Point of View

A fresh look at school segregation

May 7, 2011 

— The first weeks of May bring us annual celebrations of motherhood and graduation. This time also marks the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation and declaring that our nation would be held accountable to live up to its stated promises of equality and justice. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to re-examine our commitment to children and their education and to the principles at the heart of the Brown decision.

Today, we must recognize that public schools across the country have become increasingly segregated in terms of race and class - forfeiting the promise of equal access to quality education for all children. North Carolina is no exception. Our state is unique in the opportunity it presents to re-examine Brown's legacy: Districts across North Carolina are at various stages of the historical trajectory from segregation to integration and, more recently, to resegregation.

At one extreme is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a district that produced the Supreme Court case authorizing the use of busing to achieve integration. Following that litigation, the district so successfully desegregated that in 2000 the court declared it was fully integrated (legally, "unitary") and released the district from judicial oversight. Since that time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have resegregated and are now nearly as racially isolated as before the 1971 ruling.

There are also counties such as New Hanover and Wayne, which operate school districts that were once under court order to desegregate but have since been declared unitary. However, since their removal from the courts' jurisdiction, these districts have implemented racially resegregative student assignment plans that create high-poverty, racially isolated schools.

Pitt County Schools remain subject to an active federal court desegregation order, but the board there still refused to consider race in its most recent student reassignment plan and adopted a model that closes a historic African-American school and increases racial segregation and isolation of high-poverty students.

Finally, there are a number of counties such as Halifax that never actually or effectively desegregated in the first place.

Halifax is one of the most economically distressed counties in the state. It is also one of the few that maintain three separate school districts. Most significant, however, is the stark racial and socioeconomic isolation of the county's schoolchildren that has its origins in the state-sanctioned segregation that led to the creation of the tripartite system.

In a county that is 39 percent white, Halifax County and Weldon City schools are both almost 100 percent nonwhite, while the Roanoke Rapids school district is 73 percent white. The school districts' poverty levels are similarly disparate: 89 percent free or reduced-price lunch eligibility in Halifax County and 95 percent in Weldon City, but only 51 percent in Roanoke Rapids.

On Monday, the UNC Center for Civil Rights will release a comprehensive report on the state of education in Halifax County. The report's objective is to initiate informed community conversations about maintaining three separate districts and on segregation and its effect on the quality of education for all students as well as on the community's growth and economic viability.

Everyone with a stake in the success of education in Halifax County - and across our state - should become part of these conversations and work together to implement a strategic plan for unification of these districts. A forthright examination and commitment to address these challenges in Halifax County will also provide a national framework for an issue that has long escaped attention: rural school segregation and the lasting impacts of Jim Crow. The continuing social and constitutional significance of Brown v. Board of Education deserves nothing less.

Mark Dorosin is managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights in the School of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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