Confronting racial inequality in our schools

A lesson in what happens when politicians "fix" something that wasn't broken
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 12, 2015

Politicians often express concern over the widening achievement gap between black and white students in this country. But there was a time when that gap was reduced by as much a half. The reason? Integrated schools.

“Integration gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, with access to the same things those kids get—quality teachers and quality instruction,” says New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Since 1988, however, many states began to resegregate. “It is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again,” she says.

Hannah-Jones examined resegregation in a series of pieces for the ProPublica website and NPR’s “This American Life” program. Focusing on Missouri’s Normandy district, she profiles a failing system that seemed to turn things around—until money and public pressure put an end to that.

What happened to end court-ordered integration?

There had been a series of Supreme Court rulings beginning in the early ’90s that made it much easier to end these court-ordered desegregation plans and almost impossible to start a new one. It’s going to be very rare that you see any new court-ordered desegregation plans.

What we’re left with is enforcing existing ones, which are increasingly being closed out by the courts.

When Normandy lost its accreditation, 1,000 students opted to transfer out of the district. All was going well until the state gave Normandy a new designation: “non-accredited.” Explain the difference between unaccredited and non-accredited.

There really is no difference. The state has three accreditations statuses. You are either fully accredited, you are provisionally accredited (which means that you need to fix some things—you are not quite up to par) or you are unaccredited, which means you have lost the state’s seal of approval.

The state attempted to create a new status, which they said meant that Normandy was non-accredited. But a state judge ruled that the state could not, in fact, create this new accreditation status. So I can’t really explain the difference between the two, because one of them was really just made up.

This status change was done largely for financial reasons, right?

Yes. The transfer law was bankrupting the Normandy district because it had to pay to educate 1,000 students in other school districts, often paying a higher per-pupil rate than it paid to educate students within its own district.

So it was definitely for financial reasons, but it meant that those students returned to a failing district with a made-up designation.

What happens when those students graduate? Will colleges recognize their non-accredited school records?

According to state officials, graduating from an unaccredited district does not somehow mean that you have a worthless diploma. But for all practical purposes, I don’t know how the state can say that.

If I’m a college admissions officer and I look at a student who has a 3.5 from the worst district in the state—that doesn’t have its accreditation—that absolutely is going to play into my decision about whether I think that student is qualified to get in or can handle the work.

So, while the state is saying that it doesn’t matter if you graduate from an unaccredited district or not, common sense tells you that of course it does. There’s a reason they accredit schools. They accredit schools because it determines the quality of education someone is receiving.

With that said, I think Normandy kids were probably having a hard time getting into top-tier colleges even when the district was accredited, because they just weren’t receiving a quality education, which then meant that ACT and SAT scores were lower, and so on.

Either way they probably were having challenges in getting into better schools.

As a reporter you speak to politicians and school leaders. How do they justify what they are doing when the evidence for integration success clearly points the other way?

What I hear over and over is school officials saying that we can’t force integration on our communities. We don’t have the political will to support plans that would integrate.

Then they turn to the notion of “separate but equal.” They don’t call it that, of course, but when the answer is, “We’re just going to make these poor black and Latino schools better,” then that’s passively embracing separate but equal.

When confronted with the evidence, most officials will say, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s not really working, but we have to try.”

School officials are in a difficult position. Politically, they fear that if they push some of these things too hard they will lose what remaining white population they have, which would not be good for districts because you are also then losing your middle class tax base in many places. It’s a very complicated, difficult issue.

Their solution has been to just promise to make those schools equal. What is even more difficult for them to justify is when I ask them, “If you are going to maintain the schools separately, why do you then not insure that those kids are getting the same quality of teachers and curriculum?”

They don’t give a straight answer, because I think that one is even more difficult to justify.

You can blame political will on why you can’t start a bussing program anymore. But I think it’s very difficult to say that people in privileged schools are fighting efforts to provide physics in segregated schools.

It’s important to remember there was never a lot of political will for large-scale integration. It was a very fragile coalition from the beginning and there was a great deal of white flight in many communities.

So yes, integration did work where it was forced—and where white families did not leave—but it’s always been a very difficult solution.

Much of the racial antagonism we’ve seen comes from adults. But you talk to students as well. Does it reach down to that level?

It varies, but I think the older the students get, the more that they fall victim to the same assumptions and racial issues that the larger society has. At the elementary level you see very little of it.

By the time you get to the high school level, it’s already starting to get fairly entrenched, and particularly because my generation was the generation that saw a great deal of desegregation.

But we’ve lost a lot of those gains. So you still have lots of black and Latino kids who are attending segregated schools, and you still have lots of white kids who are attending segregated schools as well. With that, I don’t know how you couldn’t have the same racial perspectives that are pervasive in larger society.

Whenever I’ve gone in segregated black schools, those kids know that their schools are all black because other people who are not black don’t want their children to go to school with them. They know that. They’ll tell you that.

They feel like they are being warehoused and they feel like they are being cast aside. They are very aware of this. So I think it is hard then not to have those kids grow up feeling a certain way about race.

Does this have to go to the Supreme Court again before anything is done about it? And is there any will to do it?

Unless it’s going to overturn its precedent of the last 20 to 30 years, there are not really any avenues to the Supreme Court to deal with school desegregation. And certainly, one can just look at the way that this court has ruled on other civil rights issues and feel that there would not be a favorable ruling when it comes to that.

I don’t think the federal courts are going to be the answer. Though there are some places like Hartford, Connecticut, for example, that have used state law and state courts and the state constitution to fight for new desegregation.

But in terms of federal courts, outside of enforcing court orders that already exist, I think there’s very little that can be done.

There is a growing antagonism to some racial and religious groups in the country right now, particularly Latinos and Muslims. Could segregation spread to those groups as well?

With Latinos, they are definitely experiencing high levels of segregation. In some parts of the country, they are experiencing higher segregation in schools than black Americans.

And this has been a steady rise since the 1960s as the Latino population has grown. Often they are segregated with black students, and sometimes where there isn’t a big population of black folks, they are just segregated away from white students on their own.

With Muslims, I think it’s more difficult to measure because neither the census nor schools are tracking students by religion. You would have to look at race, but the category of race of many Muslims is Caucasian, at least according to census racial designations.

So I think it’s much more difficult to be able to tell what kind of segregation Muslim communities might be experiencing. But we know that it’s happening with Latinos.

Tim Goral is senior editor.