Equality - Schools in US 'more racially segregated than 40 years ago'

Report claims policymakers have abandoned goal of integration

Richard Vaughan

Just at the moment last month when the US was marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, new research was revealing that American schools are more racially segregated now than 40 years ago.

According to a study released to coincide with the anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, African-American students have become more isolated in schools. The report claims that US policymakers have, in effect, abandoned the issue of segregation in schools, opting instead to focus on the performance gap between black and white students.

Figures published by thinktank the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) show that, in 1970, 32 per cent of students in a "typical" black student's school were white. Integration increased substantially during the 1970s to a peak of 36.2 per cent by 1980, but then declined in the 1990s and 2000s to a point where only 29.2 per cent of white students attended predominantly black schools in 2010.

The report states that today many black children are educated in "racially and economically isolated neighbourhoods, while their families still reside in lonely islands of poverty". Almost 40 per cent are from families with incomes below the poverty line, the report states, compared with just 12 per cent of white children.

Richard Rothstein, author of the report, said the reason for the drop in integration was politicians shifting their priorities to narrowing the attainment gap between black and white students. "Policymakers have abandoned integration as a goal despite abundant evidence that it continues to be essential for closing the gap between white and black student achievement," he said.

"Organisers of the march on Washington (in 1963) were correct to stress how critical integration was to education improvement. It is tragic that education reformers fail to see the disastrous impact school isolation is having on African-American students, while they persist in futile denunciations of failing schools."

Mr Rothstein said that politicians were increasingly focused on school-level performance, rather than the system-wide changes that would alter the racial intake of schools. "As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once cavalierly put it, if schools improved, 'a lot of what Dr King wanted to accomplish in our society will take care of itself'," his report states.

Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, agreed that schools had become more segregated but said that there were no easy answers in solving the problem. "At the moment we have a situation that is not acceptable, but some of the aims of desegregation were a little naive. I mean, how can you legislate against it? You can't stop people from moving to the suburbs if they become more affluent," he said.

"There is no doubt we have moved to educational reform rather than desegregation. The question has been do you create policies that affect so many different parts of people's lives or just focus on schools and what educators have to do. At the moment, I don't think sending their child to a school that is racially mixed is as high on parents' priorities as getting them into college," Mr Campbell added.

"We have a quandary, but until we are able to solve it we have to make every school, regardless of its racial make-up, a high-quality school. There are some schools, such as the Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, that have made having a rich racial mix one of their main aims. We need more schools like that."

The EPI's report comes almost exactly a year after research by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that segregation was rapidly increasing.

According to three studies published by the university, 15 per cent of black students and 14 per cent of Latino students across the US attend so-called "apartheid schools", where between 0 and 1 per cent of students enrolled are white.

Speaking at a march last month on Washington, organised to commemorate King's speech, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said that although a great deal had been achieved in the past 50 years, "much more needed to be done".

"The 'whites only' signs may be gone but there are still signs of injustice all around us," she said. "Children born poor today are likely to stay poor. High-poverty schools, where kids need so much more, are provided with so much less. And discrimination based on race or sexual orientation may no longer be legal but we know that it can still be lethal."

The EPI study comes after heavy criticism of Chicago's Board of Education for its decision to close 50 public schools, with many people arguing that the decision was racially motivated.

Parents and the Chicago Teachers Union pushed for a court injunction against the closures, claiming that they would affect black children more than others. The city's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, issued a statement denying that race had played any part in the decision-making process.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

Latest stories