Still Separate, Still Unequal: The Role of Black Women and Girls in the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

May 17, 2018
Reading lesson in a Negro elementary school, Washington, D.C., 1942 (Library of Congress)

Washington, D.C. Reading lesson in a Negro elementary school. Public Domain. Library of Congress.

Education has long been seen as an essential tool of liberation for black women and girls. Even before black people were legally allowed to learn to read and write, black women and girls remained steadfast in their commitment to the advancement of their race and gender through education — yet despite their essential role in the fight for equal access to education, the contributions of black women and girls are often forgotten in the broad strokes of American history. As an organization committed to improving women’s and girls’ access to education, AAUW has often been at the forefront of the push for equity in education by working to improve school environments and make them safer through Title IX enforcement; examining the status of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; and supporting cases that ensure the rights of students are upheld within the classroom. Quality education for women and girls is a crucial step toward achieving equity.

More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that state laws segregating schools were unconstitutional, schools are more segregated than they were in 1968 (approximately 75 percent of black students attend racially segregated schools), and black girls have suffered greatly as a result. Studies show that segregated schools made up mostly of black students tend to be poorly funded and are often more likely to employ punitive tactics such as suspension and expulsion than integrated or mostly white schools. Research has also found that black girls are up to six times more likely to be disciplined in schools than boys or girls of any other race, putting them at disproportionate risk for “pushout,” or being funneled out of the educational system into the criminal justice system, due to barriers such as racism and sexism. Those same barriers also contribute to that fact that only one-quarter of black women go on to get a four-year degree after high school, and that if they do reach college, they are more likely to need to take out student loans. After leaving college, black women also report having more difficulty paying these loans back.

Researchers know that these “achievement gaps,” or alleged differences in educational performance based on race, are not due to an innate lack of ability in black women students; rather, systems of oppression place a series of obstacles in the way of black women’s educations and careers to hinder their progress toward success. The legacy of Jim Crow, de facto segregation, is one of these systems. De facto segregation refers to patterns of racial separation that are no longer required by explicitly discriminatory laws.

So how did we get here and how do we move forward? Over three installments, the Building to Brown series will examine the history of school segregation in the United States leading up to Brown v. Board; dive deeper into the Brown decision, white backlash and resistance to integration, and the outstanding efforts that black women and girls made to protect their right to education; and discuss the “re-segregation” of public schools and the negative effects it has had on black women and girls in education and the workforce. It will also make suggestions for federal, state, and local policy change as well as the individual- and institutional-level changes necessary to make high-quality public education fully available to all women and girls.


Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute during meal preparation. 1912?. Black & white photoprint. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Building to Brown: 100 Years of Segregation

Black men played a critical role in the historic case, but many black women are left out of the narrative leading up to the court decision.

Kindergartener Ruby Bridges is escorted by federal marshalls from desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana (1960).

Brown and Integration: Massive Resistance to De Facto Segregation

Brown did not end segregation, but the decision provided one ingredient needed to chip away at segregation.

Young African Americans students listen to a story being read to them.

Where Are We Now? Schools Are Still Separate, Still Unequal

Resistance to school integration has given way to seemingly innocuous school choice programs and the expansion of charter schools.

Smiling African American woman looking away from the camera stands in front of a wall mural.

Moving Forward

In order to fulfill the promise of Brown, action must be taken at all levels of government, within communities, and at schools.



I. Building to Brown: 100 Years of Segregation

Photograph shows a line of African American and white school girls standing in a classroom while boys sit behind them. Library of Congress.

School integration. Barnard School, Washington, D.C. / [TOH]. Library of Congress.

Brown v. Board was a historic case for educational equality in the United States. Many people know the critical role black men, such as the visionary Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall played in the case, but many black women are left out of the narrative leading up to the Brown decision. Read on to see how black women and girls and their allies paved the way for Brown v. Board.


