The journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones of ProPublica has written an illuminating profile of school resegregation, focusing particularly on the South and profiling the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Excerpts:
In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools—meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South and nearly a quarter in Alabama now attend such schools—a figure likely to rise as court oversight continues to wane. In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica. ….
The Brown ruling did not hinge on the inferior resources allotted black students under many segregated educational systems. As Warren pointed out in his decision, many southern officials, in an effort to forestall integration, had been investing heavily in bringing black schools up to white standards, so that by the time the Court agreed to hear Brown, school facilities and teacher salaries in many black public schools had “been equalized, or [were] being equalized.”
“We must look instead,” Warren wrote, “to the effect of segregation itself.” He wrote that to separate black children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The justices noted that education was “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and that the integration of schools was essential to the integration of black citizens into society as a whole.
The ruling came with a heavy compromise. Warren understood the storm of resistance likely to confront the decision. He believed only a united Court could contain southern rage, but some of the justices wanted to go slow. So, instead of laying out an explicit framework for desegregation, the Court acknowledged that the “variety of local conditions” made dismantling Jim Crow schools a complicated matter, and ultimately placed the burden of enforcing its ruling on district courts. It gave the lower courts no guidance other than to say that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” ….
At Dent’s school, Druid High, students learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts on achievement tests. The curriculum pushed students toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.
Even so, Dent’s experience at Druid reveals a truth often lost in the history of school integration. Though its resources were not as rich as those of the all-white Tuscaloosa High, Druid was a source of pride within the city’s black community. Its students soaked up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented, in part because teaching was among the only professional careers open to black southerners at the time. What the school lacked in racial diversity, it made up for in economic variety: the children of domestic workers walked the halls with the children of college professors. Condoleezza Rice was one of Dent’s schoolmates. ….
Desegregation had been wrenching and complicated, but in Tuscaloosa and across the country, it achieved undeniable results. During the 1970s and ’80s, the achievement gap between black and white 13-year-olds was cut roughly in half nationwide. Some scholars argue that desegregation had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement. But the overwhelming body of research shows that once black children were given access to advanced courses, well-trained teachers, and all the other resources that tend to follow white, middle-income children, they began to catch up.
A 2014 study conducted by Rucker Johnson, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found desegregation’s impact on racial equality to be deep, wide, and long-lasting. Johnson examined data on a representative sample of 8,258 American adults born between 1945 and 1968, whom he followed through 2011. He found that black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money: five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.
Notably, Rucker also found that black progress did not come at the expense of white Americans—white students in integrated schools did just as well academically as those in segregated schools. Other studies have found that attending integrated schools made white students more likely to later live in integrated neighborhoods and send their own children to racially diverse schools. ….
White students once accounted for a majority of the Tuscaloosa school district’s students. But by the mid-1990s, they made up less than a third. Total enrollment had dropped from 13,500 in 1969 to 10,300 in 1995. Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools.
Tuscaloosa’s business leaders and elected officials had witnessed the transformation of other southern cities after their school districts had reached a tipping point—the point at which white parents become unsettled by the rising share of black students in a school, and pull their children from the school en masse. School districts in cities such as Birmingham and Richmond had seen their integration efforts largely mooted: just about all the white students had left. As white families had moved out to the suburbs, eroding the tax base, both the schools and the cities themselves had suffered. Many officials in Tuscaloosa obsessed about the rippling consequences of continued white flight. “Money follows kids, and the loss of white students was very, very critical,” said Shelley Jones, who is white and served as a school-board member in the 1990s, and later as the chair. ….
Under the court order, England said, black students had ridden buses all over the city chasing an ever-receding white population. Desegregation had not ended the stigmatization of black children, England said. It had reinforced it. ….
But some parents were unhappy with the plan for a different set of reasons. The historic district around the University of Alabama, a predominantly white and middle-class area that’s home to college professors and other professionals, lies south of the river. The district’s plan would reassign children in this neighborhood to their closest schools, which were heavily black.
The day before the school board voted, the president of the historic district association sent an e‑mail to his fellow association members assuring them that after “lengthy negotiations with the school board attorney” and “discussions with school board members and the superintendent,” students in the district would be able to continue to attend the north-of-the-river schools. The school board’s final proposal did indeed reflect that change. The final plan also allowed children from a tiny triangle conspicuously carved from the West End—encompassing a country club and its surrounding neighborhood—to attend school north of the river.
On May 3, 2007, as the school board prepared to vote on the new plan, a few members said they had been unaware of the negotiations, and fought unsuccessfully to delay the decision. The plan passed in a bitterly divided vote, 5–3. One white school-board member, Virginia Powell, who represented the historic district around the university, joined the board’s two black members in voting no. Powell said that the appeasement of white parents had trumped doing what was best educationally for the district. “It was totally orchestrated. It was awful, I felt powerless,” Powell said recently. “I remember sitting in church after one of the votes. It was a Wednesday-night supper and no one would sit with me, because I voted with the black members. It made me realize where people stood.” ….
