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The return of segregation

African-American community leader gives blessing to plan that will divide a city's schools by race, reports Stephen Phillips


An American state has approved plans to split the school system in its largest city into three racially distinct authorities.

More than 50 years after racial segregation was outlawed in US schools, an unlikely alliance of an African-American community leader and white conservatives passed the plan for Omaha, Nebraska, a city slightly larger than Bristol, in the state legislature. Signed into law by Nebraska's Republican governor, it will create separate authorities to control the city's predominantly black schools, its largely Hispanic ones and those with a majority of white pupils, reflecting areas where racial groups are concentrated in the city from September 2008.

The legislation's architect, Ernie Chambers, Nebraska's only black lawmaker, said the new system would ensure that the needs of minority students, who are concentrated in the city's poorest-performing schools, were met. An independent politician representing largely black north-eastern Omaha, he said: "It's about local control. This will give parents a real voice in their kids' education and provide more resources to low-income students.

"It divides Omaha into three manageable (authorities) of 15,000 students.

The only way it is racially identifiable is because the residential population is already racially segregated."

But the legislation was also backed by conservatives seeking to block proposals to extend Omaha School District's jurisdiction. They opposed attempts to increase its property tax-raising powers and create academic "magnet" programmes that would draw inner-city pupils out to suburban schools.

Mr Chambers said: "Politics makes strange bedfellows. I'm not interested in segregation or integration, but quality education."

But Gary Orfield, professor of education and director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard university, said the new law was misguided and predicted it would face an early legal challenge. "State action that fosters segregation is unconstitutional," he said.

Defining neighbourhoods as black or Latino would lead to disinvestment and exacerbate racial separation, he said, citing a 1973 case in which civil rights activists in Atlanta, Georgia, agreed to drop their demands for racial integration of the city's schools in exchange for African-American control of the education authority.

"The result was an extremely unequal education system, abandonment of the city by whites and middle class blacks and segregation by race and poverty," he said.

Minority schools' problems are rooted in isolation, concentration of poverty, unstable attendance and lack of experienced teachers. "These schools have extraordinary problems few white schools face," he said.

Nebraska's action contradicts the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregated state schools are unconstitutional.

More divided than ever Decades of integration followed a US Supreme Court ruling in 1954 which banned school segregation.

But American schools have grown steadily more racially polarised since the early 1990s, due to the curtailing by conservatives of school bus programmes - intended to distribute students more equally - and due to the spread of wealth-driven postcode segregation.

The latest Civil Rights Project study, released in January, said the proportion of black students attending "majority non-white" schools in America's South increased from 61 per cent to 71 per cent between 1991 and 2003. More than three-quarters of highly-segregated schools are also "high-poverty", it said.

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