May 17, 2024 - News

Why segregation persists in SF 70 years after Brown v. Board

Photo of Black children getting on a bus to go to school

Black students board buses during the school integration effort in San Francisco in 1971. Photo: Larry Tiscornia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court decision was a major milestone in the Civil Rights Movement and compelled school integration across the nation after a long battle against exclusion in education — including among communities of color in San Francisco.

Flashback: Black community organizing in 1875 successfully pressured the San Francisco Board of Education to allow Black children to attend schools with white students, though it remained a largely symbolic step with the majority of Black students still enrolled in segregated schools.

  • In 1885, a Chinese family laid the groundwork for challenging segregation when they sued to force the Board of Education to allow their daughter, who'd been denied admission due to her ancestry, to attend a public school near their home.
  • The Board of Education sparked similar pushback after attempting to force Japanese students to attend a segregated school in 1906.
  • In 1947, Mendez v. Westminster became the first federal lawsuit to openly challenge the "separate but legal" doctrine. The case delivered a win to Mexican American families battling school segregation in Southern California and led Gov. Earl Warren to sign a bill that officially ended all forms of legal school segregation in California.

Yes, but: The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) continued grappling with issues of segregation and discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s.

The big picture: American public schools are growing more separate and unequal even though the country is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

  • In California, the number of intensely segregated schools — defined as schools that are 90%-100% nonwhite students — surged from 11% in 1988 to 44% in 2021, according to the UCLA study of federal data.

What they're saying: "People became convinced that desegregation didn't work, and you couldn't do it. And so there's just a lack of attention to this," Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, tells Axios.

  • SFUSD itself has acknowledged that its schools are "more segregated now under the current policy" than they were 30 years ago.

What to watch: The district is navigating a budget crisis, which parents and educators are concerned could result in school closures that disproportionately affect neighborhoods with lower-income families and communities of color.


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