The Lingering Legacy of Segregation

As we approach 60 years since U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and stand in the wake of a 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, Richard Rothstein details:

Today, many black children still attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty: 39 percent of black children are from families with incomes below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of white children (U.S. Census Bureau(a)); 28 percent of black children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 4 percent of white children (Casey 2013).

Reports from 2012 also highlighted the growing resegregation of schools in the South and across the U.S. Concurrent with the re-segregation of public schools—along with the ignored reality that children’s ZIP codes tend to determine their access to high- or low-quality schools, which reflect the affluence/poverty of the community—a growing commitment to charter schools ignores that charter schools fail to achieve academic success distinguishable from traditional public schools (both formats of schooling produce a range of outcomes) but tend to segregate children by race and class.

Rothstein recognizes a historical link between burying the Coleman report from the mid-1960s and the rise of “no excuses” reform today:

The fear of education reformers today, that discussion of social and economic impediments to learning will only lead to “making excuses” for poor teaching (Rothstein 2008), mirrors fears in 1966 that similar discussion would undermine support for federal aid to education.

A few important lessons lie beneath these historical and current patterns.

First, continuing to refuse to confront, discuss, and address directly race, class, segregation, and inequity guarantees that none of these contexts will ever be overcome.

Next, continuing to focus on bureaucratic and political answers to complex social and educational issue is the central failure we associate with “government.” When government is primarily political and bureaucratic, it is impotent or even corrosive.

For democracy and government to work, then, we must re-envision government as a mechanism for democratic goals. That will require lessening our faith in the free market and the Invisible Hand while increasing our faith in the Commons.

Segregation itself is ugly but so is its recent history in the U.S.

Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has nearly eradicated blatant and legal segregation. But that structural shift forced segregation to go underground.

A second wave of segregation developed and has existed in public schools for decades—schools within schools. The persistent use of  tracking and the gate-keeping mechanisms that create Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate “schools” within the “other” schools where mostly black and brown children living in poverty sit in overcrowded classes with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers have institutionalized a masked segregation that we still mostly ignore.

Upon that second wave of insidious and tacit segregation we are now confronted with a third frontier of segregation that almost no one seems to find offensive—represented by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and their copy-cat “no excuses” charters (see the story of New Orleans for a vivid picture).

Public education is a mirror of U.S. society. Our schools do not change society; they mimic and perpetuate our society.

The school-choice-option of the day, charter schools, is yet more of the great bureaucratic failure of government—investing precious public funds to build a system of schools that are indistinguishable from the schools we claim are failing, replete with the worst public education has to offer.

If segregation is a scar on a free people (and it is), then segregation cannot be tolerated in any form in our public institutions.

Commitments to new standards, next-generation high-stakes tests, charter schools, and Teach for America are not only failed education reform mechanisms, but also tragic re-investments in segregation that remains separate and unequal.

The rich get richer, and fewer, while everyone else frantically competes for the little that is left over.

Rothstein ends his report by confronting public policy:

It is inconceivable to think that education as a civil rights issue can be addressed without addressing residential segregation—a housing goal of the March on Washington. Housing policy is school policy; equality of education relies upon eliminating the exclusionary zoning ordinances of white suburbs and subsidizing dispersed housing in those suburbs for low-income African Americans now trapped in central cities.

By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right. It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve, but to renew it.

Saying education is the civil rights issue of our time, as President Obama and Secretary Duncan do, is a hollow political act. To continue that refrain while embracing policies that increase inequity and segregation tarnishes daily the brave and bold words and actions that held such promise at mid-twentieth century.

7 thoughts on “The Lingering Legacy of Segregation”

  1. “Racial isolation of African American children in separate schools located in separate neighborhoods has become a permanent feature of our landscape. Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.”

    I think I’ve connected the dots of how the education reformers are using the inevitable product of black/white segregation to milk the cash cow called public schools dry.
    Their call to close the educational achievement gap between the races through market based remedies (such as charters which actually increase segregation) is a callous and intentional misdirection. The intended outcome is corporate control of all aspects of education policy. There are trillions to be made.

    Dr Rod Paige 02/01/2010 –

    Closing the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our time. Despite the promise of equal educational opportunity, the United States education system has largely failed to provide low-income and minority children access to the high-quality education they need to compete on a level playing field with their white, affluent peers.

    the charter chain Achievement First is a financial and political powerhouse. I Connecticut, for example, State Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor was one of its founders.

    they have also been chosen by the Gates foundation to train new “leaders”

    this week:

    Hartford Courant – Hartford Board OKs 2nd Achievement First Charter School
    “Either you educate or you incarcerate,” said Carl Hardrick, 72, a longtime city activist and gang mediator who was recently robbed and beaten by a group of young people in the Blue Hills neighborhood. Hardrick linked a lack of education with the cycle of violence and said he supported Achievement First.

    Th truth is that we are “two Americas” as John Edwards pointed during his 2008 campaign for president. The economic prospects of the African American continue to be significantly bleaker than that of whites. There is no solution on the horizon. But that doesn’t concern the hedge fund managers and their craven toadies who will nevertheless frame their efforts in altruistic terms.
    The quixotic task of calling bullshit on these vampires had evidently fallen to people like me. We’re screwed.


