I grew up in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, attending public schools that offered me a lot of opportunities: field trips to interesting places, AP classes, a robust music program. But it lacked one very obvious thing: any diversity at all, in its student body or faculty. In my graduating class of about 300, there were seven students of color — and one was an exchange student from Japan. I didn’t have a single teacher of color until college.

The district, the West Shore School District, is more diverse now, but it still ranks as the 90th most segregating school district border in the country, with nearly 24% students of color, versus the 97% students of color in the neighboring Harrisburg City School District, according to a project from New America, “Crossing the Line: Segregation and Resource Inequality Between America’s School Districts.”

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on May 17th, students across the country are still attending schools with student bodies overwhelmingly of one race, like I did at Brown’s 50th.

Even as we celebrate how far we’ve come in seven decades, we can’t overlook either the work that remains  — nor the harmful backlash and consequences of that landmark decision.

“There are people out there who have this misconception that school desegregation was just about making sure that Black children were in schools sitting next to white children,” said Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel and co-manager of the Equal Protection Initiative at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, at a panel during EdTrust’s annual bootcamp for advocates. “It was never about that. It was always about making sure everybody had an equal opportunity to get an education.”

Segregation in Schools Continues

The New America “Crossing the Line” report compared poverty rates and racial composition of adjacent school districts. On average, adjacent school districts are 14 percentage points apart in their proportion of students of color, but in the most 100 racially segregating districts, they separate a district that is 92% white from one that is 86% students of color.

Further Supreme Court cases after Brown, San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez in 1973, in which justices ruled there is no constitutional right to an equal education, and Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, in which the high court found that school districts can’t be redrawn to combat segregation, hampered further efforts to change boundaries via federal court order, said Ary Amerikaner, co-founder of Brown’s Promise, which supports research, litigation, and advocacy, and other measures to end school segregation.

But the borders are not set in stone, Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, said at the event: “These borders were drawn deliberately, they can be changed deliberately. They’re not inevitable.”

School Vouchers + Tracking

The response across the South to the Brown ruling was called “massive resistance,” wherein states would use every measure possible to limit the integration of schools and to keep Black and white students apart when they did attend the same school.

In some cases, this looked like closing public schools and using tax dollars to set up private “segregationist academies” and provide vouchers for white students to attend them. Although voucher and other private school choice programs are now deemed race-neutral and equitable,  research has found that school vouchers are more likely to increase segregation in schools rather than decrease it.

Leaders of other schools, intentionally or not, have reacted to integration efforts between schools by creating a new method of segregation within the school: tracking. This is when white students are placed in more advanced classes, particularly in upper grades, while Black and Latino students are relegated to general education classes. A 2020 study of school integration efforts in North Carolina found that within-school segregation accounted for up to 40% of the problem. And EdTrust’s recent research has found that Black and Latino students are still systemically shut out of advanced courses.

The South’s Mass Firing of Black Educators

In the wake of the Brown ruling, racist segregationists were determined to defy the law. So, across the South, Black schools were defunded and eventually closed, and those funds were diverted to school vouchers or other efforts to maintain all-white schools. As a result, as many as 100,000 Black educators were dismissed or demoted. That mass firing and ensuring structural changes to keep Black teachers from teaching white students in integrated schools still affects today’s teaching workforce, to the detriment of all students, especially Black students.

Evidence shows that having a Black teacher supports Black students to better outcomes, including standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and likelihood of college enrollment. Yet today, the proportion of teachers of color doesn’t match the proportion of students of color in any state. While more than half of all students in the U.S. are of color, only 20% of teachers are people of color. (See how your state is prioritizing policies that promote teacher diversity.)

Looking Beyond Brown

Seventy years later, much work remains. Attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts have ramped up in states and college campuses in recent years, and the so-called anti-CRT movement threatens to whitewash U.S. history and ban books about race and diverse identities from classrooms across the country. The Supreme Court, in decisions as recent as last year’s decision to limit affirmative action in higher education, has made it  difficult to advance race-conscious integration.

Yet, organizations like EdTrust and our partners continue to advocate for better educational opportunities for Black and Latino students; and there are many groups working at the state and local level to push for education equity. Desegregation cases in New Jersey and Minnesota, for instance, are based on rights granted in state constitutions, and remain under review by state courts.

And we shouldn’t forget the courage it took the Brown plaintiffs to put their name to a case amid threats of job loss and violence in 1954, nor should we overlook the improvements in education that have resulted from the decision today.

“The lesson there is, it’s going to take bravery and fortitude. You cannot do it alone. We need each other,” Turnage Young said. “Know that even if things are discouraging, it’s important to imagine what is possible and know that you can yield particularly impactful wins.”