Are Black Civil Rights Being Reversed?

Are Black Civil Rights in America being reversed today? Civil rights leaders have been making this claim for the past several years, pointing to education and income statistics, as well as changes in the current administration in the White House. Upon examination of certain trends in today’s society, it is evident that there is indeed a basis for this claim. Further, unless these concerns are acknowledged and addressed by both the American government and the public at large, blacks in America will indeed lose some of the rights which they fought for and won in the late Twentieth century.

For the purposes of this essay, the argument that there is currently a reversal of civil rights in progress will be limited to the issue of segregation within K-12 schools. The matter of racial segregation within schools has been well settled. If an interest group were to attempt to enforce segregation along racial lines they would suffer harsh judgment from other interest groups, governmental agencies and the public at large. The issue raised here is not that rights are under jeopardy of being repealed through political channels in our nation’s government. Rather, the practical application of these rights is currently not being handled in such a way to ensure their longevity. If key issues are not faced within the next few years, the degradation of civil rights will continue to advance, and a reversal of black civil rights is possible.

Segregation between blacks and whites was a hotly contested subject in the battle for civil rights. Blacks were attending black schools, and whites were attending white schools. The “separate-but-equal” doctrine was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson. The reality at the time was that in many communities the black schools were inferior to their white counterpart, and little or no attempt was made to hide this inequality.

The disparity in the quality of education between blacks and whites led civil rights leaders to fight hard for equal rights in public schools throughout the first half of the Twentieth century. The opposition fought to keep the schools segregated, based on long standing Jim Crow laws, racial pride and feelings of superiority. They simply did not want equality between blacks and whites. This was a significant part of the battle for civil rights, and for good reason. A quality education greatly increases a person’s opportunities for success and quality of life, regardless of their skin color or background.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “separate-but-equal” doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education. In the twenty years following this decision there was a significant amount of resistance to its implementation. It wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that the decision was implemented across America, and even then it had to be enforced through military intervention in several communities. Desegregation then increased through the late 1980’s.

At the same time that civil rights and desegregation tension was high, middle and upper class white families began moving from inner-city to newer outlying suburban communities. Whatever the initial motives for this shift, the trend became associated with status and continues to this day. The difference in location between blacks and whites required complex busing routes to get students to and from campus.

Despite the high cost of desegregation, public schools today are undergoing a gradual process of resegregation. That is, there is an increasing disparity between the student populations of schools in America. Unlike the past, today’s segregation is not dictated by the government. This, rather, is a de facto segregation, or segregation through community population patterns. Put another way, this is segregation along socio-economic lines. The end result is racial segregation in some circumstances, but more often it is segregation of poverty stricken and middle-class communities. Today it is common for suburban communities (and thus the schools within them) to be composed of predominantly middle-class white families, while inner city communities are primarily comprised of black and Latino families.

Through the early 1990’s there was a series of three key court decisions which dismantled desegregation’s grip on school districts. First, in the 1991 Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell case, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the decision that desegregation orders were intended as a temporary solution, and that neighborhood schools within that district were free to return to segregation. Then in 1992 the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals case Freeman v. Pitts the court authorized the dismantling of desegregation orders within that circuit. Finally in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the attempt of a lower court to uphold desegregation laws in Missouri v. Jenkins.

Once these decisions were handed down, school boards were free to decide for themselves on matters involving segregation, and they did. No longer encumbered by the need for race equality in their districts, and with no more funding coming in to support busing of students, school districts began to cater to the children in their neighborhoods and communities.

By the time that desegregation was struck down, white families had already moved to the outlying suburban areas. In the early 1990’s when the requirement for desegregation was lifted, white families and their tax dollars had already moved to suburban communities. Inner-city schools were left to operate with the tax dollars that their communities could generate. Since these areas were in lower income minority communities, the schools were left in areas of concentrated poverty. At the same time that racial segregation returned, a division between lower income minorities and upper-to-middle class whites opened. Again, white families had the upper hand as their schools had more funding available. Currently more than three quarters of intensely segregated schools are also high poverty schools.

How does this gradual resegregation shift affect civil rights for black people today? The same way that it did before the Brown decision in 1954. A quality education creates opportunities for minorities that otherwise would not be available to them, prepares them to participate in and contribute to the political system which governs them, and generally conditions them for a higher quality of life than they would have otherwise. The lack of a quality education perpetuates the conditions which contribute to their poverty.

In this light it is easy to understand why civil rights leaders are upset over this issue. Something must be done to address this new trend. There are two main arguments about how to address this. The first is to shift the focus away from segregation and towards equality of education among all of the schools. The second is to place a greater emphasis on segregation again for the benefit of all.

Considering the arguments and legal battles that have come from the issue of school segregation and the fact that left to their own devices, schools have a tendency to drift back toward segregation, a new solution is required. The argument that sparked the segregation debate was equality of education. Perhaps the focus needs to be shifted back to this, and let segregation work itself out. Segregation was certainly an important stand in the battle for civil rights, but maybe it has already served its purpose.

The opposing view to the argument that segregation should no longer be the key factor, is that whites are the only race being fully segregated. Blacks are attending school with Latinos and Asians. Division along these lines has isolated white students more than any other group and is not preparing them for life in a multicultural society. The black-white paradigm no longer applies to segregation patterns, but this doesn’t exclude segregation as a valid solution. It would certainly be ironic if whites recognized a need for segregation.

Whatever the solution, it needs to be found quickly. Several other measurable criteria are affected by quality of education: college attendance, unemployment rates, income, home ownership, home equity, etc. As quality of education decreases, one can reasonably assume that each of these criteria will also be affected later in life.

The original question in this essay was “are black civil rights in America being reversed today?” Upon examination it is clear that civil rights leaders have a valid concern. If America answers this claim in a timely manner, quality of education for all races and classes increases, and everyone wins. On the other hand, if America is lethargic in answering this charge it is possible that we may lose some of the civil rights which were hard won.

4 replies on “Are Black Civil Rights Being Reversed?”

  1. I’m usually not the first person to comment on my posts, but I thought this would be the best place to put some notes on this essay.

    I picked this topic because I didn’t know anything about civil rights and thought it would be interesting to research. I started with the intent of showing that while the civil rights movement is not advancing as rapidly as it has previously, civil rights that have already been won are not under threat of being reversed. The more reading I did, the more I realized that this is false. I learned something in the process. And, now that I know a tiny bit about civil rights, this issue is more interesting to me. That doesn’t always happen when I study a topic. Its really fun to find new topics that interest me.

  2. Well done. As a teacher I see a lot of self-segregation within schools as the kids often stick with their own. Interesting point about whites becoming more segregated and losing the multicultural aspect of education.

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