Jan 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The resegregating (and diversifying) of U.S. schools

Illustration of two people divided by a school notebook, with one black student pointing at it while the white student looks up with arms on her hips

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

School segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1968 levels, even as the nation grows more diverse.

Why it matters: Black and white school segregation has deepened toward pre-Civil Rights Movement-era numbers despite decades of strides.

  • This places Black students into school districts with fewer resources than white students — but in more diverse settings than in 1968, since the percentage of Latino and Asian American students has skyrocketed.

By the numbers: At the peak of desegregation in 1988, around 37% of Black students nationally attended schools with a majority of white students. Only 19% did so in 2018, according to a report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

  • In 1968, around 77% of Black students went to predominantly non-white schools. That fell to 63% in 1988, but then rose again and reached 81% in 2018, the report said.
  • Among the nation’s 20 largest school districts, Black students today have the least contact with white students in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Prince George’s County, Maryland.
  • Meanwhile, the percentage of Latino students has gone from less than a percentage point nationally in 1970 to 27.1% of the overall student population in 2018.

Flashback: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal," the 1968 Kerner Commission report warned.

  • "What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."

What they’re saying: "Immediately after the Civil Rights Movement, we made progress on every aspect of poverty and racism in the U.S. But today we are moving backward," said former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, D-Okla., the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission.

Between the lines: Experts say resegregation came after Republican administrations from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan fought against urban desegregation efforts from the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

  • Federal courts didn't defend desegregation plans, and the federal government abolished funds promoting integration.
  • White residents are moving further out and away from diverse suburbs and cities.
  • The subprime loan crisis also forced Black residents into more segregated communities.
  • Today, even in schools where middle-class Black residents make up the majority, the resources follow white students. That fosters more inequality, said Karyn Lacy, a University of Michigan assistant sociology professor.

Yes, but: The resegregation of U.S. schools often doesn't produce all-Black schools as the declining contact with whites has been replaced by growing contact with Latinos, an issue that has received little research.

  • The share of Black classmates for Black students has been falling as the Mexican American and Central American student population grows.
  • This has created majority-Black-Latino school systems with small white student populations like Boston Public Schools and Aldine Independent School District in Houston.
  • Some Black residents also are moving to new Black-majority municipalities by choice and those are more economically and culturally diverse than 50 years ago, said Andre M. Perry, a Metropolitan Policy Program fellow at the Brookings Institute.
  • "We're seeing the browning of America. Today I can see a bodega next to a traditional Black barbershop. I think that's beautiful." Perry said.

The intrigue: Lacy said Black residents will continue to adopt "strategic assimilation" — capturing Black middle-class preference for economic success in the white world while socializing in the Black world (social clubs, Black churches, etc.) where Black identities are nurtured and reproduced.

  • "Maintaining a connection to the larger black community counters the demands required of them in white, mainstream society."
  • Perry said this practice doesn't negate the changes needed to tackle the systemic racism that devalues Black property and allows unequal funding in education.
  • "Police reform, housing, jobs, income equality," Harris said. "We know what we need to do. It doesn't take any more studies."
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