The Hidden Re-Segregation of American Schools

© Josh Sager – August 2015

According to most American history books, the fight over segregation in the United States was a long, brutal, struggle, but it was one that the civil rights activists won decades ago. Starting with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (which declared segregated schools unconstitutional) and progressing through the civil rights fights of the 1960s, there were numerous iconic and important advances in ensuring equality and racial integration in schools.

Unfortunately, it is now apparent that the public victories in the fight against segregation have been undermined by a series of little-known losses. In fact, recent studies have found that the United States educational system is actually more segregated today than at any point since 1968, and is on a trend towards even more segregation.

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Put simply, this decline in school integration is disgraceful. Segregated schools establish a system of unequal opportunities and cripple the ability of children to advance their economic and social wellbeing. Denying a child a proper education harms them for the rest of their life and is one of the most damaging forms of racism in the long term—in addition to harming the child, it puts their children at risk, as parents with more education are more likely to give their children better educational opportunities.

There are several major drivers for the increase in school segregation during the post-civil rights era:

White Flight: When segregation was a major issue in the public eye and the federal government started taking an active interest in forcing integration, many whites voluntarily left areas with high concentrations of minorities. This “white flight” created the suburbs, where middle and upper class whites established their enclaves that were soft-segregated (they don’t overtly ban minorities, but make it hard for many minority families to afford to live in the community) and established schools that were predominantly white. Because these suburbs tended to be in areas with higher than average property tax revenues, schools in these areas tended to have far more resources than areas with higher minority populations.

Over the decades since desegregation, white flight has progressed and is currently at a highly advanced stage.

Economic Segregation: Race and class are connected at a deep level, and systemic racism creates massive class disparities by denying minorities access to economic opportunity. According to a Pew Research study, the average white family has a net worth ten times greater than the average Hispanic family and thirteen times greater than the average black family. These inequalities create class disparities based upon racial lines and make it possible for wealthy, primarily white, communities to exclude a vast majority of racial minority families.

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The simple fact that white families tend to be wealthier than black or Hispanic families is an extremely powerful driver of segregation. Even if they are not overtly racist, wealthier individuals rarely want their kids in schools that have large numbers of poor children, if only because they believe that associating with the “wrong type of kid” will harm their child’s chances at advancement. This creates a powerful rationalization for people who don’t consider themselves to be racist and don’t want to be tarred with that label—instead of justifying segregation based upon race, they use economic language to justify their choices and simply ignore the racially discriminatory effects of their actions (they think: “I’m not a racist; I just want my kid to have the best education possible and ‘those people’ may reduce his chances of success”).

Privatization: While some tout privatizing and voucherizing schools as a solution to poor public school performance, the inescapable fact is that school privatization is a major driver of resegregation. According to a study by the Civil Rights Project, private schools tend to be highly segregated, both in terms of race and class.

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Wealthy families can afford high-quality private schools (who tend to be white, as previously discussed) and this is only enhanced by voucher programs. Conversely, poorer families are unable to afford high-quality private schools, thus are shunted into for-profit, low-quality, and religious private schools, or left in the defunded and ignored public school system.

The inequality created through school privatization is not an unintended side effect of a well-meaning policy—it is, in fact, a planned way of getting around desegregation efforts. While there are many well-meaning school privatization advocates, large portions of the privatization movement are connected with the “school choice” and “neighborhood schools” movements that formed in white communities in response to integration. When public schools started to integrate, white elites decided to abandon them and start their own institutions where they can control who is allowed to mix with their children.

Conclusion

There is simply no silver bullet to stop the resegregation of American schools. It is a process that involves a complex series of societal and economic factors that developed over decades. That said, this is a fight that MUST be taken on by mainstream political figures. It is an issue that is commonly ignored by major political candidates and advocates of reform should force our politicians to directly address these issues during campaigns.