It’s been 64 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared school segregation unconstitutional. To overcome the racial barriers dividing America’s classrooms, the students seeking integration braved security patrols and hostile mobs to demonstrate that they, too, had a right to an equal education.
Yet the specter of Jim Crow still haunts our classrooms decades later. Despite the nation’s growing diversity, public schools are more separate and less equal than ever; many districts are actually resegregating. Even highly diverse cities like New York are still rife with subsurface racial injustice — the soft borders of economic inequality and social exclusion.
For instance, though New York school students are predominantly children of color and hail from every corner of the world, only six percent of its schools are considered very diverse; nearly half of the city’s elementary schools are over 90 percent black and Latino. Meanwhile, with neighborhoods sharply cleaved by income level and ethnicity, just a quarter of New Yorkers live in diverse neighborhoods, according to a City Council member’s recent analysis. More than 80 percent of black or white New Yorkers would have to move in order to even out the racial imbalance across neighborhoods citywide.
The specter of Jim Crow still haunts our classrooms decades later.
The sharp racial rifts trigger a musical chairs of meritocracy in the school system, and the resulting racial anxieties recently went viral with a widely-circulated video showing panicking parents on Manhattan's Upper West Side, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Faced with a new integration scheme that would open more of their local school’s slots to kids from other nearby schools, the otherwise allegedly liberal middle-class parents (who might normally recoil at any accusation that they were promoting segregation) were seized with reactionary anger, resisting the idea of any change in their children’s perceived academic prospects in a less-white school.
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It’s hard to fault parents for acting in what they viewed as their children’s best interest. But their reaction attests to the city's shame of institutionalized segregation, in which the mere perception of what is in privileged children’s “best interest” runs counter to the racial progress (and future educational opportunities) of other, non-white children.
Nationwide, other primary and secondary schools are following similar trends toward rising racial division and concentrated poverty, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. The number of schools segregated by both race and deep poverty has roughly doubled since 2000, and in most high-poverty schools, a stark majority of students are children of color.
The mere perception of what is in privileged children’s “best interest” runs counter to the racial progress (and future educational opportunities) of other, non-white children.
Since the mid-1990s, the country's expanding wealth divide — driven in part by welfare cuts under the Clinton administration — has systematically foreclosed educational opportunity for young people of color. Richer, typically whiter school districts are buttressed by exclusionary housing policies and hefty property tax streams while schools in urban neighborhoods and deep rural communities sink into concentrated poverty and public disinvestment. Many struggling school systems are fractured by free-market-driven “school choice” policies, privatization through the expansion of charter schools and gentrification of working-class neighborhoods — policies that enable affluent families to game a labyrinth of standardized tests and competitive application systems to occupy elite schools, while the deregulation of public education relegates poor families to overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, threatened with forced closures for “underperformance.”
The crisis facing schools in communities of color isn’t a political accident, but a legacy of historical segregation. Thanks to social policies fueling chronic joblessness and debt crisis, children growing up in majority black and Latino neighborhoods are constantly exposed to instability, violence and, by extension, systemic educational barriers. Their schools not only deny them equal resources, but often subject them to harsh security policies that lead to repeated suspension, expulsion and even incarceration. In hostile school climates, even the most gifted students are depressingly reminded every day in class — from the intimidating security officers guarding the entrance to crumbling, outdated textbooks — that this is the education their community is deemed to deserve.
Although New York City was never officially subjected to Jim Crow laws, it has a long history of racist policymaking and a succession of business-friendly administrations since the 1970s have kept its schools chronically underresourced. A handful of prestigious magnet schools have flourished, creating ever-tightening competition while segregation by race and income has intensified across the city. To their credit, the DeBlasio administration and lawmakers are developing policies to dismantle segregation, but have yet to confront structural barriers to integration.
Even the most gifted students are depressingly reminded every day in class — from the intimidating security officers guarding the entrance to crumbling, outdated textbooks — that this is the education their community is deemed to deserve.
Combating the colorline in the classroom requires radically redistributing access and opportunity across education, housing and social welfare systems. Restructuring enrollment policies to fairly reflect a city’s entire social landscape demands comprehensive reforms to ensure mixed student populations across the class and demographic spectrum, as well as leveling funding between richer and poorer districts in states. Federal, state and local lawmakers must pressure the wealthiest taxpayers to fairly share the burden of funding education, while also strengthening public housing and transportation networks, to foster equitable community development that can sustain students’ families. Though school enrollment policies can be politically charged, the debate must foreground the voices of working-class and immigrant families and communities of color, and recognize all children’s inherent dignity. Achieving genuine integration — not just “diversity” — means challenging ingrained social hierarchies, even if it disrupts loyal constituencies and underlying prejudices.
Policymakers also need to restructure educational standards around equity, rather than competition: Do schools need more test prep when they are overwhelmed with hungry and homeless children? Why do standard curricula seem to fixate on math and reading drills while crowding out humanities and arts programs? Do English-language learners and special education students need more guidance counselors, or more security officers? And discussions around fair compensation for teachers should include ensuring reasonable staff workloads, smaller class sizes, comprehensive diversity in hiring policies and culturally conscious professional development, so that frontline education workers are equipped to foster a pluralistic, collaborative learning community.
This isn’t simply a matter of aiding disadvantaged schools but one of providing restorative justice. Educational inequality hurts every kid by destabilizing communities and narrowing students’ worldviews, and a growing body of research has illuminated how more integrated school settings foster childhood development. And the halting progress since Brown v. Board shows the need to revisit the journey toward educational justice for the next generation.
Schools can be transformed from bastions of social division to spaces of emancipation by providing safe, nurturing communities for the free exchange of ideas across lines of language, class and color. If our schools fail to accomplish that, then we fail our youth, and ultimately, our democracy.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast and Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI FM.