Six decades after Brown ruling, US schools still segregated

Separated along socioeconomic and racial lines, schools are less diverse than at any other time in the last four decades

Students at a magnet school in Chicago wait for the start of classes last year.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

African-American and Latino students are less likely to attend racially and ethnically diverse schools today than at any other time in the last four decades. This, almost 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, represents a major setback for one of the core goals of the civil rights movement.

According to a September 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 74 percent of African-American students and 80 percent of Latinos attended schools in 2009-10 where at least half the population consisted of only one minority.

"Our school district is extremely segregated," said Caitlin McNulty, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Valley West Elementary School in Houston. "Part of that is just we have a huge minority population in our district, period, so I'd say the majority of our schools are at least 80 percent minority."

In her school district, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of the student population last year. Only seven of the 705 students at her school were white -- less than one percent.

"That's not out of the ordinary" in her district, McNulty said. "It's just not representative of the population that's here."

Schools across America are resegregating, in part because of a string of court cases since 1991 that have quietly rolled back court enforcement and monitoring of efforts to desegregate schools, say education and legal experts.

With the impact on diversity from self-segregated communities, the increasing prevalance of charter schools and a variety of socioeconomic challenges plaguing minority communities, gains in classroom diversity are being erased at an alarming pace.

In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public school districts could pursue desegregation by busing students from highly segregated neighborhoods into majority-white schools. The goal was for schools to be "racially balanced" and be compliant with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But in 1991, the Oklahoma City v. Dowell case ended a federal order to desegregate Oklahoma schools, opening the door for numerous court cases that have rolled back desegregation efforts across the country. The court ruled that as long as school districts made a "good faith" attempt to remedy past segregation, they would no longer have to try to integrate public schools.

Through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost.

The trend has continued at a rapid pace. For instance, in 1995 the Board of Regents at the University of California voted to remove race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin as consideration factors for admission. In 1996, Proposition 209 took it one step further by ruling out race-conscious outreach and financial aid. As a result, minority admissions dropped dramatically in subsequent years.

Commenting on the findings of the Civil Rights Project's study, the University of South Carolina School of Law's Derek Black said that "integration steadily increased in our public schools from the late 1960s well into the 1980s and fundamentally enhanced the quality of education received by students of all races. But through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost."

In Texas and other states experiencing resegregation of their schools, students now often grow up interacting only with other students who look like them.

Gisele Phalo, an African-American student in Houston, could have been one of them. She recently graduated from Carnegie Vanguard High School -- a public school that regularly appears on the U.S. News and World Report list of the top 100 schools in the nation -- with the 13th-best academic record in her class. Carnegie is much more diverse than neighboring Worthing High School, just a seven-minute drive down the road. Worthing is 98 percent minority and has lower academic performance rates.

Phalo may never have known Carnegie even existed if it hadn't been for a school-choice fair hosted at her middle school. "I remember thinking, ‘What is this school?'" she said. "It's all about socioeconomic status and access. In my neighborhood, a lot of people don't know about these schools."

Until high school, Phalo says she thought the majority of Houston residents were African-American. The city is 50 percent white and less than a quarter black.

"I didn't really have white friends before I went to Carnegie. I had some Latino friends but not many," Phalo said. "In middle school we just thought everyone who's Latino is Mexican. When I came to Carnegie and met my friends from El Salvador, I had to pick up a map and really learn where that was."

Phalo was lucky, but many others are not. Though students in Texas, as in a growing number of other states, may apply to attend magnet and charter schools instead of their local schools, Valley West teacher McNulty says most minority students and their parents simply aren't aware of these options.

The big picture

According to the 2010 Census, the United States is projected to be a majority-minority nation by 2043, but many schools don't reflect this diversifying population.

The findings of the UCLA multipart study by the Civil Rights Project highlight the growing diversity of the nation from the 1970s to the present: In 1970, nearly 80 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. schools were white. By 2009, that number dropped to roughly 50 percent.

During the same period, Latino enrollment grew from about five percent to nearly one-quarter, surpassing the African-American population. Latinos are now the largest minority group enrolled in the nation's schools.

According to the report, 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of African-Americans attend what it identified as "intensely segregated" schools, where minorities make up 90 to 100 percent of the student body.

In some of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, minorities attend what the study calls "apartheid" schools, where students of color make up 99 to 100 percent of the population.

This is double and triple segregation. It's segregation by race, ethnicity and poverty and, in the case of Latinos, language as well.

It is a problem not just in the South. In New York a third of African-American students attend "apartheid" schools. In Chicago the number climbs to 50 percent, and 30 percent of Los Angeles' Latinos study in segregated schools.

The "apartheid" category is the only class of schools that has shown a decrease in segregation, but only marginally. All other categories show increased levels of segregation from 1980 to the present, the study's researchers say.

Lead researcher Gary Orfield said the data wasn't surprising to him.

"Political leaders very rarely talk about this, and this has been going on since 1991," he said. "The most alarming thing to me is that this is double and triple segregation. It's never just segregation by ethnicity. It’s segregation by race, ethnicity and poverty and, in the case of Latinos, language as well."

Segregated communities

In Charlotte, N.C., a city once heralded as a national model of integration, the end of busing and the growing focus on school choice have led to a rapid re-segregation of the local school district.