ProPublica examined 24 years of demographic data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and found that districts grew steadily more segregated after their desegregation orders ended. A separate 2011 study in the American Economic Journal found that within 10 years of being released, school districts unwound about 60 percent of the integration they had achieved under court order.
One troubling truth is that, as witnessed in Tuscaloosa, backing away from integration doesn’t arrest or reverse the outflow of white students from diverse school districts. The Stanford researchers found that school systems’ white populations slightly declined after court orders ended. Many districts nonetheless continue to embrace the type of gerrymandering at play in Tuscaloosa. After comprehensively examining attendance zones across the country, Meredith Richards at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Education Sciences found in a recent study that they are nearly as irregular as legislative districts.
Some districts, of course, have gerrymandered to increase integration. Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools, serving Louisville, are often held up as an example. The battle for desegregation had been violent there, but eventually the community came to value its integrated schools. When the superintendent began pressing to end the district’s elementary-school busing program, Jefferson County’s business leaders met with residents but came to a very different conclusion from the one reached in Tuscaloosa. They decided to support continued integration efforts, because they deemed integrated schools good for business. Even though its court supervision ended in 2000, and the Supreme Court knocked down its voluntary desegregation plan in 2007, Jefferson County has continued its efforts and remains one of the most integrated urban districts in the country.
But Jefferson County is the rarest of cases. Few communities seem able to summon the political will to continue integration efforts. And the Obama administration, while saying integration is important, offers almost no incentives that would entice school districts to increase it. Instead, Richards says, districts have typically gerrymandered “to segregate, particularly whites from blacks,” and that gerrymandering is “getting worse over time” as federal oversight diminishes. According to an analysis by ProPublica, the number of apartheid schools nationwide has mushroomed from 2,762 in 1988—the peak of school integration—to 6,727 in 2011.
When school officials make decisions that funnel poor children of color into their own schools, they promise to make those separate schools equal. But that promise is as false today as it was in 1954. Indeed, in some ways all-black schools today are worse than Druid High was back in the 1950s, when poor black students mixed with affluent and middle-class ones, and when many of the most talented black residents of Tuscaloosa taught there.
High-poverty, segregated black and Latino schools account for the majority of the roughly 1,400 high schools nationwide labeled “dropout factories”—meaning fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate. School officials often blame poor performance on the poverty these kids grow up in. But most studies conclude that it’s the concentration of poor students in the same school that hurts them the most. Low-income students placed in middle-income schools show marked academic progress.
As a school’s black population increases, the odds that any given teacher there will have significant experience, full licensure, or a master’s degree all decline. Teacher turnover at segregated schools is typically high. And black students, overall, are less likely than any other group of students to attend schools with Advanced Placement courses and high-level classes like calculus. ….
The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central, board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.
The same superintendent who oversaw the 2007 redistricting reportedly called Tuscaloosa’s all-black schools a “dumping ground” for bad teachers who’d been let go from other district schools. Teachers hired from outside Tuscaloosa were, for many years, allowed to apply to specific schools, and some would not apply to black schools.
By the time students get to Central, most have spent nine years in low-performing, virtually all-black schools. More than 80 percent of them come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches. ….
D’Leisha arrived at Central in 2010, the same year as its new principal, Clarence Sutton Jr., who’d attended the integrated version of the school as Melissa Dent’s classmate. A year later, the district hired a new superintendent, Paul McKendrick. Central, they all agree, was a mess.
Sitting in his office, at a desk six inches deep in papers and reports, McKendrick, a bespectacled man, quiet but forceful, said the black, mostly poor kids of the West End had been separated and written off. A recent audit of Central had found that 80 percent of students were not on the college track. The low test scores that have plagued the school don’t stem from “a child problem,” he said. “You may have some children that have special needs or cognitive issues, but you are not going to say a whole group of kids” has “lost intelligence in some way.”
Though its students may arrive bearing more burdens, in many ways Central is like any other high school. It’s got its jocks, its nerds, its mean girls and band geeks. D’Leisha herself is the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player. But students and staff say most people see only one thing about Central: it’s all black. And that still bears a stigma. The school is housed in a lovely modern brick building outside of the West End on the very spot of the old white high school, within view of the towering University of Alabama football stadium. Much of the neighborhood surrounding it is middle-class and predominantly white. Too many times, Sutton said, his students have asked why the kids who live across the street don’t attend their school. Most have never had a white classmate or neighbor, he said, leaving them unprepared to navigate a country where those in charge are usually white.
The principal struggles to explain to students how the segregation they experience is any different from the old version simply because no law requires it. “It is hard, it is a tough conversation, and it is a conversation I don’t think we as adults want to have.” ….
“My biggest fear right now is the ACT,” D’Leisha said. “I don’t have a good score. It’s been on my mind a lot.” She described an ACT study session she’d attended last summer at a community college. “We were with kids from Northridge, and they knew things we didn’t know,” she said. “They had done things we hadn’t done.” D’Leisha wound a lock of hair around and around her index finger as she mulled what she just said. “I guess I’ll just have to catch on fast, study, all that.”
Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha said, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”
For black students like D’Leisha—the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision—having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.
At no point in the history of our country have half of black children attended majority white schools.