Home / News / News Features / Still Separate, Still Unequal

Still Separate, Still Unequal

60 years after the ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ decision, Milwaukee struggles with racial divisions

May. 14, 2014
Google plus Linkedin Pinterest
Sixty years ago this week, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

While the landmark decision focused on public education, it had a far-reaching effect on Jim Crow laws that separated black and white Americans.

“I think that people underestimate its impact because they only associate it with education,” said Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds. “But it laid the legal groundwork for changes in virtually every aspect of public life, from public accommodation, to the Voting Rights Act and housing.”

While government-sanctioned segregation is no longer allowed, more subtle efforts to keep blacks and whites separate have permeated our culture and public policy, especially in Wisconsin.

Attorney James Hall, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, rattled off a host of statistics about Milwaukee’s low ranking on a number of quality-of-life metrics, from the recent finding by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that Wisconsin is the worst state in the nation for African American children, to our sky-high levels of mass incarceration of black men, our nation-leading racial gap in student achievement, our high poverty rate and geographic segregation.

He noted that African American Milwaukeeans would fare better today in the old Jim Crow states that had once been part of the Confederacy.

“All of these things are reasons for us to take a serious look at where we are as a society on this commemoration of Brown,” Hall said. “Why are we lagging behind every other state? When other states are addressing these very serious issues, we are going in the opposite direction.”


MPS Desegregates in the 1970s

Although the Brown decision required schools to desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” it didn’t have an immediate impact on MPS, where black students were very much in the minority. But the black student population was growing and segregated into increasingly crowded, substandard neighborhood schools, and the MPS administration was set on keeping them apart from their white peers.

One strategy was “intact busing,” a plan implemented in 1958 allegedly to ease overcrowding in African American-dominated schools. The plan required black students to go to their regular neighborhood schools, where they’d be bused to white schools after the white students were already settled in their classrooms. The black and white students shared the same school, but were educated in separate classrooms and never made contact with each other.

Barbara Miner, in her indispensable history of Milwaukee schools, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, found that while tens of thousands of African American MPS students’ lives were disrupted by intact busing, she could find only nine cases of white students being bused to predominantly black schools.

This temporary policy remained in place until 1972, Miner noted.

“When we look back there are a lot of outrageous things that make us say, ‘Oh my god,’ but that at the time seemed normal,” Miner told the Shepherd. “I think there’s a lot of that going on right now. When you look at mass incarceration, when you look at Milwaukee’s segregation, black and white, by poverty, you add that up and you think, aren’t people outraged?”

People were outraged back then, in fact. On May 18, 1964, on the 10th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, Milwaukee’s civil rights activists organized “Freedom Schools,” a one-day boycott of MPS to demand desegregated schools and improved resources for the city’s black schools. Up to 15,000 students took part in the day-long event held at churches and community centers around the city, Miner wrote. More were held in 1965.

Around the same time, Lloyd Barbee, then the NAACP state president, began working for a formal order to end Milwaukee’s racially segregated schools. As he and his allies advocated for the legal and political will to confront Milwaukee’s racial divide, conservative whites in the city pushed back. Not only did the MPS administration and other elected officials resist efforts to create a more racially mixed community, but white residents fled the city to the surrounding suburbs in the late 1960s and 1970s, twin legacies that are still fully apparent today. Making matters worse, Milwaukee’s mass deindustrialization in the 1970s and ’80s hit the city’s black workers the hardest, increasing the economic disparity between African American and white working families.


‘Choice’ for Whites, Busing for Blacks

Ultimately, U.S. Judge John Reynolds Jr. ruled in January 1976, 22 years after Brown v. Board of Ed and more than a decade after the Barbee case was launched, that Milwaukee’s public schools were unlawfully—and intentionally—segregated. He placed the blame squarely on the MPS administration, which appealed his decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost.

Not wanting to stir up tensions created in Boston and other cities over forced busing of white students, then-MPS Superintendent Lee McMurrin developed a plan to integrate schools via “choice,” specialty magnet schools and a busing scheme that once again disrupted black students’ lives, but had little effect on white students. Today’s voucher program stemmed from this plan to allow white students to opt out of the public schools, although it was later sold as a way to give low-income black students more educational choice, Miner wrote.

In 1984, MPS sued the state and the surrounding suburban school districts, alleging that they were cooperating to keep black Milwaukeeans isolated in housing and education. Part of a 1987 settlement increased the Chapter 220 program, which allows MPS students to attend suburban schools.

Bonds, now serving as MPS board president, worked closely with Barbee during those years on the integration plan and the Chapter 220 program.

A product of MPS who graduated six months after the Reynolds decision, Bonds said that he’d never attended class with a white student until he entered UW-Milwaukee.

