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Commentary: As schools resegregate, this area needs to talk about race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 10, 2009 - When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial educational segregation was inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, it failed to specify how and by when desegregation should occur.

The court returned to that issue in 1955 and, after a debate about revolutionary change versus evolutionary adjustment, it opted for the latter.

After it ruled that desegregation should be done with “all deliberate speed,” St. Louis emphasized “deliberate” much more than “speed.”

That passivity prevailed despite a prolonged century-plus history of extraordinary racial educational disparity rooted in Missouri’s constitution and statutes — collective public policy and not individual discriminatory actions. From Missouri’s achieving statehood in 1821 until 1865, African-American slaves received no formal education and, in 1847, a statute made it a felony to do so. From 1865 until 1875, the Missouri Constitution allowed school districts to segregate (all did) and, when the Constitution was rewritten in 1875, it mandated segregated schooling.

Facing the daunting challenge to reverse the effects created by 130 years of either no education or separate-and-unequal schooling, Missouri and the area’s school districts looked the other way, ignored its depressing and unjust history, and made no significant effort to develop and implement desegregation in the years following the Brown decision. There was neither the civic nor the political will to do so.

State and local passive aggressiveness invited outside intervention; and, starting in the 1970s, the federal courts became involved. That led first to the 1977 merger of the nearly-all-black Kinloch School District with the Berkeley and Ferguson-Florissant school districts and, then, after extensive negotiations, to the Voluntary Interdistrict Plan (VIP) implemented in the early 1980s.

At its peak, upward of 15,000 city African-American students integrated St. Louis County schools. Then, in 1999, after less than 20 years of affirmative desegregation, the federal courts withdrew their supervision. They approved a settlement agreement that allows county school districts to lessen their involvement and the VIP morphed into the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice (VIC). As of this year, about 6,300 African Americans remain in the program, less than half the former enrollment.

Since the St. Louis region remains hyper-segregated residentially, since geography is the default option for drawing school attendance boundaries, and since VIC has less participation than VIP, the trend is clear: The area’s public schools are becoming more racially segregated.

Four St. Louis County districts are essentially all-black:

  • Jennings (98.7 percent)
  • Normandy (98.8 percent)
  • Riverview Gardens (96.7 percent) 
  • Wellston (100 percent)

University City (85.6 percent) and the St. Louis Public Schools (81.4 percent) have remained at about those levels during the past five years and Ferguson-Florissant (77.2 percent black in 2008, up from 68.2 percent in 2004) and Hazelwood (66.9 percent in 2008, up from 57.1 percent in 2004) are headed in that direction.
Possibly even more depressing is the St. Louis citizenry’s reluctance to have frank and candid discussions about what its racial goals should be and what policies are required to achieve them.

The area’s citizens league has twice issued major reports (“A New Spirit for St. Louis: Valuing Diversity” in 1989 and “Racial Equality in the St. Louis Region: A Call to Action” in 2001). Both were received politely, both stimulated a few positive programs, but neither generated widespread action.

It is too early to assess the St. Louis Beacon’s “Race, Frankly” initiative but it is a noble attempt both to inform the discussion and to move it into the online medium.

In the meantime, St. Louis’ history continues to dominate present patterns. A region designed to be racially separate and unequal in the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries remains, absent a significant counter movement, close to that in the 21st century. Is that what we want? If not, we need to talk much more and, based on those deliberations, act decisively.

Terry Jones is professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of "Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments."