Segregation not about Proximity, but Equity

For several years, I have been showing Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later in both my introductory education course and an interim educational documentaries course at the selective private university where I teach.

Two scenes address the contemporary realities of lingering segregation within the walls of historic Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas: the school principal announcing mix-up day over the intercom and Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, speaking to a class of students and asking them to identify why the room upsets her.

These moments from the documentary lead to my students discussing the segregated dynamics of our university, attended disproportionately by affluent and white students (also overwhelmingly female). The dining hall is the most stark example of the segregation on campus with tables of mostly African American athletes and then an assortment of less overt self-segregation by a number of characteristics easily identified by the students themselves.

Race, social class, and the inherent overlap of race with social class all still shuffle the university into distinct and separate groups that are the result of far more than simple shared interests or the seemingly natural human habit of forming cliques.

Throughout May of 2014, numerous media events and publications have been exploring where we stand as a people in the U.S. 60 years after the court-ordered end to racial segregation in public schools. The messages have consisted of somewhat idealized celebrations of the 1954 Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court judgement and confrontations of the current state of segregation in schools and communities throughout the U.S.—notably that segregation is not only a lingering scar in the South, but a reality of the entire country.

When I published Racial segregation returns to US schools, 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it at The Conversation (UK) and then AlterNet reposted the piece, I noticed several trends in the responses that warrant some clarification.

First, it appears that many who are confronted with the facts of segregation misunderstand that large phenomenon in ways similar to how we misread poverty.

Segregation and poverty are, in fact, manageable terms for extremely complex and unwieldy conditions—terms that comprise a number of interrelated but smaller conditions that may exist in an unpredictable array of combinations.

Segregation presents several complicating factors for understanding the phenomenon. One is that racial segregation is overt, relatively easy to identify. Social class segregation is less overt, but racial and class segregation are so closely interrelated that confronting one often allows the other to be ignored or marginalized.

This first trend—misreading and misunderstanding the condition of segregation—leads to a second: Many who acknowledge the fact of segregation immediately express something between skepticism and cynicism about the ability of a people or the government to do anything about it.

Since segregation is a complex condition and an abstraction of many shifting but related conditions, the sheer enormity of doing something about segregation does appear overwhelming. But fatalism seems to spring from both a blindness to how laws, policies, and grassroots activism have created change and a lack of individual and community agency among the public in the U.S.

A third and important trend is almost as enormous to confront as eradicating segregation itself: the profound misunderstanding of just why we continue to seek integration.

A typical misunderstanding of acknowledging a need to end segregation is couched in this comment from the AlterNet posting: “Will a black child develop better reading skills or be more proficient at math because he sat next to a white child.”

If we focus for a moment on racial segregation among schools or within schools, this comment provides a powerful entrance into addressing all three trends noted above.

To answer the question, then, is to begin to see how we might address segregation in ways that can eradicate the root causes of segregation.

The answer involves recognizing that race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. Thus, African American children may in fact learn better if sitting beside a white child, but not because of the proximity of one child to another but because that African American child would then likely be afforded proximity to the opportunity that white child enjoys as a result of that child’s privilege.

In other words, segregation is result of racism, the momentum of poverty and privilege, sexism, classism, and public policy. If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice but the consequence of mostly harmless human socialization.

To put a sharp point on what we are supposed to do about segregation, let’s focus on just education.

Segregation among schools and within schools represents a measurable inequity of opportunity by race and class among students.

Currently, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students experience both segregation in the schools they attend as well as within schools that are racially balanced (schools-within-schools created by selective tracks such as Advanced Placement [AP] and International Baccalaureate [IB]; again, see Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later for students confronting that reality). These examples of segregation are markers for seminal problems: Inequitable school funding, inequitable teacher assignments, school facilities in disrepair, lower access to technology and materials, teacher churn, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, etc.

So we are now faced in 2014 with the opportunity to reconsider how we have exposed and then addressed segregation for 60 years.

Yes, some policies and practices have proven futile—especially those that created tensions, bussing to force integration, and ultimately targeted the consequences without addressing root causes.