    Ah, the70’s: when segregation was seen as an issue


    The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that lasted up until the 1960s. Some historians differentiate between the first Great Migration (1910–1930), numbering about 1.6 million migrants who left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern industrial cities, and after a lull during the Great Depression, a Second Great Migration (1940 to 1970), in which 5 million or more people moved from the South

    By the end of the Second Great Migration, African Americans had become an urbanized population. More than 80 percent of blacks lived in cities.

    Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the United States.[2][3] During the Great Migration, the city gained a large black population, which was excluded upon arrival from white neighborhoods.
    By the mid-70s, more than two-thirds of students in the Detroit school system were black

    On August 18, 1970, the NAACP filed suit against Michigan state officials, including Governor William Milliken. The original trial began on April 6, 1971, and lasted for 41 days. The NAACP argued that although schools were not officially segregated (white only), the city of Detroit and its surrounding counties had enacted policies to increase racial segregation in schools. The NAACP also suggested a direct relationship between unfair housing practices (such as redlining) and educational segregation.[5]
    District Judge Steven J. Roth held all levels of government accountable for the segregation. The Sixth Circuit Court affirmed some of the decision, withholding judgment on the relationship of housing inequality with education. The Court specified that it was the state’s responsibility to integrate across the segregated metropolitan area.[6]
    The accused officials appealed to the Supreme Court, which took up the case on February 27, 1974.[5]
    The Supreme Court overturned the lower courts in a 5-to-4 decision, holding that school districts were not obligated to desegregate unless it could be proven that the lines were drawn with racist intent. Thus, officially arbitrary lines which produced segregated districts could not be challenged.[7][1]
    Stating that there was no evidence that the outlying districts had deliberately engaged in segregation, the Court emphasized the importance of local control over the operation of schools. The decision read, in part:

    The inter-district remedy could extensively disrupt and alter the structure of public education in Michigan, since that remedy would require, in effect, consolidation of 54 independent school districts historically administered as separate governmental units into a vast new super school district, and, since—entirely apart from the logistical problems attending large-scale transportation of students—the consolidation would generate other problems in the administration, financing, and operation of this new school system.

    The Supreme Court’s decision removed pressure on Detroit to desegregate. According to Wayne State professor John Mogk, the decision also enabled the white flight that re-entrenched the city’s segregation.[5] The Detroit Public Schools became even more disproportionately black over the next two decades (with 90% black students in 1987).[6]
    This result reaffirmed the national pattern of city schools attended mostly by blacks, with surrounding suburban schools mostly attended by whites.[6]

    Racial isolation of African American children in separate schools located in separate neighborhoods has become a permanent feature of our landscape. Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.
    In place of integration, politicians, commentators, and public education critics, content with situating black students in racially homogenous schools, declare instead that the test score gap between black and white students is the “civil rights issue of our time.”

  2. Yes, segregation is the elephant in the room:
    Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies

    Gary Orfield & Chungmei Lee

    A report of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, UCLA August 2007

    “The basic educational policy model in the post-civil rights generation assumes that we can equalize schools without dealing with segregation through testing and accountability. It is nearly a quarter century since the country responded to the Reagan Administration’s 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” warning of dangerous shortcomings in American schools and demanding that “excellence” policies replace the “equity” policies of the l960s. Since then almost every state has adopted the recommendations for the more demanding tests and accountability and more required science and math classes the report recommended. Congress and the last three Presidents have established national goals for upgrading and equalizing education. The best evidence indicates that these efforts have failed, both the Goals 2000 promise of equalizing education for nonwhite students by 2000 and the NCLB promise of closing the achievement gap with mandated minimum yearly gains so that everyone would be proficient by 2013. In fact, the previous progress in narrowing racial achievement gaps from the 1960s well into the l980s has ended and most studies find that there has been no impact from NCLB on the racial achievement gap. These reforms have been dramatically less effective in that respect than the reforms of the l960s and ‘70s, including desegregation and anti-poverty programs.15 On some measures the racial achievement gaps reached their low point around the same time as the peak of black-white desegregation in the late l980s.


    As the U.S. enters its last years in which it will have a majority of white students, it is betting its future on segregation. The data coming out of the No Child Left Behind tests and the state accountability systems show clear relationships between segregation and educational outcomes but this fact is rarely mentioned by policy makers.

    The fact of resegregation does not mean that desegregation failed and was rejected by Americans who experienced it. Of course the demographic changes made full desegregation with whites more difficult, but the major factor, particularly in the South, was that we stopped trying. Five of the last seven Presidents actively opposed urban desegregation and the last significant federal aid for desegregation was repealed 26 years ago in 1981. The last Supreme Court decision expanding desegregation rights was handed down in l973, more than a third of a century ago, one year before a decision rejecting city-suburban desegregation. This second decision in 1974 meant that desegregation was impossible in much of the North since the large majority of white students in many areas were already in the suburbs and stable desegregation was impossible within city boundaries, as Justice Thurgood Marshall accurately predicted in his dissent in the l974 Milliken v. Bradley16 decision.”

    Click to access orfield-historic-reversals-accelerating.pdf

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