Get Back! The Resegregation of America’s Schools

Get Back! The Resegregation of America’s Schools

By Linda Blackford

Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 9-11

The city of Charleston, West Virginia, took an unusual approach to school integration in the fall of 1956: It moved black children into white schools long before the rest of the South, and did it without a peep.

No one showed up to protest. No state official swore to block the schoolhouse door. It seemed that the daring experiment of integrated schools could succeed.

But over the years, and again, without a peep, Charleston’s schools have moved back to the separate and unequal facilities the Brown decision tried to correct.

Most of Charleston’s black residents–about 12 percent of the population–live in the Flats, the river bottom land north of the Kanawha River. Their children go to crumbling, un-airconditioned schools. Children and teachers move in and out at an alarming rate. The shiny, new schools up in Charleston’s hills have PTAs that raise up to $40,000 a year to hire art teachers and install new computer labs. The Flats schools still hold fundraisers for field trips. In the seven Flats elementary schools, there are less than five black children in the gifted programs.

“People are having a lot of problems.” said Anne Gilmer, a parent and teacher. “We’ve noticed a lot of our kids have been passed over and we feel the school system for our kids is a lot worse now than it ever was then.”

When the school board created a re-districting program, they refused to consider creating more racially and economically diverse schools, opting

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instead for “neighborhood schools.”

But Charleston is far from being alone. In fact, according to Harvard researcher Gary Orfield, it’s just one more fallen domino in what is becoming a pre-Brown pattern of segregation in America’s schools.

As places like Charleston show, the historic promise of integrated schools has somehow gone awry. Small gains that were made since the 1970s have reversed and widened the gap between black and white schools, and rich and poor ones.

Meanwhile, the entire principle of desegregation has become so controversial that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has discussed abandoning its historic and vigorous support of integrated schools. Even the U.S. government has changed its course.

“It is wrong to conclude that schools that teach poor, black children cannot teach,” said Raymond Pierce, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. “We need to look at the deliverables like test scores and graduation rates.”


Orfield, who started the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and frequently testifies in desegregation court cases, has sounded this particular alarm since the late 1980s. His latest report, which came out in April, 1997, and is excerpted in this issue of Southern Changes, shows that re-segregation is occurring at the fastest rate in schools in the South. The other increase is for Latino students, who find themselves more and more isolated in schools in the West and Southwest.

The Southern states have the most to lose ‘they moved from total segregation in 1960 to placing 14 percent of blacks into majority white schools in 1967. By 1988 the percentage jumped to 41 percent. By 1994, however, that number has dropped to 36.6 percent. Maryland, Mississippi, and Louisiana are now among the ten most segregated states in the country.

Latino segregation has become even more severe, according to Orfield’s data. In the North, South, and West, three-fourths of all Latino students attend predominantly non-white schools.

Orfield’s report blames most of the reversals on lower court and Supreme Court rulings that reversed desegregation orders, many of which are Reagan and Bush administration legacies just being felt today.

The trend started in Detroit in 1974 when Milliken v. Bradley drastically limited the flow of students between suburbia and the inner cities. Michigan now ranks second in the country for segregated black students. Cities like Richmond, Virginia, or Atlanta, Georgia, are similar: inside city limits, the schools approach 95 percent black, the result of nearly irreversible white flight.

Since then, major desegregation and busing orders were overturned or dismantled in Oklahoma City, Denver, and Kansas City; a landmark case in Norfolk, Virginia, supported by the Reagan Justice Department allowed the school board to return to segregated community or neighborhood schools.

Orfield’s numbers also illustrate the consequence of this segregation by showing the close link between racial isolation and economic deprival. The way most school systems are funded today, local economic deprivation too often means educational deprivation as well.

For example, he points out that only 5 percent of the nation’s segregated white schools face conditions of concentrated poverty among their children but more than 80 percent of segregated black and Latino schools do.

“Desegregation is not only sitting next to someone of the other race,” he writes. “A child moving from a segregated African-American or Latino school to a white school will very likely exchange conditions of concentrated poverty for a middle class school. Exactly the opposite is true when a child is sent back from an interracial school to a segregated neighborhood school as is happening under a number of recent court orders which end busing or desegregation choice plans.”

The Brown decision said that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” and evidence proves this is true today, Orfield says.

Economically deprived schools must often cope with a host of problems before class even starts. Poor children are more likely to have health and developmental problems, they may not be ready to learn, and they may not speak English. Many poor schools find it hard to attract good teachers while parents cannot afford the many extra resources, like art and computers, that wealthy schools buy.

Like a Mirage

Orfield is a tireless campaigner for integration. But many others feel the long struggle has had too few results.

“I’m not saying it was the wrong thing to do,” said Gilmer, who went on to teach in the Charleston schools. “What was bad was we expected too much of it.”

Mary Sanford, president of the Perry Homes Tenant Association in Atlanta, Georgia, thinks integration failed because it wasn’t done fairly.

“They took all the best black teachers into the white schools and bused all the black children,” she said. “Black schools stayed black, they never bussed any whites.”

Gilmer and Sanford agree that too much time and

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money have been spent trying to persuade white families to integrate. They think that the country needs to strive for integration, but not at the expense of children’s education.

“I think we lost a whole generation of children,” Gilmer said.

Integration was also resented because it held that a black child got a better education because he or she sat next to a white child. In fact, many black children in white schools were ignored or tracked into low level classes, regardless of their intellect.

Pierce of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, thinks too many people assume a majority black school must be a bad one.

Black residents of Greensboro, North Carolina, including a group of black ministers called the Pulpit Forum, supported the end of large-scale busing in Guilford County. “Separate but truly equal would not be so bad,” Greensboro resident Amos Quick told the Greensboro News and Record in May.

But the idea of “truly equal” still shimmers like a mirage in school districts around the country. Educational equity may prove to be just as elusive a concept as racial integration.

Numerous states have used lawsuits to fix funding disparities between rich and poor school districts. Those lawsuits may equalize property taxes between areas but they have not addressed the crucial difference between a PTA that raises $40,000 and one just a few streets away that raises $400. That difference often occurs between white neighborhoods and minority ones.

But Orfield is not the only one who thinks it’s too early to give up on integrated schools and the educational equity they bring. After much speculation and debate at the NAACP convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in July, the NAACP confirmed its support for school integration and pledged to continue to fight in desegregation court cases.

“Separate, segregated schools are inherently unequal,” Chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams said at the conference, “and will not provide the quality of education needed for the twenty-first century.”