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Racial Inequality in Public Schools

Kimberly Jade Norwood

Racial Inequality in Public Schools

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Segregated and unequal schools thrive throughout the United States. Brown v. Board of Education’s vision of both integrated and quality education for all students has been lost and indeed may be impossible to fulfill in the 21st century. Under racially segregated systems pre-Brown, most Black students were not receiving quality education; most White students were. Brown envisioned that if the students were desegregated and assigned to schools without regard to the color of their skin, not only would the goal of integration be met—which many believe in and of itself is a form of education—but also that all students would receive a quality education. Quality education in an integrated setting was possible in the decades following Brown, but this dual goal is no longer possible. It is not simply that public schools today are more racially segregated than 40 years ago, although this is true. And it is not simply that Black, Asian, and non-White people of Latin American descent make up a majority of the students in public schools today (thus the term majority-minority), although this is also true. But, we must consider two other key factors:

  1. White student enrollment in public schools has decreased over the years.
  2. White births have declined significantly over the years.

All of these realities challenge any goal to integrate schools as that term was defined in Brown.

Notwithstanding the challenges facing racial integration of schools today, we must not abandon the other goal of Brown: that all children, no matter their skin color, receive access to quality education. This is really what Brown stood for. Brown viewed education as the mechanism to enable full citizenship in American society. Indeed, Brown specifically acknowledged that without an education, it is virtually impossible to execute the rights of citizenship. And yet, today, for millions, this goal has also been largely abandoned.

Public schools in the United States have been falling and failing for many years. They have also become more unequal in terms of the quality of education, and this can be racially tracked. Black, non-White Hispanic students, and American Indian/Alaska Native or Native American students are at the greatest academic disadvantage as compared to non-Hispanic White/Caucasian students and Asian/Pacific Islander students. Blacks, and Black males, in particular, are at the bottom of the academic ladder. 


The national public school graduation rate for Black males in 2012–2013 was 59 percent. The percentage was 80 percent for White males. Worse still, the graduation rates for Black males in large urban school districts during that same period were far lower. Missouri’s graduation rate for Black males in 2012–2013, for example, was 66 percent. Yet, for its largest urban school district, St. Louis Public School District (SLPSD), the graduation rate for this subgroup was 33 percent. These results were not unique to St. Louis. Atlanta graduated 38 percent of Black males; Cleveland, 28 percent; Detroit, 20 percent; Miami, 38 percent; New York, 28 percent; Philadelphia, 24 percent; and Milwaukee, 43 percent. The announcement in 2015 by the Department of Education that US students are graduating from high school at rates higher than ever before rings hollow for some.


Graduation is undoubtedly important, but literacy is even more so. Indeed, one can graduate from high school but be unable to read. Large achievement gaps exist between Black and Latino student performance and that of White and Asian students. Of all subgroups, Black males are at the bottom of all performance levels.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has three academic achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. NAEP’s performance data reveals huge racial disparities. For example, in the 2012–2013 school year, the national percentage of Black males who scored at proficient or above in 8th-grade reading was 12 percent. The same figure for White males was 38 percent. For 8th-grade mathematics, the national figure for Black males in 2012–2013 was 13 percent at or above proficiency, compared to 45 percent for White males.

Although NAEP tracks three achievement levels, many states add a fourth level: below basic (or level 1). This level is below grade level. In New York State, for example, 2014 English Language Arts assessments for grades 3–8 showed that 46 percent of Black students scored below basic, compared to 25 percent of White students; in mathematics, the figures were 47 percent and 21 percent respectively. In the nation’s capital, 15 percent of Black students in 8th grade performed below basic in both reading and math categories as compared to 1 percent of White students. In some of these Washington, DC, school districts, the below basic percentage of Black students was as high as 61 percent for 8th-grade reading and 59 percent for 8th-grade math.


If you compare schools where the student body is predominately Black and Latino to schools where the student body is overwhelmingly White and Asian, it is immediately apparent that a different type of education is taking place in each space. In October of 2014, the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights Division (OCR), issued a report demonstrating the different educational experiences of children depending on the racial makeup of their school. A sample of some of the findings contained therein revealed that schools attended by predominately Black and/or non-White Hispanic students

  • were less likely to offer advanced and/or gifted courses and where offered, the students were less likely to be recommended to or enrolled in those classes.
  • were less likely, at least in the case of predominately Black schools, to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
  • had newer, more inexperienced teachers.
  • had teachers who made less money than similarly credentialed teachers in predominantly White school districts.
  • were older and poorly maintained, with inadequate heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and lighting.
  • were more likely to be overcrowded and lack essential educational facilities like science laboratories, auditoriums, and athletic fields.
  • had fewer computers and other mobile devices and computers were of lower quality and capability; indeed, even the speed of Internet access varied.

These disparities were not limited to a simple comparison of inner-city and poor schools with wealthier suburban schools. Rather, even for schools in the same school district, schools with primarily White populations were shown to have more and better resources. Michael Brown attended what are sometimes referred to as ‘apartheid schools,’ schools whose students are almost all Black and/or non-White Hispanic, and often usually poor. These schools struggle in every way and at every level imaginable.

This article is an excerpt, reprinted with permission, from Ferguson's Fault Lines: The Race Quake that Rocked a Nation, by Kimberly Jade Norwood. Ferguson's Fault Lines is available for purchase from ShopABA. ©2016 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.