The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The reason America’s schools are so segregated — and the only way to fix it

Until the 1954 Supreme Court ruling called Brown v. Board of Education, black and white students were segregated in schools across the country. After the Supreme Court declared such segregation unconstitutional, a group of students called the Little Rock Nine became the first black students to attend Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School. The students were escorted to class by Army soldiers, who tried to prevent violence by white protesters. (Panopticon Gallery)
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In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court  ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional because they were “inherently unequal.” At the time, states and school districts were permitted to operate some schools only for white students and others only for black students, but the court ruling set in motion a process in which that dual system was to be dismantled. Progress was made over time but the goal of the ruling — to end school segregation — was never close to being reached. In the last few decades, schools have been quietly resegregating, and federal data released this year showed that the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.

Now, a bill has been introduced in the New York City Council calling for a formal study of the causes — and remedies — of racial segregation in public schools. In this post, Richard Rothstein explains why such an effort, as spelled out in the bill, is misguided. Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit organization created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers.

He is also a a senior fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and author of the forthcoming “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”  A former national education writer for the New York Times, Rothstein also wrote  books including  “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,”  and “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.”  In 2013, Rothstein wrote a report titled  “For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education and the Unfinished March.” which says in part:

Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.

This post first appeared on the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund website, and Rothstein gave me permission to republish it.

How, after 60 years, Brown v Board of Education succeeded — and didn’t

By Richard Rothstein

A bill introduced in the New York City Council proposes to establish “an office of school diversity within the human rights commission dedicated to studying the prevalence and causes of racial segregation in public schools and developing recommendations for remedying such segregation.”

But it is not reasonable, indeed it is misleading, to study school segregation in New York City without simultaneously studying residential segregation. The two cannot be separated.

School segregation is primarily a problem of neighborhoods, not schools. Schools are segregated because the neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Some school segregation can be ameliorated by adjusting school attendance boundaries or controlling school choice, but these devices are limited and mostly inapplicable to elementary school children, for whom long travel to school is neither feasible nor desirable.

We have adopted a national myth that neighborhoods are segregated “de facto;” i.e., because of income differences, individual preferences, a history of private discrimination, etc. In fact, neighborhoods in New York City are segregated primarily because of a 20th century history of deliberate public policy to separate the races residentially, implemented by the city, state, and federal governments.

Just a few examples:

  • when the city and state created Stuyvesant Town in the 1940s, they cleared an integrated low-income neighborhood to build a segregated development for whites only;
  • when the government financed suburbs like Levittown, it did so with a federal requirement that no homes be sold to African Americans, and whites left the city for these federally subsidized segregated suburbs;
  • when the federal government and city collaborated to build public housing in the mid-twentieth century, they built separate projects for whites (e.g., the Williamsburg Houses) and for African Americans (e.g., the Harlem River Houses). It was only after most whites in public housing were given suburban housing options in federally segregated subdivisions that vacancies in public housing for whites were opened to African Americans.

The most important service the proposed Office of School Diversity could perform would be to call attention to this history, educate the public about it, and develop political support to remedy New York City’s unconstitutional residential segregation with housing policies that integrate the city. Without this, schools in New York City will continue to be segregated.

Most Americans today believe that the policies followed by government to segregate New York City were characteristic of cities in the South — not the North, Midwest, or West. This belief is mistaken.

Such policies were pursued by government in every region and metropolitan area in the nation. These policies were conscious, purposeful, not the unintended consequences of benign policies, and not pursued primarily from an accommodation with southern politicians.

The policies have never been remedied; they are the cause of the school and residential segregation we see everywhere around us.