Skip to main content

Quiet advance to apartheid

UNITED STATES. Jon Marcus on the changing face of American schools that leads

back to the 1900s

THE wrenching images are still etched into the American memory: white parents throw stones at yellow buses carrying black children into their neighborhoods to enforce racial integration, while white children were bussed into black neighbourhoods.

Twenty-five years later to the week, an equally wrenching change is taking place, but this time much more quietly. Courts and legislators have reversed their policies and many American schools are becoming racially homogeneous again.

In the first major study of enrolment trends since the early 1990s, Harvard University found that the percentage of black students who attend predominantly black, instead of integrated, schools is actually higher now than when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation exercise.

About two-thirds of black students now attend schools that are mostly black. About 75 per cent of Hispanics also go to schools that are predominantly Hispanic.

"In American race relations, the bridge from the 20th century may be leading back to the 19th century," said Gary Orfield, a professor of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"We may be deciding to bet the future of the country once more on separate but equal schools."

Orfield said the trend is not just racial but also socio-economic, and raises questions about the money available for predominantly black or Hispanic schools. In almost all the schools that are entirely minority, at least half the pupils are low-income. By comparison, hardly any of the schools that are entirely white or Asian have such high poverty levels.

In Boston, the school committee voted during the summer to drop race as a factor in deciding which school a child attends, in spite of criticism that the decision would mean a return to unevenly funded, racially imbalanced neighbourhood schools.

Boston, like other older US cities, tends to be divided racially, though less so than when forced desegregation took effect.

Mandatory bussing also had an unanticipated consequence, since many white parents moved away or put their children into private or parochial schools, even as immigration brought more minority families into Boston. While schools were once predominantly white,they are now about 85 per cent black, Asian and Hispanic.

"Underlying all of this is a dose of good old common sense," said the superintendent, Thomas Payzant. "It's not the 70s. It's not the 80s. It's the end of the 90s."

Because of its symbolic significance, Boston is among the most visible of the cities that have reversed past racial policies for schools. But it is not the only one.

Minnesota has enacted a much less strict provision that sets no specific goals for racial balance. This despite the fact that, among 18 states with similar percentages of black students, Minnesota has the highest proportion of blacks in segregated schools.

Buffalo, Seattle and Cleveland also have quietly diminished their desegregation efforts. So has Oklahoma City, and school districts serving the Baltimore suburbs, Las Vegas, Nashville, and Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

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