1849: Roberts v. Boston Board

More than a century before Brown v. Board, another girl and her family challenged school segregation. In 1849, the father of five-year-old black girl Sarah Roberts argued that Boston’s segregated school policy — which forced Roberts to walk past five all-white Boston public schools to get to the closest “Negro” school — was unconstitutional. When her father tried to enroll her in one of the local white schools, Sarah was denied. In response the Roberts family sued the state of Massachusetts on behalf of Sarah. The court ruled against her, but in 1855 Roberts brought the issue to the state legislature with the help of her attorney, Charles Sumner. As a result, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts banned segregated schools statewide. Although the Roberts’ case laid the groundwork for Brown, the original ruling would later be cited in defense of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld de jure — or legally recognized — segregation.


Late 1860s: White Reactionary Politics and the Reconstruction Era

After slavery, Southern states (and several northern states such as New York and Illinois) implemented legislation restricting the lives of newly freed slaves. These laws, which later became known as “black codes,” imposed work requirements and harsh vagrancy laws that essentially re-enslaved a large portion of the black population.

In 1867, a newly elected Republican majority voted to place southern states under military rule with the passage of the Reconstruction Acts. The short-lived and poorly funded Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was a part of these efforts. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help formerly enslaved people transition from slavery into citizenship. One of the bureau’s major duties was building and funding black schools in the south.


Studio portrait of Charlotte L. Forten Grimke, pioneer teacher and poet. ca. 187-. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.

Studio portrait of Charlotte L. Forten Grimke, pioneer teacher and poet. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.

1870s: The Creation of the First Black Schools

Under the Reconstruction Acts, the Freedmen’s Bureau began to establish black schools in the south, since all black children were still barred from public schools. These black schools were largely run by Northern black women such as Charlotte Forten and white women from Northern Quaker societies.

Among the first of these schools were the Chimborazo School, whose student body featured more girls than boys; the Richmond Colored Normal School; and Armstrong High School. The first black high school was established in 1870. Originally called the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, it still stands today in Washington, D.C., as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.


1877: Codification of Jim Crow Practices

As white-dominated Southern state legislatures regained power, they implemented new laws to reinforce white supremacy and black inferiority in response to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments which nominally afforded former slaves citizenship and “equal protection under the law.” These new statutes became known as Jim Crow laws, named after a popular minstrel routine that stereotyped black people as unintelligent and untrustworthy. Jim Crow laws in various states required the segregation of races in restaurants, theaters, public transportation, prisons, and, of course, schools.


1896: Plessy v. Ferguson: Federal Legitimacy for the “Separate but Equal” Doctrine

Up until the turn of the century, Jim Crow policies were maintained by private citizens, business owners, and state and local legislators. Plessy v. Ferguson, widely regarded one of the worst decisions ever to be handed down by the Supreme Court, changed this practice dramatically by giving federal legitimacy to the ongoing practice.

Homer Plessy and New Orleans civil rights group Comité des Citoyens (Citizen’s Committee) challenged the Separate Car Act of 1890, which required segregated train cars in Louisiana. The court ruled that these separate accommodations did not violate the 14th Amendment as long as the accommodations were “equal.” Of course, black and white accommodations were not equally funded and therefore could not be considered equal in any real sense. This endorsement of the “separate but equal” doctrine legitimized the South’s segregationist practices in many sectors, including education.


Postcard of Miss Nannie Helen Burroughs of the Woman's National Baptist Convention. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.

Postcard of Miss Nannie Helen Burroughs of the Woman’s National Baptist Convention. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library.

1909: The Formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

In 1909, W.E.B. DuBois, wealthy socialist William English Walling, suffragist and journalist Mary White Ovington, and activist and lawyer Moorfield Storey formed the NAACP and began an organized struggle against segregation. Their immediate priorities included desegregation of schools and equal funding for public services across races. The nascent organization sought out cases that would establish precedent around the 14th Amendment in preparation for a Supreme Court challenge of segregated public school education.


1900–1910: Establishment of First Schools for Black Women

While the NAACP was forming in New York City, the daughters of former slaves continued to open schools for the next generation. Black women opened some of the first grade schools, high schools, trade schools, and colleges for black and brown women in the south. In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune established the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls, which later became the prestigious Bethune-Cookman University. In 1909, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Bethune’s friend and contemporary, opened the first school for black girls in Washington, D.C., which served girls of color from all over the world.


Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949. Library of Congress.

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949. Library of Congress.