“There are a number of factors that I think are leading to increased economic segregation, but part of what’s going on is that a lot of the older – particularly in the south – the old desegregation cases are being dismissed,” Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU said. “So the structures that were set up to lead to more desegregation disappear when court oversight disappears.”

A study conducted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that while North Carolina’s public schools remain some of the nation’s most integrated, there are still large gaps across the state.

“The argument on the other side is that schools reflect the communities, and if they reflect the communities then it’s not segregation,” Evans Moore, education manager for the NAACP, said.  “[Wealthier neighborhoods] create a natural barrier to people of color and poor folk.”

Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg discussed the impact of increasing economic segregation in U.S. schools: The “separation of rich and poor is the fountainhead of inequality,” he said. High-poverty schools “get worse teachers ... are more chaotic ... [have] lower levels of parental involvement ... and lower expectations than at middle-class schools – all of which translate into lower levels of achievement.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research shows a continuing decline in the number of white students attending public school with minorities. However, the organization points to the growing number of Latino students in public schools that skew the numbers:

Understanding racial patterns in school enrollments requires understanding the effect that the post-1970 immigration surge has had on the racial composition of the U.S. population. Although the percentage of black students enrolled in schools with 90-100 percent nonwhite enrollment in the sampled districts did increase between 1993/94 and 2003/4, its increase appears to be attributable to the growth in the proportion of Hispanic and other non-white non-black students, rather than to any changes in enrollment patterns by black or white students… The percentage of black students in nonwhite schools is increasing because immigration has increased the number of students who are considered nonwhite under current systems of racial categorization.”

The socioeconomic divide

Elizabeth Sheff, the woman behind the landmark 1996 Connecticut segregation case Sheff v. O’Neill, says the road to racial balance in public schools is long, and people have largely stopped fighting for change.

Sheff, along with other parents, sued the state of Connecticut in 1989 – and won – because the state created school districts based on town and city boundary lines, which exacerbated racial and socio-economic inequalities.

“People are going about their daily lives in their cocoons. They aren’t looking at the broader picture,” she said. “People have abandoned on a large scale the engagement of social justice.”

Sheff has been advocating to reduce racial and economic isolation in Connecticut public schools for 24 years, after she sued the state on behalf of her then 10-year-old son.

“I believe that it is my responsibility to understand what’s at stake and to continue to advocate for justice,” she said. 

Segregation by charter

Some experts say charter schools may be exacerbating the issue by concentrating wealth and experienced teachers in certain neighborhoods, which increasingly divides schools along socioeconomic lines.

"Charter schools have a different set of rules that they can play by because they can pick and choose the students they want," said NAACP education manager Moore. "We have to be careful that we aren't working with a double standard, where charter schools, which are public schools, have the option to pick students, where other public schools have to take the students they are assigned."

Charter schools also have significant racial-imbalance problems. The Sanford Public Policy Center examined the level of racial imbalance in North Carolina's public schools, particularly charters, as the state adds more of them each year.

North Carolina has one of the most racially diverse public school systems in the country. Still, more than 60 percent of charter school students attend a school that is considered racially imbalanced, compared with 30 percent of public school students.

The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights enforces federal civil rights laws designed to keep federally funded public and private schools from discriminating by race.

A spokesman says that the department "supports efforts to promote diversity in our nation's schools" and that "schools and colleges have compelling interests in pursuing diverse student bodies." The spokesman also said the department has "issued guidance that explains the legal options available to schools and colleges that choose to pursue diversity."

Kim Bearden is a co-founder and the executive director of Atlanta's nonprofit Ron Clark Academy, which allows families to pay tuition on a sliding scale. She says the problem isn't getting schools to diversify; it's paying for the efforts needed to make homogenized schools more diverse.

"It's left up to school districts to choose to pursue (diversity)," she said. "In a time when budget is everything for school districts that are looking at every penny, if it's more expensive to desegregate, I fear that many schools will resegregate. All of our children need to be raised in a way that they can interact with all different backgrounds. If they're only going to school with everyone who looks and acts like they do, it's a gap in their education."

Quality of eduation

Bearden's school serves a population of students that by her account is 97 percent African American. The difference here is Bearden's students are some of the best performing in Atlanta.

"I would say that quite often the thing I find most disheartening is the culture of low expectations," she said. "Part of the reason we've been so successful is we have a culture of very high expectations. Quite often the response (from other teachers) is, 'Wow, if I had students like yours, I could do these things,' and I always say, 'You do have students like these.'"

Gisele Phalo, the standout student in Houston, illustrates Bearden's point. Phalo says there was a huge difference in curriculum rigor when she started attending a more diverse school.

"At Cullen Middle School, the curriculum was just not good," she said. "All you had to do was pass the minimum-skills test to get to the next grade level. Most of the kids -- even the teachers -- would fool around all year and then try to buckle down at the end of the year to pass the test. They would even get money for performing well."

For Phalo, who started her freshman year at Dartmouth College this fall, school integration is critical to achieving quality education for all and a healthier social environment.

"If we could emphasize being in the community and experiencing different cultures, you'd have more schools that are integrated like Carnegie," she said. "If there's no one to show minorities about different cultures, they'll have a limited perspective their whole lives."

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