School segregation still exists in 2014. In fact, it’s getting worse.
Next month will mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which banned outright segregation in schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute indicates black kids continue to be isolated.
“The typical black student now attends a school where only 29 percent of his or her fellow students are white, down from 36 percent in 1980,” notes the report.
What’s going on?
The isolation isn’t as overt or as blatantly racist as it was in the 1950s, which makes it trickier to eliminate. And there are myriad reasons black kids continue to go to school with mostly black kids, from gerrymandering to school choice.
But none are more significant than housing.
Put simply, black kids go to black schools because black kids live in black neighborhoods.
No amount of education policy is going to change that. Any solution will have to involve housing policy. Period.
Why is segregation a bad thing?
Segregation in the United States is not simply an issue of white and black. It’s an issue of have and have not.
Black kids tend to fall lower on the income scale than white kids, and, as the report notes, “require much greater resources than middle-class white students to prepare for success in school.”
But they don’t get more resources. In fact, in a lot of cases, they get fewer resources because they go to schools in poor neighborhoods that don’t have parent-backed booster clubs or well-funded PTAs that can purchase things like new computers and athletic gear.
And then there’s the most important resource in a school: teachers. The schools with the neediest students are staffed by teachers who are the least qualified.
Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer primary care physicians and fewer grocery stores. Kids who grow up in those areas are more likely to be exposed to lead paint and to have asthma. They have parents who work less-flexible jobs and have less time to take kids to zoos, libraries and museums, all of which foster learning.
By the time they reach kindergarten, kids who grow up in largely black neighborhoods are behind and in a race to catch up. Few ever do.
It’s no wonder, given all of the forces working against them, that African-American kids, on average, perform worse on school tests than their white and Asian peers, and that they are less likely to go on to college.
Certainly there are school programs that benefit students in black neighborhoods, preschool classes and after-school and summer instruction among them. These kids also get a boost when schools have full-service health clinics and skilled teachers and small classes.
But those are, in some ways, stop-gap measures, and they don’t help with integration.
“Schools cannot be integrated,” the report concludes, “unless the neighborhoods where they are located are integrated; in particular, by making housing opportunities for low-income, black, urban residents available in white middle-class suburbs.”
Why is integration so difficult?
Successful integration would take money and a willingness from wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods. But many towns aren’t opening up their pocketbooks for the cause of integration.
There are voucher programs right now to help poor families supplement their rental payments, but they are poorly funded and poorly enforced, and many middle-class neighborhoods outright refuse to accept them.
Many suburbs have passed laws that limit or prevent the construction of low-income housing, according to the report. “Government programs encourage the destruction of public housing ghettos but make inadequate provision for rehousing the displaced residents, many of whom are then forced to leave their gentrifying neighborhoods to seek homes in newly segregating inner-ring suburbs,” the researchers write.
Courts also used to essentially mandate integration, which was relatively effective at bringing people in some towns together. But many of those mandates have been allowed to expire.
According to ProPublica, “Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration.”
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, falls into that category. The town used to have a thriving, demographically mixed high school. But once the integration mandate was lifted, segregation fell back into place as white parents lobbied for school district lines that put white students with white students and black students with black students.
Is a landmark shift in policy possible?
The future of neighborhood segregation, and by extension school segregation, could hinge on an upcoming government ruling, the report notes.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is currently taking comments on a rule to require cities to “affirmatively further fair housing.” That wording is vague, but it essentially means that the government would ask cities, including white suburbs, to take steps to actively integrate. However, that’s a hard policy to enforce.
But the policy could have important implications when it comes to school segregation.
“Whether and to what extent this rule is enforced,” the report notes, “will determine whether the failed promise of Brown can be fulfilled.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.