1939: NAACP Formed their own Legal Defense Fund

The NAACP scored early victories challenging the separate, but equal principle with local and federal cases that would later be cited in Brown, such as Buchanan v. Warley in 1917, which held that statutes mandating racial segregation were unconstitutional under the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection clause. However, the NAACP was unable to obtain tax-exempt status, which greatly limited the amount of work they could do. In order to expand their scope, the NAACP found it necessary to establish their own Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in 1939. The LDF was led largely by Charles Hamilton Houston whose legal strategy was invaluable to the legal battle leading up to Brown. One of LDF’s first hires was Constance Baker Motley, who would later become the first black woman to serve in the US judiciary. Motley was not only essential to the newly formed LDF, she helped draft the original complaint for Brown v. Board.


1944: Pauli Murray Challenges the “Separate but Equal” Doctrine

In 1944, law student Pauli Murray — later the subject of 1984–85 AAUW American Fellow Patricia Bell-Scott’s novel The Firebrand and the First Lady due to her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — wrote a seminar paper which argued that segregation in and of itself violated the 14th Amendment, challenging the constitutionality of the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine, where previous cases had only tackled the issue of the equality of the separate facilities. Six years later, Murray published the innovative States’ Laws on Race and Color, which incorporated controversial psychological and sociological research and came to be called the “bible” of the civil rights movement by Thurgood Marshall. States’ Laws would later influence the use of the psychological studies that helped win Brown v. Board, particularly Mamie Phipps Clark’s doll test.


1947: The Doll Test

Black and white photo of two women holding an award.

Mamie Phipps Clark (left) accepting the AAUW Achievement Award from Elizabeth Michaels, June 1973. Image from AAUW’s archives.

In 1947, 1973 AAUW Achievement Awardee Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D., and Kenneth Clark, Ph.D., published “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” which was later used in the Brown decision. The study surveyed the reactions of black children who attended segregated schools to black and white dolls. Mamie Clark asked the children questions such as which dolls they thought looked nice, which looked bad, and which ones they would rather play with. She found that black children overwhelmingly assigned positive attributes to the white dolls and negative attributes to the black dolls, demonstrating that lower self-esteem and self-hatred could be linked to racial segregation. In Brown, the doll test research was used to show the larger social effects of segregation on children of all races, further legitimizing the argument that separate schools were inherently unequal.


Linda Brown Smith, Ethel Louise Belton Brown, Harry Briggs, Jr., and Spottswood Bolling, Jr. during press conference at Hotel Americana. Library of Congress.

Linda Brown Smith, Ethel Louise Belton Brown, Harry Briggs, Jr., and Spottswood Bolling, Jr. during press conference at Hotel Americana. Library of Congress.

1951: Lucinda Todd and Brown v. Board

Concerned citizens were also integral to crafting the Brown case. Local activist Lucinda Todd offered her home as a meeting place for 13 other frustrated parents in Topeka, Kansas. It was there that these parents first decided to file a class action lawsuit against the Topeka school board with the support of the local NAACP chapter. The district court denied their claim, but that case, combined with four other NAACP-sponsored cases, would eventually be taken to the Supreme Court and heard as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Prior to Brown v. Board, an education — let alone a quality, equitable education — was only a dream for many black women and girls. Segregation seemed legally insurmountable despite the efforts made by many women activists, educators, and citizens, and a future devoid of educational or career opportunities loomed in the lives of many black women and girls. However, the tireless work of black women, men, and their allies eventually took them to the legal stage that would change the future for black women and girls — and for America itself.

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II. Brown and Integration: Massive Resistance to De Facto Segregation

Warren K. Leffler/ Library of Congress U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Black and white schoolchildren riding a school bus from the suburbs to an inner city school in Charlotte, N.C., in 1973.

African American and white school children on a school bus, riding from the suburbs to an inner city school, Charlotte, North Carolina. Warren K. Leffler/ Library of Congress.

Brown did not end segregation, but the decision provided one ingredient among many others needed to chip away at segregation. In the decades after Brown was decided, white backlash to black progress made achieving true educational equality a constant struggle. Multiple court cases, waves of federal intervention, and a series of civil rights legislation were employed to empower the federal government to enforce desegregation. On the ground, black people continued fighting for their right to education, with women and girls on the frontlines.


Women and the Brown Decision

Five cases from Delaware, Kansas, Washington, DC, South Carolina, and Virginia challenging the separate but equal doctrine were appealed to the Supreme Court after lower courts had ruled against the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court combined the five cases into one case that would eventually be named Brown v. Board. The men associated with this complex and groundbreaking case are often lauded for their important contributions, while women essential to the work have been left out of the narrative. Some of the extraordinary women that made Brown possible include Marion Thompson Wright, Ruby Jackson Gainer, Mamie Philips Clark, and Mabel Smythe, among many others.

Marion Thompson Wright was a historian and the first black woman in the United States to earn her Ph.D. Wright’s scholarship contributed evidence against the legitimacy of legally segregated schooling through publication in the journal she founded, The Journal of Negro Education, which operates to this day. Ruby Jackson Gainer was an activist whose work around salary parity for black educators was a part of a larger NAACP strategy to challenge the notion of “equality” under the “separate, but equal” doctrine. Mamie Philips Clark created the now famous “doll test.” Although Clark’s husband, Kenneth Clark is often singular given credit for their ground breaking experiment, the doll test study came out of Mamie Clark’s undergraduate work on identity development in children. She found that from an early age, children’s self-identities are affected by segregation, and therefore, she believed that school integration was foundational to creating a racially equitable society. Mabel Smythe was an economist who worked to prepare for Brown alongside Thurgood Marshall the summer before the Supreme Court took on the case. She was specifically tasked with arguing that the founding fathers intended for an equal society to have integrated schooling.

Getting the Brown case in front of the Supreme Court was only part of the battle. Aware of the possible social pushback that outlawing school segregation could cause, Chief Justice Earl Warren carefully constructed a unanimous vote that did not include dissenting or even separate concurring opinions. In another attempt to minimize social upheaval, the Warren Court also put off the issue of implementation until the following year. In April 1955, the Court’s second opinion on Brown (often called Brown II) ordered the implementation of the original ruling, not on a strict time line but “with all deliberate speed.” While the vague wording of the decree was written to give Southern states flexibility, many legal scholars now see this decision as a great concession to white southerners who almost immediately began using the doctrine to massively resist integration.

The men associated with Brown v. Board are often lauded for their contributions, while women essential to the work have been left out.


The Initial Aftermath of Brown

In the five years after the Brown decision, southern whites came up with several ways to undermine integration in the era known as “Massive Resistance.” For example, in 1956 almost 100 congressmen from the former Confederacy drafted and signed the “Southern Manifesto” pledging to use “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of the [Brown] decision.” By 1957, only three years after the Brown decision, Southern states had enacted 126 new pieces of legislation created to maintain segregation and many passed anti-NAACP laws which, among other things, restricted activist litigation and required local NAACP chapters to disclose their membership lists. These practices went to the extreme with school closures, cutting off funding for integrated schools, and private school vouchers (the first of their kind) allowing white families to avoid school integration. In addition to legislative resistance, racial violence (rarely punished by law enforcement and often encouraged by local officials) ensured that schools would not be integrated with any “deliberate speed,” and a lack of federal response showed that even racially liberal lawmakers were not dedicated to protecting black citizens’ right to education.

While legislation and court orders did allow Southern states to ignore Brown almost with impunity, much of the fight was on the ground. Black women and girls routinely bumped up against hostile white students, teachers, parents and government officials who sought to protect white supremacy in public life by maintaining segregation at all costs.

In 1956, the same year the Southern Manifesto was signed, Autherine Lucy enrolled at the University of Alabama, the first black student to be admitted to the institution. She was even praised by Martin Luther King Jr. for her courage to “rise above.” On her first day, over a thousand incensed white students “welcomed” her by throwing eggs, rocks, and bricks, threatening to kill her. This hostile, racialized reaction exploded into a full-blown riot. By the third day of violence, administrators suspended Lucy on “safety grounds,” eventually expelling her.

The Little Rock Nine. Photo courtesy of the NAACP. Public Domain.

The Little Rock Nine. Photo courtesy of the NAACP. Public Domain.

