Resegregating Our Schools

Contrary to what people may think, the true story of desegregation in our nation’s public schools is not stuck in history books. It’s a current event. Or perhaps, more accurately, a future aspiration.

How many of us realize that since the 1980s our nation’s schools have not been desegregating but resegregating black and Latino students? Scholars from the UCLA Civil Rights Project Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee discuss this in their paper Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality (2005). They write:

U.S. schools are now 41 percent nonwhite and the great majority of the nonwhite students attend schools which now show substantial segregation. Levels of segregation for black and Latino students have been steadily increasing since the l980s…

Before we go any further, a legal briefing (although those of you who took high school Latin can skip ahead to the next paragraph): De jure means by law. And de facto means through practice.

So school segregation mandated by Jim Crow Laws was de jure, until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that declared that segregation in the public schools was against the law nationwide.

Today we have de facto racial segregation, meaning there’s a separation of races not due to law but other factors. As Orfield and Lee write:

The high level of poverty among children, together with many housing policies and practices which excludes poor people from most communities, mean that students in inner city schools face isolation not only from the white community but also from middle class schools.

Some school systems have successfully worked to overcome de facto segregation by implementing policies that deliberately create a racial mix of students in each school.

However, last year, in landmark cases, the Supreme Court found that the racial integration efforts in both Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington were unconstitutional. In July, Emily Bazelon published a fascinating article about these cases titled “The Next Kind of Integration” in the New York Times Magazine. She explores whether desegregation based on factors other than race—perhaps socioeconomic status or parental education level—is the wave of the future.

Bazelon writes:

… the court was forcing Louisville to rethink the way it would assign elementary-school students and, in the process, to confront some tricky questions. Is the purpose of integration simply to mix students of different colors for the sake of equity or to foster greater familiarity and comfort among the races? Should integration necessarily translate into concrete gains like greater achievement for all students? If so, is mixing students by race the most effective mechanism for attaining it?

As a result of this ruling, in the coming school year, Louisville will distribute students based on a new formula that focuses on family income level but does not disregard race entirely.

But unlike Louisville, many public school systems do not make any effort to mix students in terms of income and race.

In her paper titled Perceived Barriers to Integration in the Mississippi Delta, Suzanne Eckes points out that de facto segregation in the Mississippi Delta may still be the result of one factor: racial prejudice.

When the Mississippi Delta public schools “desegregated” in the late 1960s and early 70s, white parents immediately opened private academies, so that their children would attend separate, private institutions. These academies, still in operation today, left many public schools segregated as well: one hundred percent black. Today, in many places, not much has changed.

Eckes explores a case study of one Mississippi Delta community. She concludes that while white parents here claim to send their children to private, virtually all-white academies because the education is superior, the facts on the ground prove otherwise; unlike the private schools in some other states, the academies in the Mississippi Delta may not offer better education than the public schools. Eckes writes:

This study also raises questions about the legitimacy of the barriers. Are the barriers to educational integration legitimate barriers or actually euphemisms for racism?

Civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King dreamed that one day children of all backgrounds would learn together side by side. Now we must ask: Is this even a good idea? Why? And if we’re sure—sure that eliminating de facto segregation is a worthwhile endeavor—what’s the best way to pursue our goal?

Educator Resource: Check out these six excellent lesson plans called “The Road to Brown” published by the Anti-Defamation League.These lesson plans contain links to primary source documents that led to the Brown v. Board decision.

Posted in Civil Rights, Educators, Shana's Posts on 08/10/2008 12:13 pm


  1. Michelle Williams

    I found this article interesting due to the fact that thr area in which I live is the perfect example of “de facto segregation”. I live in Youngstown,Ohio where our school system is failing on all fronts. All the surrounding suburban districts are doing better on state tests,but do not have enough money.Our area is not very large and it would do us a great deal more to incorpoate the districts and pool our resources. I feel that this is not even looked at because it will for force suburbia to integrate with the inner city.

  2. Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Michelle. It’s interesting to hear your firsthand account. I wonder if the trend toward segregating black and Latino students will start to change in the next four years–if anyone in the new Administration will be paying attention to this issue.


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