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Five myths about school segregation

Black and white fourth graders at St. Martin School, Washington, DC, dash for the playground at recess, September 17, 1954. While the District of Columbia and four states acted to end segregation in the schools, other states either resisted the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling of last May, or waited for a decision, due this fall, on ways to carry out the ruling. (AP Photo)
Black and white fourth graders at St. Martin School, Washington, DC, dash for the playground at recess, September 17, 1954. While the District of Columbia and four states acted to end segregation in the schools, other states either resisted the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling of last May, or waited for a decision, due this fall, on ways to carry out the ruling. (AP Photo) (AP)
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Decades of research have reinforced the importance of racially integrated schools: Desegregation has led to higher high school and college graduation rates, better jobs, higher incomes and better health for Black people. Yet our schools are increasingly segregated: According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the share of schools that are at least 90 percent Black and Latino has tripled since the peak of desegregation in the late 1980s. (Students are doubly segregated by poverty: Black children are more than twice as likely as White children to attend high-poverty schools.) Here are five common myths about school segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation.

In 1954, Brown declared racially “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional and spurred integration in other areas of American life as well. It is justifiably celebrated as a “landmark” case. Often, it’s said simply to have “ended” school segregation, including in headlines from NBC and the Guardian.

A year after the decision, however, the Supreme Court caved to Southern resistance by ruling that school districts did not have to desegregate immediately, but rather with “all deliberate speed.” Desegregation did not really begin in earnest until Congress intervened a decade later, by passing laws that penalized Southern defiance and incentivized integration through federal funding. In its 1968 decision in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, the court re-energized Brown by clarifying that it required the integration not only of students but also of faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities. By 1972, schools were more integrated in the South than in other parts of the country — but that took the concerted efforts of all three branches of government and multiple trips to the Supreme Court.

Brown’s impact outside the South, however, has been limited: The court’s 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley gutted desegregation efforts outside the South by refusing to extend Brown’s reach from the federally redlined majority-Black central cities to the overwhelmingly White suburbs. Because of Milliken, it is much harder to racially integrate students across school district lines.

Desegregation's goal was diversity in schools.

Critics of school desegregation have targeted its supposed premise that Black children need to “sit next to white kids to learn,” as one education policy expert wrote in 2019. This framing has a long history: In a 1966 speech, Stokely Carmichael condemned the “drug of integration” and the misguided focus on “sitting next to White people.”

Yet school integration ultimately aimed not to diversify classroom rosters but to ensure “true equality” for Black people, according to Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect of the NAACP’s early legal strategy. That much was laid bare by the struggle to secure “separate but equal” resources for segregated Black schools, which the NAACP team likened to “trying to empty a swimming pool with an eyedropper.” As Thurgood Marshall, who succeeded Houston, put it: the failure to challenge segregation would give Black people the “same thing” they had always had—“separate but never equal.” Attacking the system of segregation would put Black children in White schools, where the resources were.

As labor economist Rucker Johnson has noted, desegregation changed the level of resources available to Black children in public schools. Because desegregation included not only students but teachers, facilities, the curriculum, extracurriculars and other enrichment activities, spending per pupil increased by an average of 23 percent and class sizes shrank significantly.

White people didn't oppose integration — only busing.

Parents often claimed to oppose the inconvenience of busing, not racial integration itself. A protest sign summed it up this way: “Education — Yes. Integration — Yes. Transportation — No.” “Parents simply won’t stand to have their children shuttled around from school to school to please some extremists,” antibusing leader Rosemary R. Gunning told the New York Times in 1964. When Boston started desegregating its schools in the mid-1970s, one mother complained: “I wouldn’t care if they were green or purple. It’s the idea of putting my kid on a bus when I have a school right across the street from where they should go.”

Perhaps the biggest backlash occurred in Boston, which became known for its violent protests against the policy, but demonstrations also took place in other cities, such as Baltimore, Louisville and Pontiac, Mich. Yet the focus on busing was often racial code. Children had been riding buses to school for decades before Brown, with little complaint from parents. White parents would also shun their neighborhood schools once they became integrated, indicating that integration — rather than proximity — was their primary concern. Later these parents would migrate en masse to White suburban enclaves, where they would not be subject to busing.

School desegregation didn't work.

Schools across the United States have become increasingly segregated, leading publications such as the New Yorker and the Guardian to pronounce that desegregation definitively “failed.”

But this narrative misses the real, important gains for the generations who had access to integrated schools. At the height of desegregation, from the early 1970s through the late 1980s, the achievement gap between Black and White students narrowed at record speed. In 1960, only 20 percent of Black men had graduated from high school, compared with 50 percent of White men, as Rucker Johnson shows in his book “Children of the Dream.” By the early 1980s, college enrollment rates for Black 18- and 19-year-olds were comparable to those of White students. Improvements in education were followed by gains in occupational status, earnings, family income and health. The benefits of attending diverse schools are also intergenerational, passing from grandparents who attended desegregated schools to their children and grandchildren.

Schools are segregated because of parental choice.

The public often views school segregation as the cumulative effect of individual choices. An NBC opinion piece, for example, claimed that “White parents are enabling school segregation — if it doesn’t hurt their own kids.” The New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents” examines how individual families’ decisions affected several New York City schools. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has treated this like fact, claiming that “racial imbalance” in schools is a “product not of state action but of private choices.”

It is true that White parents often pick White schools for their children — even when given the choice of academically competitive, racially integrated schools. But racially motivated federal, state and local policies helped create the segregated landscapes in which individuals make those choices. Explicit segregation in federal public housing after World War II, state-sanctioned redlining and race-based deed restrictions through the 1960s entrenched the problem — as did racial steering by state-licensed real estate brokers and the local exercise of police power to enforce racial boundaries. In sum, policies across all levels of government have shaped people’s choices about where they live — and thus, where they attend school. According to scholar Richard Rothstein: “Private prejudice certainly played a very large role. But . . . unconstitutional government action not only reflected but helped to create and sustain private prejudice.”

Twitter: @eliseboddie

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