By Jack Schneider, Op-Ed in the LA Daily News
June 22, 2008 — ZELMA HENDERSON, the last living plaintiff from the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation suit, died last month at the age of 88. Unlike other parents involved in the case, Henderson was satisfied with the quality of all-black schools. What mattered more to her was giving children of different races a chance to learn together and understand each other.
If that had ever happened in Los Angeles, the city's public schools might look much different than they do today.
In many urban areas, the process of school integration was challenging and painful. It meant taking students out of their schools, placing them with those they had learned to fear or despise, and often busing them across town to do so. In some cities, despite the best hopes for educational equity and mutual understanding, integration failed.
But integration never had a chance to fail in L.A., because whites were already out the door.
Well before any action had been taken to desegregate schools, white residents began pulling their children from L.A. Unified and enrolling them in private or suburban schools. Beginning as early as 1960, they saw change coming and left in droves. By the time the district unveiled its integration plan in 1978, the schools had lost nearly a quarter of a million white students.
They left L.A. Unified not because of negative experiences they had, but because of negative experiences they imagined would come. Either way, however, the consequence
was the same: they divorced their interests from those who remained in L.A. Unified schools. As a result, future challenges to the public schools would have to be met by its least advantaged: those left behind.
By 1960, L.A.'s system of segregated schools was well established. Segregation fostered racial stereotypes by keeping students apart and stereotypes, in turn, were frightening enough to make even open-minded parents suspicious of integration. Then came the Watts riots.
The timing of the riots couldn't have been worse for integrationists. At the time there were still 400,000 white students enrolled in L.A.'s mostly segregated public schools, but the Brown decision was already a decade old, and civil-rights activists were fighting to enforce it in California.
Further, in 1963 the family of Jay Jackson had won a desegregation suit against the Pasadena school district. In siding with Jackson, the court applied Brown to California for the first time, and declared that residential segregation was not an excuse for segregated schools.
That same year, a suit was filed against the L.A. Board of Education. Though the case would take years for the courts to settle, integration, it seemed, was coming to L.A.
The specter of school desegregation alone might have unsettled whites. But in the post-Watts context, integration was a clear and present danger for those whose only exposure to nonwhites was through disproportionate media coverage of racially charged events like the riots and the East L.A. brownouts. A resident of Watts-adjacent South Gate explained that as he saw it, if schools were integrated, whites "would have been beaten, raped and killed."
In racially mixed schools, students were able to talk through some of these misperceptions. One teacher recalled in 1972: "After a lot of discussion, one girl said to a black classmate, `Joy, I like you very much, but I can't go to Watts to see you.' And the other girl said, `What makes you think I live in Watts?"' Eventually the two found common ground. But they were exceptions in an exceptional school.
Consequently, as activists pushed for integration, the district began hemorrhaging white students, losing 80,000 between 1966 and 1970 and another 130,000 in the next decade. By 1980, suburban counties were rushing to build new facilities and the ranks of L.A. County private schools had swelled to roughly 200,000.
So much for mutual understanding.
A critical mass of white families left the district, and in so doing changed the way future parents with school-age children would view L.A. public schools. Many who were already considering leaving the city decided to go. Many who might otherwise have chosen to put down roots saw a school system in upheaval and joined the throngs of new commuters transforming former orange groves into suburbs. Many who stayed dug out their checkbooks and enrolled their children in private schools.
And segregation lived on.
Today, L.A. Unified is 91 percent nonwhite. To many in the city, the three-quarters of a million students in LAUSD are other people's children, and low achievement scores are simply endemic to poverty, not a rallying cry for intervention. Our interests are separate and disconnected.
Are segregated schools inherently unequal? In siding with the Brown plaintiffs, the Supreme Court thought so. But to people like Zelma Henderson, Brown wasn't just about equal education. It was also about a vision of unification - a vision rooted in the ability of children to see each other, across the racial divide, as equals. A vision that never made it in L.A.
Jack Schneider is a Stanford Graduate Fellow at Stanford University and director of University Paideia, a pre-college program for low-income students.'Segregation forever' - LA Daily News