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Evan Horowitz

If segregation ended 60 years ago, how come it’s getting worse?

Linda Brown Smith, shown in an undated photo, was a third grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the US Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision against school segregation.AP File

Saturday was a big anniversary for gay marriage. Ten years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to let gay couples marry, it helped launch a massive social change that is still rippling across the states. But what if that broader change hadn’t happened? What if, despite the Massachusetts ruling, it had actually become more difficult for gay couples to wed?

That’s the tragic legacy of another milestone that passed this Saturday, the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme court struck down “separate but equal” schooling. It was a major victory in the civil rights movement and it meant that cities and states could no longer maintain separate systems for black and white students. Yet, while the social transformation that Brown v. Board set in motion did have its impact, for a time, it didn’t endure. Today, segregation is resurgent all across the country, including here in Massachusetts.


Didn’t we desegregate Massachusetts schools in the 1960s and 1970s?

At the high-water mark of desegregation, when Massachusetts was roiled by fights over court mandates and the busing crisis tore Boston apart, segregation actually increased across the northeast.

Efforts to better integrate schools were offset by the growth of largely-white, suburban areas as well as by discriminatory housing practices like redlining, which helped ensure that minority students were concentrated in particular school districts. Between 1968 and 1980, the number of black students in predominantly white schools actually went down in Massachusetts.

Over time, has segregation gotten better or worse?

By a number of measures, segregation seems to have gotten worse. One way to see this is by looking at the growth of “highly segregated” schools, meaning those schools where at least 90 percent of the student body is non-white. Massachusetts now has seven times as many highly segregated schools as it had two decades ago. And while, in 1980, just one in fifty black students attended such a highly-segregated school, the number is now one in four.


Are segregated schools also poor schools?

Yes. Eight-five percent of students in highly segregated schools are low-income. And this has actually gotten worse over time. Fifteen years ago, only 70 percent were low-income.

The link between segregation and poverty goes beyond these highly segregated schools, though. Across Massachusetts, the average white student goes to a school where 23 percent of the kids are low-income. The average black student goes to a school where 59 percent are low-income.

How are Hispanic students affected?

Since 1990, the proportion of hispanic students in the public schools has more than doubled, and they, too, are feeling the effects of resegregation. Twenty-eight percent of hispanic students are enrolled in highly segregated schools, which is higher than the share of black students and growing faster.

Are minority students benefiting from our first-rate schools?

Judging from the situation of minority students, it’s not clear that Massachusetts even has a first-rate education system. The big reason people tout our schools is that for the last decade we’ve outperformed all other states on national tests of reading and math. But when you break the numbers down by race, things look quite different. On the 8th grade reading test, for instance, Massachusetts comes out 9th in terms of educating black students. And when it comes to educating hispanic students, we’re 33rd, behind Texas and South Carolina.

Is resegregation also happening in Boston?

It’s hard to analyze segregation patterns in Boston because there are so few white students. Even though roughly half the city is white, white students make up only14 percent of public school students. This by itself is an enormous demographic shift. In the 1960s, 68 percent of Boston public school students were white.


Where are we headed?

As a society, we seem to have lost faith in the old instruments of equalization, like court mandates and citywide busing. Yet, we haven’t found any new, more popular approaches, which means for now we are just watching as our schools become more and more segregated.

There are a number of possible approaches. More affordable housing in suburban communities could help make our neighborhoods less segregated. We could improve and expand METCO, which is a program that lets students in segregated urban districts attend better schools in nearby towns. And we could do more to equalize funding and support schools in low-income areas.

Whatever the approach, though, we need to find something that will work. It’s not enough to pretend that segregation is over because the Supreme Court said so 60 years ago. If that decision, Brown v. Board of Education, is to have any meaning, it has to mean that our black, white, and hispanic students actually go to school together.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz