BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION: 50 years later

 Segregation by income Much work remains in Bay Area

 Supreme Court ruling in 1954 aimed for racial desegregation of students, but wealth has created separate and unequal schools in Bay Area and elsewhere

 Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer

 Sunday, May 16, 2004

2004 San Francisco Chronicle

 

At McClymonds High in a gritty West Oakland neighborhood, students make do with miniature, prepackaged chemistry equipment because their school has no science lab. The principal struggles to pay for advanced-placement classes. Teachers get on-the-job training, and parents work two or three jobs and have little time -- and less cash -- for the PTA.

At McClymonds, 80 percent of students are black. Less than 1 percent are white.

Just 3 miles away is a leafier high school called Piedmont, with its own college and career center paid for by the Parents Club. The school has 19 advanced-placement courses, a full counseling program, professional quality library and 18 kinds of sports, from golf to water polo. More than half the teachers have a master's degree or doctorate.

At Piedmont, 71 percent of students are white. Less than 2 percent are black.

Today, 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously outlawed school segregation in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, segregation thrives in schools across the Bay Area, state and the nation. Even though no board of education still has the power to exclude students based on ethnicity, the schools' racial barrier lives on in the segregated lives of the rich and the poor.

Two-thirds of McClymonds students, for example, are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch program. At Piedmont, no one is.

The result -- high-end white schools and substandard black-and-brown schools -- is not much different from what a little girl named Linda Brown faced in Topeka, Kan., so long ago.

The law back then required Linda to attend Monroe Elementary even though a better school, Sumner, was closer to home and had room. But Sumner was for whites. Linda and her classmates were black.

Hatred and fear soaked into the pores of life where school segregation was entrenched. And where it wasn't, segregation was always an option -- until Linda's father, Oliver Brown, sued the Topeka school board and won.

 

 Landmark ruling

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court said school segregation was "inherently unequal" and had to go. But it set no deadline, and schools took their time. Ultimately, riots, racists and Klansmen all failed to reverse Brown, and the civil rights era that followed brought school integration to levels never seen. The intention was to provide equal opportunities for all.

But the 21st century still has many Linda Browns.

"The Linda Brown of today is a child in poverty. She can be any color and live in any region. We have become a society divided less by race than by the profound barriers between the haves and the have-nots," Chicago teacher Leslie Baldacci, author of "Inside Mrs. B's Classroom," told The Chronicle.

In California, today's Linda Browns are students whose parents cannot afford to supplement schools with computers, books, art classes and equipment as parents in wealthier communities do.

And they are about 1 million poor, ethnically isolated students challenging state education officials in a class-action lawsuit that claims their schools are worse than those attended by the rest of California's 6.2 million students.

"How many white parents would send their kids to a predominantly African American and Latino school in any major urban district in the state?" asked Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union, the students' lead attorney. "These schools do not even meet pre-Brown standards because they are both separate and unequal."

 

 Mixed success

Not all schools resemble life before Brown. Many are a mixed salad of colors and languages that do well by their students.

But in a state where Latinos comprise nearly half of enrollment and whites nearly a third, most white students (63 percent) go to schools that are mainly white, and 47 percent of the Latinos attend school where less than 10 percent of the kids are white, says a new study by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education & Access.

"We're having a discussion about money," said Melba Pattillo Beals, head of the communications department at Dominican University in San Rafael. "It isn't black, white, brown or yellow -- it's green. Access to wealth. Who's got the beef, baby?"

Beals knows about segregation, integration, and what's behind it all. She is one of the Little Rock Nine, that historic band of Arkansas teenagers who endured bullets, bricks and mob violence to integrate Central High in 1957.

"The vision of 'Brown' was that everybody would have access to resources -- that schools would be a melting pot," Beals said.

Yet 50 years after Brown, that vision has not been fully realized -- even in the progressive Bay Area.

"If I had a chance to design a school, it would be very peaceful and quiet," said Melvin Lane, 17, a junior at McClymonds. "We have students smoking, driving by with loud music from their cars. We hear loud factories and people yelling out their windows."

Ashely Hirsch, 16, called the school environment "very distracting. One of the worst things that irritates me is we have pipes that make noise when the teacher is trying to teach."

Melvin and Ashely, both black, are among the high-striving juniors in Yetunde Reeves' advanced-placement U.S. history class at McClymonds, one of five AP classes available this year.

Geographically, the tranquil school of Melvin's dreams is not far from McClymonds. But in some ways, the distance between Piedmont High and McClymonds is as far as that between the segregated schools of Topeka before an NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall made the case for integration.

 

 Other divisive factors

Northern and Western states never had Jim Crow laws, but housing patterns, school district residency rules -- and wealth -- have kept schools color- coded despite Brown.

"We often forget that white students attend some of the most segregated schools in the country, and while those students often have great educational advantages, they are also deprived of the personal contact and learning that come with attending racially integrated schools," said Angelo Ancheta, a director at Harvard's Civil Rights Project.