“I went to school all my life in predominantly African American neighborhoods under the neighborhood school policy,” Bonds said. “That limited your choice. You had some of the worst facilities. You didn’t have the best resources. I was kind of glad to see the decision when it came, but I think that the decision underestimated people’s responses to it.”

He told the Shepherd that while he had thought busing could be part of the solution to school segregation, he’s now done a “360” on the issue and has begun scaling back MPS’s extensive—and expensive—busing program.

He and MPS Board Member Tatiana Joseph are working on a plan for regional busing that would provide specialty schools in each region of the city and bus students within their home region.

“I think the focus has to be on quality of instruction and on resources as opposed to shifting of bodies,” Bonds said. “I think busing has a limited role but not the role that it had in the past.”


Resegregation Today

A lot has changed since the Brown decision and MPS’s desegregation order. In the 1970s, African American students were in the minority. Now, 55.8% of MPS students are black, 24.1% are Hispanic, 13.6% are white, 5.7% are Asian and 0.8% are Native American. A full 80% of MPS students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a reflection of the city’s high poverty rate.

Recent national data and new findings from UW-Milwaukee Professor Marc Levine indicate that Wisconsin’s schools are still highly segregated, especially if students are black. A recent study ranked the Milwaukee metro area as #2 in terms of segregation of white students, a major barrier for interaction between white and black students.

Levine found that integration rose from the 1970s through the 1990s, but schools have resegregated since 2000, when MPS changed direction and began focusing on neighborhood schools and the voucher program was expanded. Levine found that 73.5% of black students in the metro area now attend schools with 90% or more non-white students, so-called “intensely segregated” schools. That figure was 29.1% in 1995, Levine noted. In contrast, 43% of Hispanic students attend schools with 90% or more non-white students and a mere 26.9% of white students attend schools with 90% or more white students.

Despite the claims by privatization supporters that vouchers and charters would help to desegregate schools, Levine found that voucher schools and non-district run charters are more segregated than MPS schools. In 2013-14, 77.6% of black students in MPS attended “intensely segregated” schools but 95.2% of the students in nondistrict charters attended intensely segregated schools and 85.9% of black students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program attended intensely segregated schools.

So if you’re black in Milwaukee, you’re going to attend an all-black school, just as you did before desegregation.

And it’s apparent that the desegregation order couldn’t solve the complex social and economic problems facing Milwaukee as it shed jobs at an alarming rate and blacks and whites separated into racially homogenous neighborhoods and communities. As a 1992 report on MPS desegregation from the Wisconsin Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights put it, “Although attempts at school desegregation have not worked according to the designs of the Brown decision, other factors such as poverty, joblessness and poor housing have complicated what is a relatively straightforward instrument of social justice for black school children.”

Today, a coalition of social justice organizations, Schools and Communities United, is more blunt. In Fulfill the Promise, a report released this week, they call Milwaukee’s racial, social and economic inequities “the New Jim Crow,” noting the many ways that Milwaukee leads the nation in racial disparities, not just in how poorly our educational system serves racial and ethnic minority students, but in other areas as well, such as the high rate of black male incarceration and racial segregation in the region.

“Our saying this and talking about a new Jim Crow is meant to highlight the severity and urgency of the problems that the metropolitan region faces,” said Bob Peterson, head of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) and a member of the Schools and Communities United coalition.

The coalition will be hosting a Brown v. Board of Ed commemoration on May 17 (see sidebar), but it’s also calling on regional leaders to address segregation within our area, from schools and transportation to housing, voting rights and incarceration policies—broader issues that impact student achievement and well-being.   

“All of those things are front-end feeders into the education disparity,” NAACP’s Hall said. “There’s a lot of discussion about beating up public schools and MPS. But I seldom hear the same level of outrage about these other things that feed into the public school system. It’s scapegoating, really, to not be outraged about these things as well.”

‘Justice for All’ Event Saturday

To commemorate the landmark Brown v. Board of Education anniversary, the Schools and Communities United coalition will host a “Justice for All” event on Saturday, May 17. The event will begin at 10 a.m. at Martin Luther King Park (17th and Vliet streets) with a Unity Parade to Milwaukee High School of the Arts (2300 W. Highland Ave.), where the Justice for All: Creating the Schools and Communities Our Children Deserve program will be held at 11 a.m. A working lunch will be offered from 12:30-2 p.m., during which parents, educators and community members will meet with elected officials and community leaders. For more information, go to schoolsandcommunitiesunited.org or call 715-575-1623.


Now that controversial strategist Steve Bannon has left his administration, will Donald Trump begin to pivot to the center?

Getting poll results. Please wait...