A week or so ago we got into a comment thread discussion about racial disparities in education. I think for many of us, we tend to see segregation as a problem in American schools, but we dismiss it because we only think of segregation as a legal limitation on the integration of public spaces, something long gone from our society. We look at racial disparities in achievement and blame it on bad parenting, socioeconomic factors, or, in our laziest moments, rap music. We opt to believe that segregation is chosen by students, families or their communities and that means it’s not altogether a bad thing. After all, to each his own, right?
Last week, a professor at Emory University released findings of a study that demonstrated the effects of segregation on racial learning disparities. Dennis Condron, the sociologist who led the study, initiated his research when he saw results of other studies that showed that despite certain schools’ narrowing of the achievement gap between social classes, those same schools saw a widening in the achievement gap between black and white students. I find this starting point particularly interesting because it cuts right to one of the arguments I mentioned above (the, “it’s not a race thing, it’s a socioeconomic thing;” as if the two can be so easily untangled). Condron was looking around and seeing that even when you tried to control for or address the socioeconomic issues at work, there was still a performance gap between black and white kids.
So he went to work to understand how the gap works, and he found that achievement is most disparate when students are segregated. Controlling for the other factors, Condron found that black students are more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers. Black students are more likely to attend schools with high minority populations. Black students are more likely to attend poverty-stricken schools in disadvantaged communities. While Condron found that the main factor contributing to racial disparities was in-school segregation, he found that class disparities were largely the effect of forces external to the school environment. He added,
De facto segregation remains high these days, with important implications for education. When it comes to both housing and schools, race trumps class as the central axis upon which blacks and whites are segregated.
Condron is not making assumptions when he talks about “de facto” segregation. In 2006, the Supreme Court heard a series of cases involving school desegregation plans and ruled in 2007 in a 5-4 majority that students’ race couldn’t be used in the development of the districts’ diversity-based student assignment plans. While not eliminating school districts’ ability to create integration plans, the decision limited options for creating racial balance and parity in schools. Chief Justice Roberts said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (A statement which seems to me to be suffering from a classic case of “colorblindness.”) Justice Clarence Thomas added:
Simply putting students together under the same roof does not necessarily mean that the students will learn together or even interact. Furthermore, it is unclear whether increased interracial contact improves racial attitudes and relations.
Well, kids, just go to your corners. Integration, schmintegration. Maybe someone will give him a copy of this new study.
Resegregation has been coming on for years. Schools that draw their populations directly from the community tend to reflect the segregated housing of those communities. While the Supreme Court allowed school systems to use busing to integrate schools in its 1971 decision, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, many localities (Charlotte included) are finding ways to back down from affirmative busing plans, offering families “options” about where they send their kids (be it by giving them a range of nearby schools to choose from or by allowing increased access to magnet programs that may or may not have race-based inclusion standards).
Other systems have retained busing and other integration measures, but because of academic tracking (the placement of students on college-bound, vocational-bound, etc. tracks of learning with set curricula), segregation is perpetuated. According to UNC-Charlotte sociologist Roslyn Arlin Mickelson in a presentation to a conference called The Resegregation of Southern Schools?
The weight of scholarly evidence suggests that the practice of tracking unjustifiably assigns minority students disproportionately to lower tracks and almost excludes them from the accelerated ones; it offers them inferior opportunities to learn, and is responsible, in part, for their lower achievement (Lucas 1999; Mickelson 2001; Oakes et al. 2000; Welner 2002).
Clearly, in any case segregation is still a problem. And it’s getting worse by the minute. It’s hardly voluntary, and even if it were, it would be nonetheless bad for children. If we are ever going to make real progress against racism in this country, we must all become active opponents of the unnatural forces allowing and even promoting resegregation.