School Integration: The Ongoing Civil Rights Battle

Racial segregation in American schools is more pronounced today than it was 40 years ago. Integrated schooling in the U.S. reached a peak in 1990, but has since then taken a steep decline to levels we haven’t seen in decades.

In 1988, less than a third of Black and Latino students attended what Gary Orfield, Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, calls intensely segregated schools: schools with 90-100% minority students. Today, 40% of Blacks and Latinos – and less than 1% of white students – attend these schools. The percentage of white students nationally is only 56%, but on average they attend schools where more than 75% of students are white. At the same time, the percentage of Black and Latino students attending majority white schools has dropped by more than 10 percent.

Old and New Barriers to Desegregation

Why are we moving backwards when it comes to racial segregation in schools? What stands in the way of sustainable school integration?

The aftermath of Brown taught us that law is effective insomuch as there is political and cultural support for change. The 1954 ruling unanimously reversed a century-old precedent, but its impact on segregation was limited. While the court ordered that school districts be desegregated with all deliberate speed, 98% of southern students still attended all white or all black schools 10 years later. Enforcing desegregation was inadequate even in the North, where de facto segregation was the norm. In the end, it wasn’t a moral argument, but an economic mandate that changed the tide. Many schools only became desegregated when school district funding was dependent on it.

Today’s opposition to desegregation is more subtle of course than the backlash of the 60s and 70s when protests against busing ended in violence. Parents today show their resistance to integration efforts in the ballot box by voting to end magnet programs in their communities that make it possible for students from other neighborhoods to attend typically high performing schools. Opposition to racial integration culminated most publicly in the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 case, when a 5-4 decision ruled that racial balance was not a compelling state interest and that race could not be used in public school assignment.

Just last month, North Carolina became the center of a similar debate, when the NAACP organized against community-based student assignment in the Wake County school district. The NAACP’s concern is justified, since reversing efforts to integrate school districts results in segregation. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, for example, was once a model of integration until the court struck down its busing program. Ten years later, it is a highly re-segregated district.
While the charter school movement continues to garner press and praise, it’s done little to mitigate the growing racial isolation in schools. National studies have shown that the charter school sector is even more segregated than the public school sector. Some charter school supporters advocate “letting the market decide,” but applying market principles to schooling creates more segregated environments, especially because of growing residential segregation and the widening gulf between the rich and the poor.

Why Segregation Matters

In the public debate over segregation, a common question often asked is, Why does it matter if a person of color is sitting next to someone who is white? The question assumes that the focus is the location rather than the access. Decades of research suggest that while there are exceptions, intensely segregated minority schools have poorer facilities, fewer resources, less qualified teachers, larger class sizes, and greater staff turnover.

The source of these inequities is the systemic relationship between racial segregation and poverty. Orfield calls the concentration of both in schools double segregation (triple segregation when many English Language Learners are also concentrated in these schools). Attending one of these doubly segregated schools has a negative impact on achievement, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. A third of our Black and Latino children attend these schools. Is it any wonder why the achievement gap still persists?

What if we could provide children with the same resources across all schools? All tangible things being equal, does the segregation of children deprive minority children of an equal education? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it does: separation itself generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in a community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

In 2010, CNN conducted a study on children’s attitudes on race. White children showed a bias toward white…but so did many Black children. In a pluralistic society such as ours, there is little room for deep-rooted divisions between races, especially at an age when individuals are in the process of forming lasting perceptions of themselves and the world.

Re-envisioning Integration

Despite what we know about the inequities of a segregated school system, fewer educators on either side of the political aisle are making a case for the value of integrating schools. We therefore need a stronger message about the merits of integration. We need to reframe the debate in a way that appeals to the national interests of the country and the self-interests of individuals.

It is time we start being clear about the social and educational benefits of creating diverse student bodies for all students. Studies on the long-term effects of desegregation show positive outcomes for students of color in the areas of test scores, high school graduation, and post-secondary outcomes, including access to different types of employment opportunities (e.g., white-collar jobs). Students who attended these schools – Black, White, Latino, and Asian – are better prepared for interracial settings and more comfortable working with diverse groups.

In an increasingly global society, this level of adaptability and openness to diversity become an asset.

A global perspective also highlights the crisis of the achievement gap in terms of our national standing in the world. As our test scores lag behind the rest of the industrialized world and China surges ahead on many measurable fronts, President Obama has urged the country to Win the Future. But it is impossible to expect students to compete with their counterparts around the world when they do not even graduate from high school.

During World War II, the NAACP helped show the world that America needed to do something about civil rights at home if we were going to make a viable claim for moral superiority abroad. Today, the fight for a truly free society is not only tied to a moral agenda, but to economic viability born out of equal access to quality education.

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is a senior research associate at
the Research Alliance, New York University and an adjunct professor of
education at Montclair State University.

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