Similarly, in fall of 1957, Dorothy Counts attended the all-white Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, as one of the first black students to be admitted. Counts was met with white children throwing paper, sticks, and rocks, many of them spitting on her. Much of the harassment was orchestrated by the White Citizens’ Council (now known as the Conservative Citizens’ Council) which urged boys attending the school to block her entry. Counts endured four days of harassment and apathetic school leadership before her parents pulled her out of the school.

That same fall, Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, led nine black students in the fight to integrate Little Rock Central High School. The state’s governors, Orval Faubus, attempted to prevent the students’ entry to the high school and President Eisenhower had to federalize the National Guard and call on the 101st Airborne Division to enforce desegregation orders. The students ultimately enrolled in the high school and completed the school year.


End of Massive Resistance?

Kindergartener Ruby Bridges is escorted by federal marshalls from desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana (1960).

Ruby Bridges being escorted out of school by federal marshalls. Uncredited Public Domain

According to many scholars of American segregation, massive resistance to integration ended in 1959, but by the 1960s, things had not changed much. Encouraged by her mother, in 1960, six year old Ruby Bridges became the first black student to integrate an elementary school in the South. Bridges was admitted after much delay to New Orleans’ William Fratz Elementary School on November 14, 1960. Ruby and her mother were escorted every day that school year by federal marshals. She endured crowds of viciously angry white students and parents yelling racial epithets and holding signs opposing integration. Many staunch segregationists withdrew their students permanently from the school and the vast majority of teachers refused to accept Ruby. Ruby attended a class of one, ate lunch alone and was not allowed to play with white students, but she did not miss a single day of school that year.

Throughout the first half of the 1960s, small numbers of black students attending all white schools under threat of violence was the extent of integration for many Southerners. Black students, largely young women and girls, continued integrating schools even at such a slow pace. Some black women went as far as to create their own schools like the SNCC-led Freedom Schools, while white women allies like those in

Even after the era of massive resistance, the overwhelming cultural and political rejection of Brown severely undermined integration efforts for decades. “Token integration” work arounds like pupil placement boards plans allowed many Southern states to avoid integration almost entirely. The slow pace of integration did not sit well with many civil rights leaders or their allies in the federal government. It was clear by the middle of the 1960s that Brown alone would not lead to desegregation.

Federal Intervention

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA), one of the ground breaking pieces of federal legislation that strove to end Jim Crow laws, empowered the U.S. Department of Justice to bring lawsuits on behalf of black students in school districts with racially segregated primary and secondary schools. The CRA also gave the Secretary of Education authority to collect data to monitor the implementation of Brown. In the 1968, the Supreme Court held in Green v. Kent County that lower courts should move aggressively on desegregation efforts. The ruling also defined the end goal of desegregation as “unitary status.” Though these forms of federal intervention and implementation represent major victories in the civil rights movement, close to fifteen years passed after Brown before Congress or the Supreme Court signaled desegregation should be a priority for lower court and local governments. Forces against Brown did not go away, but instead reorganized with more subtle strategies to oppose integration.


Busing, Passive Resistance, and “White Flight”

Due to patterns of residential segregation, a primary tactic for racial integration was the use of busing. In 1971, the Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education gave federal courts the authority to use busing as a tool for integration efforts. However, like past interventions, the ruling allowed for those who opposed integration to avoid regulation. Swann only applied to de jure segregation in the South, while ignoring the de facto practice of segregation in the North. Three years later in 1974, in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court further limited the use of busing, when they ruled that students could only be bused across district lines when evidence of de jure segregation across multiple districts could be found. Despite this ruling, many school districts entered into desegregation agreements with the Department of Justice, even in nominally progressive Northern and Western cities like Boston and Los Angeles.

In response to passage of the Civil Rights Act, the extreme tactics of “massive resistance” subsided. However, this did not mean that white families accepted integration. Instead, many of them moved away from newly integrated school districts. The movement of large numbers of white families to the suburbs of major cities, so-called white flight, made federal intervention largely ineffective at ensuring integrated public education. Despite these obstacles, the public school system reached “peak” integration in 1988, with 43.5 percent of black students attending white majority schools. Since this time, schools have slid back significantly and students now attend schools more segregated than they were in 1968. The legacy of Jim Crow, white flight, and a lack of federal oversight are largely blamed for this setback. And unlike 1968, schools and school districts today are not likely to be guilty of de jure segregationist policies which makes addressing the growing problem of (re)segregation particularly difficult to explicitly tackle.

