford says. On average, black students achieve academically at lower levels than other students and fail to graduate from high school in higher numbers than others. Then, once they leave school, those same young adults earn less than their counterparts and face poverty at a higher level.

So, instead of America's black students gaining ground educationally in the aftermath of desegregation, too often they have instead lost ground, she says.

"I certainly am not endorsing segregation or a return to that," emphasizes Horsford.

What America might want to do, however, is take a look at the positive things the nation's segregated schools once offered black children. She was stuck by how the stories of each superintendent she interviewed were similar. In segregated schools, they all reported experiencing caring but demanding teachers as well as a support system through which parents who perhaps had never gone past the eighth grade themselves worked closely with the teachers to make sure the students succeeded.

"Everyone -- parents and teachers -- told the children they were expected to go to college," she says, adding that when those students did reach college, they found themselves well prepared and able to compete with other students.

What communities need to do today is to determine who the key players are in educational success and what role each should play to build a more meaningful school experience for all children.

Horsford, the mother of three school-age children, says the only way to strengthen the schools is by encouraging a number of different groups, including health care professionals, business owners, researchers, and members of the faith community, to join educators, students, and parents in the task.

Near the end of the book, which sold out its first printing, Horsford writes, "Through community engagement, political activism, and the building of sustainable cross-racial coalitions committed to restoring a moral and ethical commitment to equal education, we can work to transform the systems and structures that have abdicated responsibility for the educational experiences of our nation's schoolchildren so that no child will learn in a burning house."

Related Link

Learning in a Burning House, Teachers College Press