Following Brown v. Board, schools across the country began integrating with various levels of success. Given a high number of Black residents and several other factors, many southern schools often were more successful at integrating than northern counterparts, an often overlooked fact, Mann said. However, various efforts to fight those trends succeeded, including white flight to suburbs, many Black residents moving from the area, opening of private schools designed to attract white students and, increasingly in recent decades, less economic opportunity for gainful employment in Alabama’s Black Belt counties. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace infamously declared “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The researchers point out the “segregation forever” legacy has proven to be quite resilient.
Mann and Rogers emphasize the region has many positive attributes, including being the birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement, and forcing successful school integration. Black Americans who remain in the area are rightfully proud of that legacy, and those whose ancestors endured slavery and Jim Crow do not want to leave the area, the researchers said. But changes in the region have led to students who are doubly disadvantaged. Black students have long faced disproportionate levels of discipline in school, more placements in special education and other punitive educational policies. That is combined with low socioeconomic status in the area, resulting in poorer schools that suffer lower student achievement.
Demographic changes have led to the closure of many private schools established for white students during the Civil Rights Movement. Remaining white residents are largely older, with fewer children in school. Due to these changes, neighborhood segregation has joined school segregation in perpetuating educational shortcomings, the researchers point out. As wealthier residents have left the area, they have taken their economic resources with them.
“It’s becoming more, in this area, than just school policy,” Mann said. “There needs to be broader policy at the community level that addresses the isolation that is happening at the county level.”
Mann and Rogers do not claim to have the answers to solving the school, segregation and economic problems, but they argue the data shows that any response needs to consider more than just the schools. In addition to reducing isolation through cross-district enrollment and school choice, policies addressing redlining, affordable housing, school funding and attracting more economic opportunity to the area are all necessary to combat continued school segregation and the negative factors that come with it. Further research, policy debate and ideas are also necessary to combat the legacy of centuries of racial oppression.
“We hope this helps start the conversation of elevating the needs of these communities so we can start to address the trickle-down effects of slavery, racism and segregation,” Mann said. “The first step is acknowledging the problem, then addressing it. It is very difficult to fix, but we need to at least try, because the livelihoods of students are at stake.”
This is the definition of structural racism. You can issue a decision desegregating schools. That had to happen. But actually creating equality in education is far harder because that also requires equality in the economy, in food access, in residential decisions. And everything in our society pushes against that equality, encouraging people to make choices that enhance racism, which is how our schools today are as segregated or in some cases even more segregated than they were in 1954.