It seems that we need now to make a better case that seeking integration is a commitment to equity for all. The problem is not segregation itself because segregation is the large phenomenon that serves as a marker for the facts of systemic and institutional inequity correlated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and native language (for examples).

Sixty years from now if we look up to see our communities and schools are still often segregated by race, we may be able to declare success if we can also show the conditions among those segregated communities and schools are no longer inequitable in terms of anyone’s or any child’s access to opportunities.

Ending segregation, then, is not about forcing African American children to sit beside white children, is not about forcing African American families to live beside white families—as if racial proximity is what ultimately matters.

Ending segregation is about African American children enjoying the same opportunities white children have, about African American adults enjoying the same opportunities white adults have.

Doing something about segregation—whether we mean public policy or public activism—must be doing something about equity, and not continuing the mistake of reading segregation as a problem of simple proximity.

For Further Reading

“So That’s Just One Of My Losses,” Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last year, I went to visit the home of Clyde Ross in North Lawndale. I was there to research an argument for reparations. Clyde Ross had just turned 90. I asked Mr. Ross why he’d come from Mississippi to Chicago. He told me he came because he was seeking “the protection of the law.” I didn’t understand what he meant. He told me there were no black judges, no black police, no black prosecutors in his hometown of Clarksdale. For a black man living in that town it effectively meant that there was “no law.”

This was a particularly illustrative example of why it is always important to report. Talking to Ross clarified something I’d been thinking about–specifically that being black was not a matter of white people thinking you had cooties. It was something deeper and more mature. It was the branding of black people as outside of American society, outside of American law, and outside of the American social contract. And this branding was done even as black people pledged fealty to the state, paid taxes to the state, and died for the state. This was high tech robbery, plunder at the systemic level. White Supremacy was not about getting black and white people to sit at the same lunch table, it was about getting white people to stop stealing shit from black people–labor, bodies, children, taxes, lives.

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

In The link between charter school expansion and increasing segregation, Iris C. Rotberg highlights that problems exist in both re-segregation of schools in the U.S. and the rise of charter schools as separate and interrelated forces.

Schools in the U.S. are re-segregating, regardless of type—public, private, and charter.

And charter schools are not creating the education reform charter advocates claim, with one failure of the charter movement being segregating students by race and class.

Thus, it is important to focus on the evidence that shows the need to reconsider how to address segregation and the flawed support continuing for expanding charter schools.

Let me offer below a reader for such evidence:

Some key points from Rotberg include the following:

#1. There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income….

#2. The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program….

#3. Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture….

I am not under the illusion that by modifying federal policy on charter schools we would solve the basic problem of segregation. But we could at least eliminate one factor exacerbating it: the federal pressure on states and school districts to proliferate charter schools, even in situations that might lend themselves to increased segregation. Instead of serving as a cheerleader for charter schools, the federal government might instead support diversity in schools and, at the same time, publicize the risks of increased student stratification.

Even apart from the negative effect of increased segregation, justifying federal advocacy of charter school expansion is difficult when there’s no evidence that charter schools, on average, are academically superior to traditional public schools or even that they can be more innovative given the Common Core State Standards and the testing associated with them.

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

A half century seems to be a significant amount of time for change, but Minnijean Brown Trickey’s visit to Little Rock Central High School fifty years after the federal government had to monitor her and eight other African American students entering public school shows that much more time is needed. Felicia Lee captured Trickey’s experience, documented in the HBO film Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later:

On a recent visit to Central High, Ms. Trickey spoke to a self-segregated classroom: whites on one side, blacks on the other. An African-American student apparently dozed as she spoke. Students and teachers alike spoke blithely or painfully of the low educational aspirations and achievements of too many black students. Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high achieving, affluent white minority.

Public schools in the U.S., like Little Rock Central, are a snapshot of racial and economic inequity. While the landmark Brown v. the Board of Educationin 1954 ended de jure segregation, the South struggled with school integration well into the 1970s.