The fix, many say, is as radical today as racial integration was in the mid-20th century: Financial integration of neighborhoods.

"Since the 1950s, Californians have created profoundly segregated neighborhoods," said John Rogers, associate director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education & Access. "We've built cookie-cutter suburbs with houses of nearly identical prices and, as a result, with residents of similar incomes.

"The strong relationship between race and income has meant that most low- income neighborhoods are Latino and African American, and most middle and upper-income neighborhoods are white. Attendance boundaries keep the children in different schools."

 

 Piedmont is a case in point.

"Board policy has always been that students need to be residents of the community," said Principal Pam Bradford of Piedmont High.

"Can I take a third of the population of McClymonds into this school? No. There are policies and structures that don't allow that," she said, launching into a discussion of the community and its so-called legacy families that have attended Piedmont for generations. "Would I if I could? Sure."

The pattern repeats across the Bay Area.

In the San Jose school district, poor kids go to Olinder Elementary (75 percent), and middle-class kids go to Los Alamitos (94 percent). Result: Olinder kids are 88 percent Latino. Los Alamitos kids are 59 percent white.

In Palo Alto, 94 percent of Addison Elementary students are middle class, and enrollment is 78 percent white.

Across the freeway in East Palo Alto, Belle Haven Elementary has 94 percent poor kids. Enrollment is 73 percent Latino.

 

 Closer to home

Busing is the traditional fix. Yet some of today's most ardent opponents of busing are not whites trying to exclude nonwhites, but low-income people of color who prefer to send their children to a neighborhood school.

So the issue today is how -- not whether -- to integrate.

It wasn't like that at the time of Brown. Then, it took three years for the Little Rock school board to reluctantly permit integration at one school, Central High, the best in the region. And the nine students who broke that color barrier paid for it, in Beals' words, with their innocence.

"In 1957, while most teenage girls were listening to Buddy Holly's 'Peggy Sue,' watching Elvis gyrate, and collecting crinoline slips, I was escaping the hanging rope of a lynch mob, dodging lighted sticks of dynamite, and washing away burning acid sprayed into my eyes," writes Beals in the opening sentence of her 1994 memoir, "Warriors Don't Cry."

On what was to be the first day of school, the Arkansas National Guard used rifles, bayonets and sticks to turn the children back. The mob proved so vicious that President Dwight Eisenhower sent the Army's 101st Airborne to escort the nine to class. Thirty years later, all nine returned to Central High amid hordes of reporters instead of rope-wielding racists. Beals winced as she entered the building she recalled as a "hellish torture chamber."

Yet she would do it again. Segregation was a torture chamber even more hellish than Central High.

"Brown is a blessing," Beals told The Chronicle. "Prior to Brown, I had no hope or opportunity. Brown opened the coffin and let me out. What we have to do is to give that key -- inclusion -- to everyone and carry that lesson to the 21st century."

 

 Fighting dilapidated schools

In California, the new century dawned with a lawsuit meant to do that. The ACLU sued state education agencies in 2000 on behalf of poor, mainly nonwhite students "being deprived of basic educational opportunities available to more privileged children," says the suit. Williams vs. California describes "appalling conditions" at schools with crowded classrooms, vermin, poorly trained teachers, and rooms too hot or cold.

The students want the state to set standards for conditions, establish accountability, and give "basic educational necessities" to all.

The lawyers are now in settlement talks with the state.

Back at Piedmont High, a group of sophomore boys -- white, black and Asian American -- stood in the sun discussing who gets to go to good schools. The friends agreed: Money matters.

Yet Calvin Logan and Ryan Pollard, the black students in the group, knew there was more to it. Of all the students, only Calvin had been told by a cop to move on as he waited for his dad at a Piedmont corner. And only Ryan's dad had been steered away from Piedmont when searching for a house.

"There's racism," said Eric Yao, an Asian American. "But not among us."

"There is, dude," said Justin Sherman, a white student. "If we had learned not to discriminate, we wouldn't be having this discussion."

 

COMPARING OAKLAND AND PIEDMONT SCHOOL DISTRICTS

 

Attendance at the Piedmont City Unified and Oakland Unified school districts is for the 2002-03 school year:

 

 McClymonds High School

 

 Piedmont High School

 

 PIEDMONT CITY UNIFIED 2,566 students

PIEDMONT CITY UNIFIED 2,566 students

White: 70%

Asian: 19.5%

Hispanic or Latino: 3.5%

African American, not Hispanic: 3.2%

Other: 3.8% .

 

 OAKLAND UNIFIED: 52,501 students

African American, not Hispanic: 43.3%

Asian: 15.4%

Hispanic or Latino: 32.2%

White: 5.8%

Other: 3.3%.

 

 Free and reduced meals participation

 

 34,495 students (66%) in the Oakland Unified School District receive free and reduced meals. None of the students in Piedmont receive the meals..

 

 Sources: California Department of Education; ESRI; Geographic Data Technology