Take action with AAUW by becoming a Two-Minute Activist and make your voice heard to lawmakers on urgent issues impacting women and girls.


III. Where Are We Now? Schools Are Still Separate, Still Unequal

Members of the Mississippi Youth Council (MYCouncil) advocate at the state capitol around sex education in their schools.

Members of the Mississippi Youth Council (MYCouncil) advocate at the state capitol around sex education in their schools. (Nina Robinson/The Verbatim Agency/Getty Images)

With the Brown v. Board decision, civil rights activists dealt a significant blow to state-sanctioned discrimination. Although Brown nominally ended de jure segregation, the case did not guarantee nationwide acceptance of integration. Without a time line for implementation, Southern states were given plenty of leeway to technically follow the law, while still excluding black people from public schools. In recent decades, “massive resistance” to school integration has given way to several seemingly innocuous school choice programs, like private school vouchers, and the massive expansion of charter schools. These policies, along with residential segregation, have contributed to the continued segregation of U.S. schools with a disproportionate impact on black women and girls.



Private school vouchers, often just called “vouchers,” are government funded tuition grants given to students and their parents to offset or cover the cost of private education. The history of private school vouchers in the United States is deeply rooted in the legacy of segregation. After the Supreme Court gave its ruling in Brown, Southern states employed a myriad of tactics to undermine integration, often called “massive resistance.” Some of the most extreme forms of resistance took place in Virginia, led by then-Senator Harry Byrd. In September 1959, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Virginia’s Prince Edward County to “take immediate steps” toward school integration. In response, the county board decided not to levy local taxes for the 1959-60 school year, eliminating a major source of funding for its schools. At the same time, the state created a “tuition grant program” offering students vouchers to attend schools outside of the county, while white parents raised funds for a private school to educate their children in the event public schools were to close.

Indeed, Prince Edward County closed down its entire public school system in an unprecedented show of defiance. White students continued to be educated in the new private school, Prince Edward Academy, the first “segregation academy.” Meanwhile, black children, barred by law from using tuition vouchers, had even fewer options for schooling due to school closures and state laws permitting segregation. Prince Edward Academy would serve as a model for other areas of the South dedicated to keeping schools racially segregated. By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were operating across the South.

Although contemporary voucher programs are “race-neutral,” they can still exacerbate existing racial and class segregation. A recent report by the Century Foundation found that voucher programs tend to benefit the more advantaged students eligible for the programs. Additional research shows that private schools are often located in wealthier and white neighborhoods, many of which are former segregation academies.

Despite these trends, the current administration, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has proposed cutting billions of dollars from public school funding and expanding federally funded private school vouchers. Advocates for these policies tend to dismiss concerns about vouchers and charter schools entrenching segregation.


Charter schools

Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools established by teachers, community groups, or for-profit organizations. In exchange for guaranteeing to meet certain performance standards, charter schools are exempt from many state regulations. While this can provide an opportunity for innovation, charter school laws vary widely from state to state with regard to autonomy, teacher certification, accountability, and enforcement of civil rights laws. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General also found that federal oversight of charter schools tends to be inconsistent. Lax local, state and federal regulation of charter schools has concerned education and civil rights groups like AAUW, the NAACP, and the National Education Association for some time and their worries are justified. A 2017 Associated Press analysis reported that more than 1000, or 17 percent, of the over 6,700 charter schools in the US had a non-white enrollment rate of at least 99 percent, compared to just four percent of traditional public schools. Furthermore, AP found that almost one-third of charter schools in urban areas are at least 99 percent non-white, while only 16 percent of traditional public schools in the same areas were racially segregated so completely. This does not seem to be an isolated problem, a 2011 analysis from researchers at Pennsylvania State University and UCLA found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools regardless of geographical location.

