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Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education struck down separate but equal in public education. It was supposed to put an end to school segregation by race. And yet in many ways, our schools remain highly segregated. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the reasons are complicated.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sixty years, sixty years, organize and dry your tears.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Earlier this week, students, teachers and civil rights activists gathered at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to commemorate the 1954 Brown decision. But Jessica Murillo, 18, a high school senior from New York, says schools are not just segregated because of race anymore.
JESSICA MURILLO: Absolutely. I think students are segregated by class and the low income. If your income is low, they put you in a not-so-good school. They don't give you the resources that you need to succeed and go to college.
SANCHEZ: And that, says Murillo, is why it's so hard for poor black and Latino kids to break out of poverty. But you can't talk about class or segregated schools and not talk about race, says 19-year-old Keeshen Harley. He's a first-year student at Medgar Evers College in New York City.
KEESHEN HARLEY: I think it's naive of people to say that we live in this post-racial society and a post-racial world because there's still such a great divide between the have and have-not. And normally, the have-not are people of color.
SANCHEZ: And schools reflect that, says Harley.
HARLEY: The education is minimal.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And if everybody can just gather, come up front, 'cause we're about to start.
SANCHEZ: Harley and the small crowd turn their attention to speech after speech. There's a lot more work to do to provide poor children of color a quality education. That's true, says Alvin Thornton, but America has made progress.
ALVIN THORNTON: Because the official Jim Crow statutory basis of racial separation clearly has been eliminated. That's progress.
SANCHEZ: Thornton, professor of political science at Howard University, led the 25-year fight to end segregation in Prince George's County schools in Maryland - schools that were not unlike those back home in Randolph County, Ala.
THORNTON: I was born in 1948, right in the middle of Southern rigid segregation apartheid, and born to a family of 10. We were sharecroppers.
SANCHEZ: Thornton was 6 years old in 1954, when the Brown decision came down.
THORNTON: And there was no indication that Brown would have any impact on the educational system in Randolph County. That system remained in place until 1970, rigidly so.
SANCHEZ: Whites' resistance to racially integrated schools lasted decades after Brown. But what people forget, says Thornton, is that the goal of Brown was not simply to have a black child sit next to a white child and pretend that was the answer to the educational needs of black children. The goal was to have black children attend all-white schools so they, too, would have access to the same resources white kids took for granted. In other words, says Thornton, if black kids received a better education, they could lift themselves out of poverty.
THORNTON: It's always been about poverty.
SANCHEZ: Thornton says that's what the nation is still grappling with 60 years after Brown: impoverished black and Latino children concentrated in school systems that struggle to offer kids a rich curriculum and good teachers. But some say, the persistence of segregated schools in America today is more complicated than that.
RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: We have a system of state-sponsored residential segregation in this country, which has been completely ignored in our focus on school segregation.
SANCHEZ: Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, has written extensively about education and race. He says the courts have not only stripped away mandatory desegregation orders, they've banned the exclusive use of race in determining where kids go to school. Poverty has become more concentrated. And as the research shows, that has left poor minority children today more isolated.
ROTHSTEIN: Well, you can't desegregate schools if they're located in racially isolated neighborhoods.
SANCHEZ: Rothstein says literacy rates in these neighborhoods are much lower. So are parents' education levels, and kids have little or no access to a doctor or dentist.
ROTHSTEIN: Children with those kinds of disadvantages are going to achieve less than children without those disadvantages.
SANCHEZ: Sixty years ago, Brown asked schools to do what America has been unwilling to do: integrate. That's still a work in progress. And as some in the civil rights community argue, the poor quality of education that many low income minority children receive today is a reminder of that. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.