Are American Schools Returning to Segregation?

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court launched the desegregation of schools with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Now, once diverse districts like Goldsboro, N.C., are reverting to segregation, concerning civil rights advocates.

Fronted by tall, proud columns, Goldsboro High in North Carolina was once a flourishing school reflecting the city's 50-50 black- white mix. But the nearly 100-year-old school has verged on academic failure in recent years.

Particularly troubling to civil rights advocates, the student population has become racially and economically isolated - to the point that the high school is now a symbol of "resegregation" in America's classrooms.

In the central attendance zone for Wayne County's schools - a zone that includes Goldsboro High - 93 percent of the students are African-American, and 90 percent are low-income, according to county statistics. By contrast, another attendance zone in the county is 69 percent white, 41 percent low-income.

This past December, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Wayne County Board of Education. Now, a federal investigation is under way to assess charges that the school board has maintained a segregated, high-poverty attendance area rife with educational inequities.

Earlier this month North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue told members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus that the state was "in a war" against school resegregation.

School-system officials blame both white and black flight for Goldsboro High School's educational slide.

Yet Wayne County is not an obvious setting for concerns about resegregation. Amid the pines and hog farms of eastern North Carolina, it's home to the racially diverse Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Black and white residents of Goldsboro mingle easily as they pick up tomatoes and collards at a small farmers' market.

The lack of integration at the high school surprised the Rev. William Barber II when he moved here in the early 1990s.

"If you can't get it right in Goldsboro ... you can't get it right anywhere in the country," says Dr. Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP.

The case is a test of how aggressively the Obama administration will pursue such complaints. As such, it could resonate well beyond Goldsboro.

"I'm hopeful that ... other school [districts] in the state and potentially around the country would see that it's no longer acceptable to allow the students in these high-poverty, racially identifiable schools to get a lesser-quality education [than] their white, middle- or upper-class peers," says Mark Dorosin, an adjunct law professor at the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Nationally, 39 percent of African-American students attend intensely segregated schools, where at least 90 percent are students of color, according to an analysis of 2007 data by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. And it's no longer simply a black-white issue: Forty percent of Latinos are in such schools as well.

In North Carolina, 18 percent of black students and 13 percent of Latino students attended these intensely segregated schools in 2008.

"Resegregation is a national trend [that has been building] for over a decade," says John C. Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Among the reasons: white families moving out of central cities or removing their children from the public schools there; school districts being released from court-ordered plans, or abandoning voluntary plans, to promote integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; and a series of Supreme Court decisions since the early 1990s that have limited the tools districts can use for integration.

The most recent Supreme Court case came in 2007 and struck down integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky. …