Charter school programs affect a sizeable amount of students. Currently, about 3 million children in the United States are taught in public charter schools, representing close to 5 percent of all students in the country. As the charter system continues to grow, their policies will influence the lives of more and more students, even those who do not attend charter schools. A new report from researchers at the University of North Carolina and the UCLA Civil Rights Project, argues that charters “directly and indirectly” undermine local efforts to redraw school districts to dismantle racial segregation. The report found that parents in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County threatened to move their children out of the local public middle school and into a nearby charter if new boundaries did not honor existing neighborhood school districts.

By competing with local public schools, charters can allow parents to opt-out of racial integration without leaving their neighborhoods.

Today, black students are over five times more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white children.


Housing segregation = school segregation

Housing segregation is inextricably linked with school segregation in the United States. With the expressed intention of keeping non-white citizens concentrated in urban areas and out of white neighborhoods, U.S. housing policy explicitly discriminated against people of color for the majority of the 20th century. These policies were extremely effective at creating patterns of segregation across metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Segregated housing patterns then gave way to inequitable school financing systems that rely heavily on property taxes, disadvantaging poorer neighborhoods. Today, black students are over three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in high-poverty neighborhoods and over five times more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white children.

The contemporary practices of “white flight” and “district secession” contribute significantly to continued racial segregation. As discussed earlier in this blog, white flight refers to the trend of white families moving out of communities as black and brown families move into the same area. As the country has gotten more diverse, significant numbers of white families have moved to mostly white enclaves in suburban and ex-urban areas, further entrenching existing residential segregation. District secession happens when a subsection of an existing district breaks away to form its own school system. Research has found that the vast majority of these “splinter districts” are whiter and wealthier than the districts they leave behind.

Concentrated racial and economic segregation is systematically linked to disparities in educational opportunity and achievement. For black women and girls, racial inequity in school is intensified by gender bias. The short and long-term consequences of continued racial segregation affects the lives of black girls and women in a myriad of ways.


Integration and AAUW’s Mission

Access to quality education

A participant in the 2014-15 CAP project at Pacific Lutheran University tears up a piece of paper reading "bossy."

For black women and girls, racial inequity in school is intensified by gender bias.

Learn more about bias and how to correct it.

Highly segregated schools with majority students of color tend to have less resources such as per pupil spending, books, and equipment. They also tend to offer fewer high level courses and employ teachers with less training than majority white or integrated schools. As a result, there are significant gaps in test scores and overall achievement between black and white students. Black girls in particular tend to be pushed out of STEM programs early in their educational careers and are less likely to choose STEM majors in college.

Moreover, segregated majority-minority schools are more likely to employ punitive disciplinary tactics like suspension, expulsion, and corporal punishment. According to the National Women’s Law Center, black girls are 5.5 times more like to be suspended from school than white girls. Even more startling, while black girls only represent about 8 percent of students, they accounted for almost half of the girls who received corporal punishment in schools during the 2013-14 school year. Black students in general are more likely to be physically disciplined in schools because the use of corporal punishment is concentrated in states with the highest percentages of black residents. These disciplinary and educational disparities can push black girls out of the classroom, as well as keep them out of the extracurricular activities that are important factors in college admission. After leaving high school, only one-quarter of black women go onto to receive a four year degree, no doubt at least partially due to the racial and gender inequities they face in school. Quality education is a vehicle of upward mobility and disadvantages in the public school system can hinder the economic futures of black girls, women, and their families.

Economic security

Most women of color are even deeper in debt (infographic)

AAUW’s Deeper in Debt report shows that black women take on more student debt on average than do members of any other group.

Read more.

As AAUW research shows, when black women do attend college, they are more likely to struggle with the tuition and take out loans as a result, leaving them in more debt than their white counterparts. The families of black women college students are also less likely to contribute to their daughters’ educations which means that young black women shoulder most of the burden of their educations. After leaving college, black women more often report having difficulties paying down student loans while meeting their other obligations. The effect of this is even worse for black women who attended for-profit colleges or those who took out loans, but did not receive a degree.

Lower levels of education lead to lower paying jobs. Black women tend to be concentrated in low-income jobs in the service and caregiving sector and due to a range of factors, including discrimination, and face an even larger pay gap than the national average. Even when they do have college degrees, black women continue to earn less than white men and women. Additionally, a black woman with a college degree has less wealth, on average, than both white men and women, regardless of educational attainment. All of this results in less income and wealth for black women and their families.


