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The New Racial Segregation at Public Schools

In 1990 over 40 percent of black students in the South attended majority-white schools. Now less than 30 percent of students do — 1960s numbers.

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Most of the decades-old obstacles to integration still remain. Wake County’s debate over active integration measures is a rarity these days: Most busing programs were killed by white backlash in the 1970s. Our schools are still governed by a hodgepodge of districts, some giant and some tiny, many of which were created as enclaves of white privilege. And Americans still are choosing — or being steered toward — home ownership in communities where everyone looks like them.

And there are new challenges. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted Brown by declaring that school districts can’t consider racial diversity as a factor in school assignments. (Where busing still exists, it’s done on the basis of family income.) And as the suburbs have spread, we’ve seen residential segregation on steroids. “The old paradigm of black cities and white suburbs is no longer true,” said Orfield. “Black and Latino communities are expanding into the suburbs — but they’re concentrated in specific areas. We’re seeing a suburbia that is divided by ethnicity.”

Separate is Still Unequal
Depending on where you stand, the drift back to segregation may be obvious, or it may be entirely invisible. “Many white students attend schools that are overwhelmingly white, and those schools are actually seeing an increase in diversity,” Orfield said. “We have the irony that white students can feel that their educational experience is more integrated, when in fact the level of segregation nationwide has increased.”

In the mid-1960s, 80 percent of American students were white. Today, due to immigration and other factors, children of color make up almost 40 percent of the student body. While the student body as a whole has grown more much more diverse, many majority-white schools have seen only a slight bump in their minority enrollment.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of black, Latino and Asian American students are finding themselves in what Orfield calls “intensely segregated” schools — schools where students of color make up more than 90 percent of the student body. Typically these schools have high concentrations of students in poverty — what Orfield calls “double segregation.” And increasingly there is “triple segregation” as English language learners in poverty find themselves concentrated in certain schools.

“These schools are just fundamentally different from other schools,” said Erica Frankenberg, a scholar on the Civil Rights Project. “In terms of AP classes available, number of veteran teachers, graduation rates — on almost every measure you see an indication of a school in severe stress.”

Students in these intensely segregated environments are far less likely to graduate, or to go on to college. It’s a problem that is well known to many people of color. Frankenberg says its time for the entire country to realize that this is a crisis for each of us.

“If we don’t start educating black and Latino students better than we are doing now, we are going to see an intergenerational decline in the percentage of high school graduates in the adult population for the first time ever,” she noted.

There’s strong evidence that integration could help us eliminate the “achievement gap.” Frankenberg and Orfield both note that the gap was lowest during the late 1980s and early 1990s — the period in history when our schools were at their most integrated.

“We have never been able to implement Plessy v. Ferguson,” Frankenberg said. “Separate schools have never been equal. Yet we keep trying to make a segregated system work.”

A Hidden History of Choice
How do we reverse a 40-year trend, one that is embedded in our residential landscape? And how do we integrate schools when the Supreme Court has ruled that race and diversity can’t be a factors in school assignments?

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