A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, higher education remains woefully segregated

    Fifty years ago today, America won. In war, there are often no winners, because even the victorious cannot emerge unscathed, yet on May 17, 1954, just the opposite occurred. On that day, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregation in schools was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kan. Technically, the five defendant parties who favored segregation lost the legal war, yet even they were winners when the nine justices struck down the previous precedent of “separate but equal.” Those against the decision may have felt defeated, but only because they were still trapped within their antiquated mindsets. Indeed, the only real casualties that day were racism and injustice.

    Brown v. Board of Education was a combination of five cases, headlined by Oliver Brown, whose daughter had to ride a bus every day to a poor-quality, all-black school. He challenged the Topeka Board of Education’s policy of racial segregation on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court justices agreed with him, and as outlined in two opinions in May 1954 and 1955, demanded that all schools be desegregated.

    If this were a fairy tale, then the parade toward the happy ending would include a swift and uncontested end to institutional segregation in all schools and an equally smooth transformation of prejudiced hearts and minds. The grand finale would be a stasis of high-quality education in integrated schools. Socioeconomic backgrounds would merely be elements of biography and not determinants of success in life.

    As nice as all that sounds, I am grateful that we do not live in a fairy-tale world. Because without the growing pains and failures of the process, the present would be devoid of lessons. There are certainly many lessons to be learned 50 years after that landmark case.

    To our generation, differences — racial, ethnic and otherwise — are not only supposed to be embraced, but also celebrated. “Multiculturalism” is a hot-button word, and our skin color is something to be exalted, not ignored. The noble efforts for diversity at UCSD testify to these rules: We have our cultural/ethnic groups that ostensibly celebrate and educate, but also segregate. The official UCSD Web site and admissions brochures show pictures of black graduates, or a diverse group of friends. Then you click a link or actually turn the page, and the statistics nullify the pictures.

    According to the UCSD Student Research and Information enrollment statistics for 2003, African Americans only make up 1 percent of total undergraduate enrollment — that’s 244 undergraduates — Latinos (including Mexican Americans) are 10 percent, and Native Americans make up less than 1 percent. The same range of numbers more or less exist at the other UC schools, as well as other top-notch universities. Ask anyone and they’ll probably have a theory or two about why whites and Asian Americans dominate the University of California. Affirmative action will come up a lot, as will musings about economic advantages. It certainly isn’t because there is a dearth of blacks and Latinos in California. Why isn’t there more diversity? It has been fifty years since Brown v. Board of Education, but is education any more equal?

    Maybe not, says a study by Newsweek on the eve of the Brown anniversary. According to statistics cited in the May 7 issue, an average white student’s primary or secondary school is 80 percent white, an average black student’s school is 54 percent black and an average Latino student’s school is 54 percent Latino. What all this means is that even without institutionalized segregation, schools across the country have disproportionate concentrations of racial segments. The fact is that many poor areas are populated by minorities, whose schools lack the same quality and resources that upper-middle-class schools have. The repercussions spill into universities. For example, the main feeder schools of entering freshmen for 2003 at UCSD were Arcadia, Lynbrook and Mission San Jose high schools — all in upper-middle-class neighborhoods with overwhelming numbers of Asian American and white populations. I have friends from all these schools, and they can vouch that the academics are top-notch and the competition is brutal. These schools also happen to be in the first quintile of all schools in the state, and have regularly high scores in Academic Performance Index rankings.

    It’s clear that these privileged schools consistently send kids to excellent universities, such as this one, in large part due to their resources and financial surroundings. It’s not that UCSD doesn’t want to admit underprivileged minorities — to the contrary, it actively recruits them. Instead, the truth is that whites and Asian Americans have the SAT scores and GPAs and superior high schools to get them into college. Other minorities, it may seem, are just stuck in the vicious cycle.

    So if blacks and Latinos are still grossly underrepresented in top colleges, and relegated to mostly poorly funded, less privileged schools, then what did Brown accomplish? For one thing, Brown dealt a severe blow to the politicians, educators and common citizens who truly believed that segregation was right. The psychological impact of declaring segregation unconstitutional paved the way for new solutions and approaches and dialogue for equalizing not only education, but social and economic opportunities as well. Brown helped start the civil rights movement, speeding up the pace of furthering racial equality that had been embarrassingly sluggish since the end of the Civil War.

    While many of the same racial disparities plague our schools today, there is hope that true racial equality — educational and otherwise — will one day be achieved in America. Brown wasn’t a surefire solution, but the opening act of a brighter future. As college students who see homogeneity, especially at UCSD, it is up to us to either ignore it, complain about it or constructively continue the dialogue. Fifty years ago, America won. Let that victory be the inspiration for many more to come.

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