This depressing, saddening and altogether heartbreaking ProPublica article by Nikole Hannah-Jones on school re-segregation in America should definitely spur some action. It's evidence that the Bush-era civil rights division of the Justice Department, which started releasing school districts from busing orders almost immediately and for 8 years, has done so much damage to the public education system in this country that as we approach the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, one has to wonder if the decision even matters anymore in places like Tuscaloosa.
The reason for the decline of Central’s homecoming parade is no secret. In 2000, another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that had governed it for a single generation. Central had successfully achieved integration, the district had argued—it could be trusted to manage that success going forward.
Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America. No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.
Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation—among the most extensive in the country—is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.
We now live in the era of "apartheid schools" where less than 1% of the student body is white, students are well below the national average in poverty. White flight combined with the elimination of busing enforcement to create entire neighborhoods left behind: crushingly poor, gerrymandered to a person, and nearly all black. They were designed that way to save the white kids who still had a chance.
Tuscaloosa’s residential population stagnated during the ’90s, and the school situation took on special urgency in 1993: Tuscaloosa was vying for the Mercedes-Benz plant where Melissa Dent now works, which officials hoped would draw people to the city. Just a few years earlier, Tuscaloosa had lost out on a bid for a Saturn plant. In an interview early this year, Johnnie Aycock, who at the time headed the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, suggested the schools had scared Saturn away. “We learned that lesson. We learned that lesson completely.”
Publicly, the city’s movers and shakers said the lack of neighborhood schools made the district unattractive and that schools languished in disrepair because the district had to await court approval for every little decision. Behind closed doors, they argued that if they did not create some schools where white students made up the majority—or near it—they’d lose the white parents still remaining.
Districts under desegregation orders aren’t supposed to take actions that increase racial separation. And so the city’s leadership decided the desegregation order needed to go, and they believed the time was ripe for a court to agree.
The rest of course is history.
In 1993, Tuscaloosa’s school board fired a test shot. It filed papers in federal court seeking to build a new elementary school called Rock Quarry, deep in a nearly all-white part of town separated from the rest of the city by the Black Warrior River. If a judge accepted the school, that might signal a willingness to end the order altogether.
“You could see what the city and the school district were doing. They were going to have a racially and economically segregated school system,” said Janell Byrd, one of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys who represented the plaintiffs at the time.
The case landed in the courtroom of Judge Sharon Blackburn, a recent George H. W. Bush appointee who had gone to college in Tuscaloosa. In 1995, Blackburn held a five-day hearing to decide the question of Rock Quarry. School officials promised that the new school’s student body, though whiter than the district’s overall school population, would be half black.
Today that number is 9% black in Rock Quarry. As with many larger cities in America, white parents have pulled their kids out to suburban county districts or private schools and designed the districts along racial lines. In order to get the car plant, the black kids in Tuscaloosa had to be put out of sight and out of mind. It worked too well. And now what little hope and resources left for schools are being finished off by conservatives who argue that trying to educate these kids is a waste of taxpayer money.
We've written off the education of black Millennials, and it's only going to get worse.