The day before First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Topeka, Kansas, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, The New York Times featured a photograph of her as a kindergartner, along with her classmates, at Bryn Mawr School in Chicago. The picture shows an "integrated" class in which 23 children are Black, 5 are White and 1 is Middle Eastern.
I also went to an integrated school in the North. But the picture of my first-grade class from P.S. 219 in Queens, New York, shows a group of almost entirely White students. I am the lone Black girl. There is one Black boy. The contrast of my class photo with Mrs. Obama's is a study in the differing ways that integration played out in schools.
When integration came to Queens, my siblings and I, along with other students, were bused to predominantly White schools far from our homes. I never saw buses coming from White neighborhoods to our local schools, which had suffered from years of neglect and minimal resources. At the end of the school day, Black and White students journeyed home in racially homogeneous groups to their segregated communities. The effect was swift and unfortunate.
It turns out that the presence of children in a neighborhood is an economic engine, and the absence of them portends a community's demise. I believe that when children and teachers are no longer in the area during the day, local stores generate little business. Capital, credit and public infrastructure resources are not lavished on a place that's a veritable ghost town on weekdays.
Real integration in schools can only result from policies that strengthen communities. Segregation in housing remains virtually unmoved (and, in some cases, has deepened), and the outcome has been economic stagnation in minority neighborhoods. Moving children to racially integrated school settings is the first step. Creating incentives for racially and economically integrated neighborhoods is the next one.
The roots of housing segregation can be directly attributed to the federal government. When the Federal Housing Authority began offering home owner's insurance in 1934, it forbade the sale of homes from White families to Black families by requiring racially restrictive covenants in deeds. Thus began widespread home ownership as the marker of the White middle class. Housing segregation perpetuated the economic isolation of inner-city ghettos and played a key role in stifling Black wealth.
Still, ending housing discrimination is not enough. Just as the U.S. invested in the creation of the White middle class in the 1930's and White suburbs in the 1950's, it must also commit to supporting distressed neighborhoods and schools. More resources for public infrastructure and economic development should also be part of the equation.
In 1954 and in the decades following, this country failed to dismantle segregation in our communities. The impact has been disastrous for our education system. Today—60 years later—we have the chance to turn things around.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.