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By Noah Berlatsky
America has largely given up trying to desegregate its schools. Politicians have capitulated to reactionary white parents and activists who have successfully fought for decades against the government’s hesitant efforts to provide equal resources and opportunities for students of color. The result has been a disaster for non-white students, for public education and for the U.S. as a whole.
In the 1950s and 1960s, educational segregation, along with voting rights, was the iconic issue of the civil rights movement. Today, criminal justice and mass incarceration have largely overtaken school segregation in high-profile discussions about racism.
Obviously, not everyone has moved on: Black Lives Matter has managed to raise public awareness of systemic racism and local activists have continued to fight against segregation. For example, black Chicago students have repeatedly protested the way the city robs them of resources and closes schools in their neighborhoods. But focused, national attention, much less change, has proved elusive.
Brown is broadly celebrated; everyone agrees that legal segregation was wrong. And thus, the civil rights movement won.
The fact that we’ve moved on from discussions of segregation could be seen as a victory of sorts. Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 made it unconstitutional to pass laws mandating separate education for black students and white students. Brown is broadly celebrated; everyone agrees that legal segregation was wrong. And thus, the civil rights movement won.
But did it? The truth is that segregation today is, in many cases, worse now than when the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided.
A 2017 analysis by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that 75 percent of black students attend majority minority schools, while 38 percent go to schools that are less than 10 percent white. The numbers are even more striking for Latinx students, 80 percent of whom attend majority minority schools. Latinx and black students are also much more likely to be in school districts with high poverty rates, and to have less access to high-quality course offerings. A 2012 study found that more than half of public schools with low black and Latinx populations offered calculus, as compared to a third with high Latinx and black enrollment.
This segregation of students of color isn’t an accident. For more than 50 years, white parents and white activists have fought against integrating schools, as Noliwe Rooks chronicles in her 2017 book “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the Rise of Public Education.”
Following Brown, many Southern school systems shut down public education for up to five years rather than integrate, Rooks writes. She also notes that public money was used to support all-white private schools all the way up to 1978. In the north, meanwhile, racist activism led to anti-busing provisions, blocking federal funds from being used to transport students for the purposes of desegregation. Local busing efforts were opposed with violence: Around two hundred white people attacked school buses with black children in South Carolina, and the Ku Klux Klan bombed empty school buses in Michigan in 1971.
Desegregation can still prompt angry, violent, white backlash. Today, Rooks reports, affluent white districts will sue and prosecute poor people of color who try to access the resources in better districts. In 2014, for example, Tanya McDowell, who was homeless, was sentenced to multiple years in prison for using the address of her babysitter to send her kindergartner to school in the affluent district of Norwalk, Connecticut.
When I wrote an article earlier this year arguing that white parents need to do more to promote desegregation, my social media mentions filled up with outraged protests, many of them openly anti-Semitic. Rod Dreher at the American Conservative said that by pointing out that white parents are complicit in segregation, I had contributed to the “demonization of “whiteness.” He also suggested that if my son went to a majority minority school he would likely be bullied by black students. Dreher’s concerns were echoed on the Nazi podcast “The Daily Shoah,” which also argued that when I advocate for desegregation, I am actually working to destroy white parents and white children.
White resistance over the last few decades has been so successful that there is little pressure now to desegregate schools.
The virulence of this reaction feels out of proportion. But that’s only because white resistance over the last few decades has been so successful that there is little pressure now to desegregate schools. Instead, policy makers argue for “school choice.” Poor students of color, the argument goes, can use vouchers from the state to attend private school, or can take courses online, or can enter a lottery to attend charter schools. Advocates like T. Willard Fair believe that many studies “point to increased success for students of color because their families were empowered to find schools that better met the needs of their children.”
Data on charter schools is far from clear that they actually raise test scores, however critics are concerned that some schools may simply force out students who do poorly, raising school test averages. And in any case, the many students left behind in the public system face the same problems their predecessors did. U.S. public schools are funded by local property taxes, which means that wealthier neighborhoods have highly trained teachers with up-to-date technology and poor neighborhoods have out-of-date textbooks and crumbling buildings. High-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts. Critics argue that vouchers make the situation worse by draining funds from already strapped school systems. Separate remains unequal in districts across the country.
Since most politicians no longer even pretend to tackle desegregation, white people don’t need to make a violent fuss to protect the system. “There’s still a lot of pushback [against desegregation], but the pushback isn’t people out in the streets organizing against busing,” says Amanda Lewis, author of “Race in the Schoolyard:”
“Instead we talk about opportunity hoarding. Instead of trying to block other people, I’m trying to make sure my kid gets the best. And in doing that, a lot of people participating in that kind of behavior, you produce unequal outcomes,” Lewis said.
Affluent white parents can pay for test prep to get their kids into better charter schools. They can move to the suburbs to get into wealthier districts. They can advocate to get their kids into honors classes. You don’t have to stand at the schoolyard door or attack buses anymore. You can just quietly use your money and education to leverage structural inequality in your favor.
This inequality gives affluent white children real advantages. But it also stunts them. My son currently goes to a majority minority public high school in Chicago. Contrary to Rod Dreher’s racist fantasies, being at a school where most people aren’t white hasn’t put him in danger. Instead, he’s had opportunities I never had in my all-white high school in northeastern Pennsylvania. He can practice his Spanish by speaking with bilingual classmates. He works with extremely talented young black and Latinx Shakespearean actors. He knows people who don’t look like him. That’s valuable.
White Americans have largely stopped seeing anti-racism as a major goal of educational policy. Instead, they have chosen to focus on maximizing their own choices and the success of their own children. It’s natural for people to want their kids to do well. But how well are you really doing when you are collaborating in a society built on injustice and inequality? Despite the best efforts of activists and scholars, the dream of desegregation in America is dying. Our children are worse off as a result.