Yet, Little Rock Central is not unique to the lingering racial and economic inequities found in schools—including children of color, children from poverty, ELL, and special needs students being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers, receiving highly scripted test-prep instruction, and enduring authoritarian “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Children of color and children from poverty also experience the within-school segregation highlighted by Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later: White and affluent students dominate selective tracks of classes (such as Advanced Placement), and white and African American students self-segregate in class, the lunchroom, and social settings.

Many of these issues of social and educational inequity receive some political and public consideration, but one aspect of inequity remains ignored: The rise of de facto educational segregation, notably in the South.

The Re-segregated South

Race has historically been central to both how the South is defined as well as the social tensions of the region. In a 2012 report for The Civil Rights Project, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg note that the twenty-first century has revealed a South in which “black and Latino students account for about half of the region’s students, while whites constitute a minority.”

According to data drawn from a larger report, E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students, the racial dynamics of the South include two powerful elements, as Siegel-Hawley and Frankenberg, focusing on the South, detail:

• The South is a majority-minority region in terms of its school enrollment, second only to the West as the most diverse in the country. At more than 15 million students, the South has, by far, the largest enrollment of any region. Southern students make up almost a third of the national enrollment (32% of all students).

• Latino students account for nearly the same share (23.4%) of the region’s enrollment as black students (25.9%). At 46.9%, whites now constitute a minority of students in the South.

While the South has historically been an impoverished region of the U.S., the racial shifts experienced by the region amplify the problems already faced by public schools disproportionately burdened by the impact of poverty on student outcomes as well as fully funding education. Racial and economic factors are difficult to separate in the South, but the rise in populations of Latino students adds challenges associated with language acquisition to the systemic struggles fueled by racial tensions in the South.

During the most recent era of school accountability, begun in the early 1980s and intensified in 2001 with the implementation of No Child Behind (which specifically charged public schools with documenting and addressing racial gaps in achievement), however, achievement gaps and drop-out rates, for example, remain seemingly entrenched in public education. One other reality of the last three to four decades is that schools are re-segregating:

• Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90-100% minority students). This represents a significant setback. Though for decades Southern black students were more integrated than their peers in other parts of the country, by 2009-10 the share of Southern black students enrolled in intensely segregated minority schools (33.4%) was fast closing in on the national figure (38.1%). By comparison, in 1980, just 23% of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools.

• For the last four decades, contact between black and white students has declined in virtually all Southern states. In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.

• Most of the largest Southern metro areas also report declining black-white exposure. The Raleigh, NC metro had the highest black-white contact although this too has fallen in recent years. In 2009, the typical black student in the metro went to a school where whites accounted for about 45% of their peers, compared to about 54% in 2002).

• In 2009, black-white exposure in the metropolitan area of Raleigh was relatively similar to the overall white percentage in the metro (54%)–indicating fairly stable levels of desegregation. Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district’s voluntary integration policy.

• Two metros, Memphis, TN and Miami, FL, had the lowest exposure of black students to white students in 2009, under 15%.

The South is no longer a racial dichotomy between black and white; Latino students now share the inequities found among African Americans:

• The share of Latino students attending intensely segregated minority schools has increased steadily over the past four decades from 33.7% in 1968 to 43.1% in 2009; presently more than two out of five Latino students in the South attend intensely segregated settings.

•At the metropolitan level, Latino-white exposure is higher than black-white exposure across many major Southern metro areas. This is particularly true in Southern metros outside of Texas (where, in general, the lowest exposure between Latino and white students occurred).

• For example, Atlanta has a growing Latino student population, now comprising 13% of all students. As their share of enrollment has grown, Latino exposure to whites has fallen substantially—by nearly ten percentage points since 2002. Yet, Latino students in the Atlanta area still have higher exposure to white students (29.8%) than their black peers (20.3%).

• In ten Southern metros, the typical Latino attends a school where at least 40% of students are white. By comparison, only in the Raleigh metro did black students experience similarly high levels of exposure to white students.

