Why America needs a new approach to school desegregation


Despite all the time and effort invested desegregating the nation’s schools over the past half century, the reality is America’s schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968.

Keep that statistic in mind as the nation marks the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – the 1954 Supreme Court decision that famously mandated the desegregation of U.S. public schools.

If the vision of educational fairness expressed in the Brown decision is to be achieved, the nation must deal with the underlying driver of racial segregation in schools: the inclination of white citizens to hoard educational resources.

I make these arguments as one who has studied school segregation up close for over a decade.

Racial segregation has proved resilient over the last half century. It circumvented court orders and reappeared in housing patterns shaped by school zoning policies. It adapted by moving down to the classroom level to take the form of tracking students into gifted and talented programs or Advanced Placement classes. It has become alloyed with economic segregation so that low-income students and students of color end up concentrated in the same schools. The consequences have been predictably dire for students relegated to these increasingly underfunded and racially isolated schools.

Why school segregation persists

The historical record shows that the desire for predominantly white educational spaces has undermined desegregation orders from 1954 to the present. For example, willfully resistant interpretations of the charge to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board delayed substantive action on school segregation for over a decade.

This resistance has only increased in sophistication and effectiveness over time. Carefully choreographed legal and political strategies slowed desegregation of schools. The 1992 Freeman v. Pitts Supreme Court decision made it easier to lift desegregation orders and opened the way for a national swing back toward racial segregation in schools.

This new segregation is not directly enforced by law, but indirectly through school zoning, housing patterns, and recently by neighborhood secessionist movements.

All of this permits affluent white families to continue to monopolize premium educational resources.

Charter schools have not been able to slow this resurgence of school segregation. Neither did the federal No Child Left Behind law. In fact, there are reasons to believe both have made segregation worse.

Corrosive effects of segregation

Students of color in racially isolated schools experience lower academic outcomes. Their dropout rates increase.

My own research has shown how school segregation communicates corrosive messages to students of color. My colleagues and I spent 10 years interviewing students in an Alabama school district that had its federal desegregation order lifted. These children watched as the district’s predominantly white leadership moved immediately to rezone and resegregate their schools.

Students assigned to the district’s underresourced all-black high school reported concluding that they were regarded as “bad kids,” “garbage people,” or “violent or something,” and therefore not worthy of investment.

Perhaps worse, the black students in the newly resegregated school read the harm being done to them as intentional and often saw no hope of redress. One student remarked: “I feel like this is an injustice, the way we were brought here to fail. And now it is becoming a reality. I think five or 10 years more down the line it’s going to be horrible. Seriously, it’s going to be horrible.”

Where schools have been desegregated, the negative academic effects are significantly reduced. Rucker Johnson, associate professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that desegregation raises income levels and wealth accumulation across generations, and even improves health outcomes across students’ lifespans.

The psychological effects of desegregation, however, are more complicated. Desegregating schools provides more balanced access to resources, but puts students of color in schools staffed primarily by white educators who still often harbor implicitly and explicitly racist attitudes. Children of color pay a price for this.

For white students, school desegregation has no measurable negative effects on academic performance and graduation rates. Meanwhile, school desegregation provides many positive social effects for all students, including reduction of racial prejudice and generally becoming more comfortable around people of different backgrounds.

Possible remedies

So, what lessons have been learned from America’s failed efforts to desegregate its public schools?

The first is that the desire for racially segregated schooling evolves in response to efforts to promote racial equity in schools. This implies that lawmakers should not presume integration of schools will help communities “outgrow racism.” Desegregation orders, where needed, need to be permanent.

Second, geography has always been used as a proxy to preserve school segregation. Communities need housing policies that effectively inhibit the creation of racially and economically segregated neighborhoods.

Third, adequate and equitable funding is needed across school districts. There is nothing magically educational about sitting next to a white person in school. The primary problem is the way resources disproportionately follow white bodies.

Finally, the teaching profession must be fully diversified. Fifty-one percent of students entering public schools are persons of color, but more than 80 percent of teachers are white. Placing children of color in predominantly white schools and counting on color-blind professionalism to protect them is not an adequate plan. Research conducted by my colleagues and I reveals how this approach misunderstands the way racism operates and leaves children of color exposed to psychological and pedagogical harm.

America’s school systems need to recruit, support and retain teachers who identify with the experiences of the students they serve. Additionally, all teachers must be educated to recognize the constantly evolving forms of segregation in the nation’s school systems, to protect students from its worst effects and to join the struggle to build a better system.

Author Bio: Jerry Rosiek is a Professor of Education Studies at the University of Oregon