Black woman leans against the glass door to a computer server room

Stereotype threat happens when a person feels at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social groups.

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An unintended consequence of the fight for integration has been that there are now many fewer black teachers teaching black students than there were before 1954. After Brown, many black schools were closed or absorbed by white schools, but the ruling did not account for what would happen to black teachers and administrators. Unsurprisingly, many white residents rejected the idea of black people instructing and disciplining their children and, as a results, many black teachers and principals were either demoted or fired. Sixty-four years post-Brown and teachers nationwide are overwhelming white. According to the most recent data available, white people account for 82 percent of teachers in the United States. The lack of non-white teachers seems to have a serious effect on black students. Research has shown that black students with black teachers are more likely to be placed in “gifted” education programs and more likely to graduate. Additionally, black teachers, more so than white teachers, tend to see black students as capable of success.

The way children are seen by their teachers has an incredible impact on their success in school. Due to racialized misogyny, black girls are stereotyped as loud or angry even before they step foot in a classroom. These implicit and explicit biases can negatively impact black girls’ self-perception and self-esteem, resulting in “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat, in this case, refers to black girls’ fears of embodying assumptions about their character or behavior in the classroom. These fears have been found to negatively impact black students’ test scores and may even keep black children from pursuing student leadership positions in school.

Integration Benefits Everyone

Segregation is not a function of inequality, it is a source of inequality and no amount of innovation or diverted funding will make segregated schools equal. On the other hand, integration and diversity in general are strongly linked to positive outcomes. Black people who attend integrated schools tend to have better health outcomes, lower poverty rates, lower instances of incarceration, and are more likely to live in diverse communities later in life. Similarly, attending integrated schools has been found to reduce prejudice among white students when compared to white students at racially homogenous schools.

A quality education is an important stepping stone to well-paying jobs and economic security for all people. In order for the US education system to serve all students effectively, schools must be integrated. Black girls deserve the same access to education as their white peers, and lawmakers at all levels of government should work tirelessly to ensure that access.


Moving Forward

In order to fulfill the promise of Brown, action must be taken at all levels of government, within communities, and at individual schools across the country.

AAUW supports a strong system of public education that promotes gender equity and racial diversity.

  • AAUW has long fought efforts to undermine public education specifically through privatization and voucher schemes. We oppose the federally funded Washington, D.C., voucher program and reject efforts by the current administration to divert money for public schools to a variety of efforts that ostensibly support private schools. These efforts are clear attempts to circumvent civil rights protections for students and in schools and do not serve all children well.
  • To ensure equitable access to education, we support robust funding for public schools that are accessible to all students, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, disability, economic status, or educational achievement. AAUW also urges policymakers to support early childhood education and programs for students with disabilities. We advocate for increased access to affordable higher education, especially for women in poverty.
  • We promote systemic efforts to close the persistent achievement gap that disproportionately affects low-income children and students of color. We must end racial disparities in the application of school discipline, as well as the use of corporal punishment in schools, which also disproportionately impacts students of color, especially black girls and boys. We must support positive school climates for all students.

The journey towards integration was powered by advocacy in the classroom, local civic halls, state and federal legislatures, and the courtroom. As discussed in the first installment of this series, civil rights organizations were instrumental in providing funding and challenging segregation by bringing lawsuits that challenged the inadequacies of existing law to move toward equity. Similarly AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund, provides funding for cases that challenge sex discrimination and offers amicus support to strengthen the enforcement of educational protections. In conjunction with AAUW’s state and federal legislative advocacy, legal advocacy is an essential tool in combating the “re-segregation” of public schools which limits access to education for black girls and diminishes equity for all students.

Take action with AAUW by becoming a Two-Minute Activist and make your voice heard to lawmakers on urgent issues impacting women and girls.



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AAUW Achievement Award recipient Mamie Phipps Clark’s research about the impact dolls have on children’s body image is still relevant today.

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Fighting the Uphill Battle for School Desegregation

Many schools struggled with the adjustment to desegregation — and some states even tried to write laws around it.

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AAUW’s Position on Private School Vouchers

Vouchers divert desperately needed resources from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private or religious schools.

By:   |   May 17, 2018

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