The Painful Truth About School Segregation


Like many middle-class white people, I grew up with a very simple, sanitized version of the American civil rights movement. I knew that schools, buses and drinking fountains used to be segregated, and now they're not. I knew names like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and though I was a little fuzzy on the details of how it all happened, I was confident that because of their work, the "bad days" were behind us. Racism, it seemed to me, was primarily a relic of the past; after all, I had never seen actual racism. Only later did I realize that perhaps that was because I was rarely in settings that were diverse at all.

My thinking began to change when I started my teaching career, in a poor neighborhood public school in Oakland, CA. As I have written before, I had been thrown into a very difficult classroom situation mid-year, and dealing with the daily needs of my students, which ranged from PTSD to hunger to homelessness, alongside various types of socio-emotional problems, left me with little time or energy for advance planning. So when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday came upon us that year, I found myself scrambling to prepare a lesson for my first-grade class.  

Although it was many years ago, I will never forget my students' reactions when I began to talk about school desegregation. I was 24 years old, a brand-new teacher, and there is no doubt I fumbled my way through the lesson. I probably said something like, "So before, black kids and white kids couldn't go to school together, but now they can, partly because of Martin Luther King."

I recall noticing several of the children staring at me quizzically. Finally, one student raised his hand and said, "But teacher, black kids don't go to school with white kids!" I began to disagree with him, but then I realized, he was right. Where I was teaching, where these children were learning, they didn't.

I listened as the kids continued their conversation.

"There are three kinds of kids: black kids, Chinese kids, and Mexican kids."  

"What about white kids?"

"Silly, there's no white kids. There's only white teachers."

Indeed, in our school of over 900 students, the only white students were one brother/sister pair, refugees from Bosnia. 

That was in 2000. I wish I could say things have changed for the better for kids in schools like the one I taught in. But the truth is, they haven't.

The Return of School Segregation

In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, the Supreme Court decreed that school segregation must be ended “with all deliberate speed.”) Even with many Southern states fighting against integration as hard as they could throughout the 1950s and 1960s (by, for example, using vouchers to allow children to attend segregated private schools), progress was eventually made on the school integration front, and two decades after the Brown decision, the landscape had shifted.

Writing for Pro Publica, Nikole Hannah-Jones reports that, “In 1963, about 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, the South had been remade—fully 90 percent of black children attended desegregated schools.”

But today, 60 years after that landmark decision, school segregation is rearing its ugly head again, and not just in the South.

Modern-day segregation has many causes; housing chief among them. If all the children in this country attended their neighborhood public school, many schools would necessarily look as though Brown had never happened. Neighborhood stratification by socioeconomic status leads to de facto racial segregation, since wealth is still strongly correlated with race in the United States. In 2013, a Pew Research Report listed the median net worth of households within different ethnic groups and the data are astounding. While white households register a median net worth of $141,900, the median net worth of black households rests at a mere $11,000 and Hispanics just $13,700.

The problem is further exacerbated by white flight to select private and charter schools, primarily white ones. Parents who want the best school for their children often judge school quality by the affluence of the other families. Using test scores to judge a school can lead to hasty decisions, since parents don’t always consider, for example, that a large number of immigrant English language learners may bring down the average test score without affecting the quality of instruction their English-speaking children will experience. By choosing high test scores over other, more appropriate indications of school health, English-speaking parents lose the benefits of having their children learn in a diverse setting, while intensifying segregation for minority children.

Whereas the Warren Supreme Court took bold action to address this problem in 1954, today’s Supreme Court is reluctant to step in. In 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts struck down a Seattle plan that would have increased racial diversity in the school district, saying, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”Even when the Court has ruled on the side of integration, implementation has been spotty. Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Race & Poverty, notes that though the current Court has found “single-race schools [to be] intentional segregation,” such schools (mainly charters) are “rarely challenged” in practice, allowing segregation to metastasize. 

The exodus of white children to private and charter schools is often cited as a reason for traditional public schools becoming more segregated, but as Orfield has noted, charter schools and private schools are both “even more segregated than public schools,” with charter schools evincing particularly high rates of such segregation. Nationwide, in the 2011-2012 school year (the latest for which both public and private school data are available), 71% of black students in charter schools attended majority black schools, while an astonishing 90% attended majority-minority schools (schools where more than 50% of the students are minorities). Traditional public schools, while relatively less segregated than charters, are still fighting their own battles with integration: In the same school year, 43% of black students in public schools went to schools with a majority of black students, while 77% attended majority-minority schools.*

How Segregation Hurts Children

The harm of segregation is, of course, most obvious when minority students are clustered in high-poverty schools with limited resources. But even if resources were truly equal, segregation would have a negative effect—and not just on the minority kids. There is a significant benefit that comes from day-to-day interactions among students of different racial backgrounds; such interactions give rise to familiarity and the capacity to operate fluidly in the diverse American society and workplace. Not being comfortable around people with different backgrounds imposes limitations and awkwardness later on, when such interactions are unavoidable. In the extreme case, it becomes much easier to dehumanize those who are "different," if one has never had to interact with them.

I saw this firsthand. When I started working at a majority-minority school, the different minority groups were separated through “tracking.” Different tracks had separate vacations year-round, so the children in one track never interacted with those in another track, whether in the classroom or on the playground. Every time I opposed tracking, my principal defended the policy, since it was organized by native language, not race. But the end result was the same: black kids were in the English-speaking track, Vietnamese kids in the Vietnamese-speaking track and Latino kids in the Spanish-speaking track.

The year we finally stopped tracking, one of my black students walked into my class on the first day and punched a Latino student in the face, giving him a bloody nose. After cleaning up the mess, I asked the perpetrator why he did it. “Ain’t supposed to be Mexicans in my class,” he said. At the same time, I had Asian and Latino parents requesting that their child move to classes without black kids. No one knew how to coexist.

For minority students, segregation also robs them of a chance to learn how to interact with the population who are the majority, which can, down the road, sometimes leave them feeling uncomfortable and unsure in job interviews and work settings. I recently reconnected with a former student who is about to graduate from a four-year university. She mentioned that she still feels uncomfortable with white people, thinking that they’re always judging her. She worries that her inability to feel at ease in the presence of whites hurts her in job interviews, as well as with many of her college professors.

The Road Ahead

The solutions that will undo modern-day school segregation are not easily achieved, but they are nonetheless worth fighting for. Since many U.S. neighborhoods are rife with segregation, policies that promote integrated housing may seem like a reasonable first step. Minority families are still much more likely to live in poverty than white families, and more likely to need government-subsidized affordable housing.  Mixed zoning of residential areas can mitigate the problem, though it often faces opposition from more affluent residents who don’t want subsidized housing in their own backyards. And even when neighborhoods are more integrated, the schools don’t necessarily reflect this diversity, because of white flight to private and charter schools.

If, on the other hand, affluent or even middle-class predominantly white parents chose to keep their children at their neighborhood public school, the public schools would be better integrated, benefiting children of all backgrounds. In addition, parental involvement by wealthier, more educated, English-speaking parents lifts the opportunity boat for all students. Not only do they bring more financial resources to the classroom, they can also model how to “work the system” to maximize their children’s education, a tactic that may be unfamiliar to other parents, and from which they, too, can benefit.

The Supreme Court has a responsibility to step up and reclaim the legacy of Brown. We also need both activist legislation and consistent standards for charter schools if we hope to get this right. There are intrinsic societal benefits when all children receive a high-quality education. But until all children receive an integrated education, that dream can never be a reality.

* U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 2011-12 v.1a,  2012-13 v.1a.

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