Among black, white, and Latino students, social and educational inequity defines access to education (schools remain reflections of racially and economically stratified communities):

• Black students experience the highest levels of exposure to poverty in nearly every Southern state. (This is different from the rest of the U.S., where Latino students experience higher average exposure to poverty.)

• Virginia, with the lowest share of student poverty in the South, also reports the lowest black exposure to poor students. Even then, almost 50% of students in the school of the typical black student in Virginia are low-income, considerably higher than the state’s share of low-income students (36.8%).

• Stark differences in exposure to poverty for white students, as compared to black and Latino students, exist in virtually every Southern and Border metropolitan area.

• In three Border metros, the typical white student attended a school with less than 30% poor students, and the typical black student attended a school with more than 60% of students from households at or near the poverty line.

The re-segregation of the South should raise essential questions about education reform: How are current reform policies addressing racial and economic inequity? And how are those reforms impacting re-segregation?

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

The current education reform era remains committed to seeking new standards (currently a push for national standards, the Common Core), aligning tests to those standards and then linking those test scores to teacher evaluations, expanding commitments to charter schools, and infusing the teaching core with inexperienced and uncertified Teach for America recruits.

While the education reform movement has ignored that test-based accountability has failed to raise student outcomes, close achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, or boost international comparisons of U.S. schools, the test-based and “no excuses” reform paradigm proves to be even a greater failure when measured against goals committed to equity, as the reports from The Civil Rights Project highlight.

Changing standards ignores that children in poverty and children of color tend to experience test-prep courses regardless of the standards, and thus receive a reduced educational experience when compared to middle-class and affluent (and disproportionately white) students. If education reform were committed to equity, public schools would insure that all students, regardless of race or socio-economic status, would receive rich and engaging educations.

Increasing the amount of testing and the stakes associated with that testing (for both students and teachers) ignores that standardized testing remains more closely linked with the child’s home status than with the child’s learning or their teachers’ effectiveness. If education reform were committed to equity, high-stakes standardized testing and using test scores to label and rank students and teachers would be completely eliminated. Test-driven education stratifies students by race and socio-economic status, discourages teachers from seeking opportunities to work with high-needs students, and misrepresents school quality (see the historical failure of relying on the SAT, for example.)

Charter schools are not producing outcomes superior to public (or private) schools, but charter schools (such as KIPP) are stratifying (re-segregating) schools and focusing education for children of color and children from poverty more on authoritarian discipline policies and test-prep than rich experiences being experienced by their more affluent (and white) peers. If education reform were committed to equity, children of color and children from poverty would be provided public education that mirrors the education being experienced by affluent whites; instead, charter schools are segregated and “no excuses” environments designed for “other people’s children.”

Funding and expanding TFA candidates in high-poverty and high-minority schools ignores that the single greatest inequity experienced by children of color and children from poverty is being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would abandon test-based teacher evaluations as well as supporting TFA, and instead would insure equity of teacher assignment for all students while also acknowledging the importance of experience and expertise for teachers.

Focusing on school-only reform (the tenet of “no excuses” school reform) ignores the corrosive power of poverty. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would be supported by social reform that acknowledges recent findings on the stress of poverty and child cognition: “These results suggest that prenatal stress may play a role in the intergenerational persistence of poverty.” Poverty is the result of inequity, and schools too often reflect that inequity and thus cannot then raise students out of that poverty.

The bi-partisan test-based accountability movement, driven by a “no excuses” ideology, is deaf and blind to the social and educational inequity of their policies.

Little Rock Central, half a century after segregation was declared over, remains a haunting legacy of how much further society and U.S. schools need to go:

“Central is still pretty segregated,” Brandon Love, the affluent student body president who is the only black person in his Advanced Placement classes, says in the film. “It is just that we do not have to have the National Guard here to get in the school and to go to school.”

The South is currently a bitter pill to swallow in the war on inequity. The South, again, is also a stark message for the entire country: Inequity stains the lives and learning of American children.

The commitments of education reform are perpetuating those inequities, not overcoming them. The segregated South has risen again, and education reform deserves a significant part of the blame.