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Legacy of little Linda Brown

With a little more than a month to go before the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the public received news this Sunday that Linda Brown—the African-American woman central to the case—had died. From a young age she represented a major triumph over racist, state-sanctioned segregation that had existed de jure since Plessy v. Ferguson and de facto for far longer than that—all of which are supposedly by-gone eras. Despite its current status as often a meager paragraph wedged into the emaciated Civil Rights movement section in high school textbooks, the era of segregation only “ended” a generation ago. However, while Brown’s death reminds us of the gruesome not-so-distant past she and so many other endured, this tragic passing should also urge us to reflect on the ways in which the legacy and spirit of segregation still continues to permeate America today.

Progress in the arena of racial justice can be tumultuous and often non-linear; while the landmark supreme court case was ruled was in Brown’s favor, current data on the status of racial school divisions reveals how little the country has actually changed. Redlining in the 1930s has resulted in vast income disparities and clear racial separation, all of which affects the current demographic makeup of schools. New York, for example, allows its middle school students to apply to any high school in the city—not just the ones in their neighborhood. This “choice system,” the city calls it, sounds empowering to black and brown students who might live in neighborhoods with underfunded public schools, but the reality is far less promising. New York schools are as segregated as ever; less wealthy minority students lack the resources to even apply to the better funded—and whiter—high schools. Closer to home, North Carolina finds itself in a similar position. Over the past decade, “the number of racially isolated and economically isolated schools” in the state has increased sixty-one percent, an increase that is partially attributed to the rise in charter schools. Segregated schools statistically lead to higher dropout and incarceration rates in its students, which in turn leads to less wealth accumulation and social mobility, driving the vicious cycle of disenfranchisement and poverty.

Despite the bleak truth of segregation manifesting stronger and stronger in North Carolina and the rest of the country, Duke can often feel as if it's disconnected from, even intellectually above, these vestiges of racism. While the university has officially desegregated—although not until 1963—and regularly touts its racial diversity percentages at every tour, in every pamphlet and during every alumni or prospective student presentation, the remnants of institutionalized racism lingers at Duke just as it does in any New York high school or North Carolinian charter school. Specifically, one of the biggest diversity challenges the university faces today is the exceedingly low percentage of low income students—a demographic that skews toward black and brown student populations. 

Duke possesses crucial resources to study, critique and propose solutions to the flawed educational institutions around the country, but it must also hold itself accountable for its own history. Simply desegregating isn't enough to exonerate this country, much less this university. Brown's death is less of a sign of racism fading into the murky shadows of time and more of a reminder that the mantle of justice she carried now rests squarely on the shoulders of the current generation. 

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