Sunday, May 16, 2004

A half-century later, racial divide persists

Two-thirds of region's school districts are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black, 50 years after Brown desegregation ruling

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two-thirds of public school districts in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are at least 90 percent black or 90 percent white, an Enquirer analysis of school district records shows.

Most white students attend schools with fewer than 10 percent minority students, in suburban districts.

African-American students attend slightly more integrated schools, mostly in Hamilton County. But these districts also receive some of the lowest academic rankings in Ohio.

"Many of my classes are all black," says Carol Muntz, an art teacher at Winton Forest Elementary in Forest Park. "I thought that was illegal."

As America marks the 50th anniversary of the ruling that ended legal segregation in schools, education analysts are noting how separate and unequal many of the nation's schools still are.

On May 17, 1954, in a case titled Brown vs. the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that kept black and white students in different schools. "Separate but equal" is inherently unequal, the justices said in a rare unanimous ruling.

But the court did not strike down factors that keep black and white students separate today.

Financial advantage still gives many white parents, and some black parents, the freedom to move into desirable public school districts. Poor families, more of whom are black, can't afford this choice and often must attend schools that have fewer resources and poorer academics.

Racial balance has become low priority, some say.

"The law cannot regulate the heart of a man," says Lionel H. Brown, assistant education professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Most parents say they prefer integrated schools. An Associated Press poll in April showed that four out of five American adults desire racially mixed schools for their children.

But the same number also said children are better off going to schools in their neighborhoods than going farther away to achieve a racial mix.

In an Enquirer/WCPO-TV poll last week, 82 percent of Greater Cincinnati adults said it's better for children to go to school in their own communities than to travel farther to a more diverse school.

Keri Goins, a white mother of a kindergartner at the nearly all-white Mason Early Childhood Center, says she wishes the school were more diverse, but her main concern is quality education for her son.

She says she finds other ways to expose him to minorities, such as at church.

"I'm not going to look to the school district to teach him everything about life," Goins says.

Moving out

Decades of white flight to the suburbs, followed more recently by middle-class minority flight, have put most American schoolchildren in separate worlds.

"We don't have parents standing in the doors of Little Rock Central High anymore," says Dani McClain, a history teacher at Clark Montessori in Hyde Park.

"It's done in a more subtle way. Parents just are moving out of the city."

Two national studies show that progress after the Brown decision is eroding, especially in the past decade.

Researchers say that's because courts ended their supervision of hundreds of school districts' desegregation efforts, and the Supreme Court has upheld district mandates that kids attend schools in their own neighborhoods.

It's a bitter result, says Marian Spencer, 84, a president of the local NAACP during the 1980s.

"We were fighting for a change that I thought was imminent," she says. "I thought I would see it in my time. I'm less sure of it now."

Brown v. Board has had benefits, says Marc Morial, president of National Urban League. Since the 1954 ruling, the black middle class has quadrupled, black poverty has been cut in half, and there are more black doctors, lawyers and elected officials, he said recently, citing the Urban League's 2004 "State of Black America Report."

Still, some students are bothered by the continued segregation.

David DeWitt, a white 17-year-old from Kenwood, says he felt like he was "in a bubble" during his two years at Indian Hill High School, where enrollment data list 54 blacks among 2,273 students.

He's a junior now at Clark Montessori, where whites are 51 percent and blacks are 43 percent of students.

"Indian Hill is such an enclosed place,'' DeWitt says. "Here, I feel more a part of the community."

Series of lawsuits

At the time of the Brown decision, nearly all Cincinnati-area blacks lived in the city and attended black-only schools, some run by Cincinnati Public Schools and others run privately and later incorporated into the public school system. Some black schools were closed and their leadership dismantled.

Crowding in some black public schools ensued. In 1963, the local NAACP and parents of 45 black children sued the district, saying the school board gerrymandered school boundaries, located schools in segregated rather than integrated areas, and refused to hire black teachers in white schools.

The lawsuit took up the case of second- and third-graders who had been transferred out of an overcrowded Evanston school into an all-white Oakley school.

There, they sat in separate classrooms, ate at segregated lunch times and were admitted and dismissed at different times - to prevent contact with white children, the lawsuit said.

A judge and appeals court found in favor of the Cincinnati school board, saying the racial segregation was unintentional.

The NAACP and black parents tried again in 1974, after desegregation wins in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton.

In a case titled Bronson v. the Cincinnati Board of Education, the NAACP sought to halt construction of more all-black schools while forcing a way for black children to go to schools outside their neighborhoods and outside the city, if necessary.

Ten years, two judges and many setbacks later, the Bronson case was settled.

City schools agreed to some changes, including some open enrollments within the district and more magnet schools, which accept students from throughout the city.

But the suburbs remained closed. The Supreme Court also had ruled that black parents must prove that each suburban district intentionally segregates. Cincinnati's NAACP didn't have the resources to sue every suburb.

Lionel Brown, the University of Cincinnati professor, was deputy superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools and helped to implement the Bronson settlement. He says the school district did what it could, but white flight still has taken its toll and the school system has become mostly black.

"It is now nearly impossible to end school segregation," Brown says. "There are fewer students in the district overall and, of greater import, fewer white students. Lack of resources, poor discipline and underachievement have taken their toll on the district's demographics."

A tough battle

Much of the black middle-class left city schools, too, further siphoning the best students and most active parents, says Esther Erkins, a University of Cincinnati research associate who wrote a dissertation on segregation in Cincinnati.

Erkins herself tried in vain to move her daughter, Paige, out of predominantly black Roselawn Condon Elementary, their neighborhood school, to a more challenging Cincinnati public school or to one of the Montessori or magnet schools.

While she waited, she tried helping Paige's teachers. It wasn't easy: Her daughter's class of 35 students shared 18 science books, she says. Everyone got a math text because Paige's teacher knew the author. But because students had to share those books with another class, they couldn't take them home for homework, Erkins says.

She says she even loaned science lessons on a CD-ROM to Paige's teacher, who wasn't certified to teach science.

Finally, by seventh grade, Erkins put Paige in Cincinnati Country Day, a private school in Indian Hill that gave her a partial scholarship. Erkins skimped on everything else to pay the rest.

"I'm a hypocrite" for leaving the city schools, she says.

But Paige was better off.

"She came from a school where they had five computers for hundreds of kids to a place that was wireless, where everybody had to have a laptop, where each class was 12 to 13 kids," Erkins says.

Paige graduates next month and plans to go to American University, where she'll take pre-law courses.

Change of focus needed?

Most black students in the Cincinnati area are concentrated in Cincinnati Public Schools, which is struggling with declining enrollment and funding and an "academic emergency" rating, the lowest in the state.

Perhaps a greater focus on improving academics rather than racial balance holds more promise for black students still awaiting the fulfillment of Brown vs. Board of Education, says Mark Gooden, another University of Cincinnati education specialist.

"If it is inevitable that the urban centers are going to be segregated, then the focus must return to providing a quality education to those students who are unable to leave the urban center," he says.

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared separate public schools for black children unequal and unconstitutional, at least 166,000 Cincinnati-area students attend overwhelmingly segregated schools.

See and compare the racial breakdowns at schools and districts in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Find your school...

Share your opinions and see what others are saying.

From the 1950s to today, learn about key events in the struggle for equality in education. Interactive timeline...

In audio interviews, students from the Louisville, Ky., area say they value diversity but note that self-segregation is common.
Hear their views...

Musesums offer lessons about the significance of the Brown case in all aspects of American life.
Roundup of exhibits...

The Internet is full of resources to help you learn more about the legacy of the Brown decision.
List of sites...

Enquirer special report
Gannett News Service report