How `resegregation' was the spark that ignited US riots

22nd August 2014 at 01:00
Civil rights expert says `unequal schooling' is a factor in crisis

The civil unrest that has engulfed part of the US state of Missouri is partly rooted in the growing racial segregation of America's suburban schools, according to experts.

Mass protests broke out across the St Louis suburb of Ferguson in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, under highly disputed circumstances on 9 August. The incident - in which Mr Brown was fatally shot six times, twice in the head - sparked huge demonstrations that turned violent as the issue became one of race as much as perceived injustice.

A 23-year-old black man, said to have been carrying a knife, was shot dead by police on 19 August.

According to civil rights experts, the riots were born out of the gradual "resegregation" of the area, as the suburbs of St Louis, and particularly its schools, became increasingly African American.

Gary Orfield, a professor of education, law and political science, and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the abandonment of civil rights policies since the 1980s had led to a marked rise in racial segregation in schools across the US suburbs.

When this coincided with the vast majority of school, council and police employees being white, tensions between communities were inevitable, Professor Orfield added. "Segregation, unequal schooling and job opportunities, a history of discrimination in the county and the tension between a racially changed population and white officials who do not institute strong civil rights policies - those things all matter," he told TES.

The academic was at the centre of a huge civil rights court case in St Louis in the 1980s, which succeeded in forcing the state of Missouri to fund a $1 billion programme to rebuild the city's schools. It also paid for a voluntary transfer programme that gave black students the opportunity to attend higherperforming schools in the suburbs.

But Professor Orfield said subsequent decisions to abandon such commitments, along with the loss of industry in the area, had led to "white flight" in the neighbourhood's schools.

"It is a sad story of neglect and political reversals, as well as the major militarisation of police forces that began with the riots of the 1960s in places like Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark," he added. "Instead of addressing the issues, we have done nothing in urban policy, we have repealed the public jobs policy we had in the 1970s and we have reversed civil rights policies."

His comments are supported by a report published last year by US thinktank the Economic Policy Institute, which states that policymakers have abandoned desegregation as a goal since the 1980s, focusing instead on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor. The report's author, Richard Rothstein, said this decision had been made "despite abundant evidence that integration continues to be essential for closing the gap between white and black student achievement".

Schools in the Ferguson district had been due to reopen this week after the summer holidays but were forced to remain closed owing to the disturbances, which have led officials to call in the National Guard.

In a statement, the Ferguson-Florissant School District told parents it had shut all schools because of escalating violence between local residents and police, involving tear gas and rubber bullets. The board said: "This decision was made after much careful deliberation and consideration of input received from local law enforcement officials and district security staff.

"We believe that closing schools for the rest of this week will allow needed time for peace and stability to be restored to our community and allow families to plan ahead for the additional days that children will be out of school."

In a letter to parents, acting school superintendent Lawrence Larrew says he is "heartbroken" by the events of the past two weeks. "The safety of our students and staff, as always, is our top priority," he writes. "As emotions remain high throughout the North County area, and access to some roads in Ferguson remains uncertain, we have rescheduled events this week."

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