When I was in college, one of my professors was Hank Klibanoff, who wrote a book called The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of the Nation. One thing I will distinctly remember about the book was its commentary on Brown vs. Board of Education, our legendary Supreme Court ruling in 1954 on school desegregation. Brown was a unanimous vote by a very split Supreme Court, but one thing the Brown decision ruled was that schools would desegregate with “all deliberate speed”.
I don’t know if this is news to anybody: our schools are still very segregated. “Intense levels of segregation…are on the rise once again,” writes the UCLA Civil Rights Project. Especially for black and Latino students, the system has abandoned and phased out older problems to foster integration. Students across America are attending increasingly racially isolated schools.
Today, residential segregation plays the biggest factor in the fact that our schools are still very segregated. Drive through parts of inner-city Baltimore on the east and west side and you will see that these factors are no secret — but I am a teacher in East Baltimore who has seen school segregation and lived it.
I currently teach at a middle-high school of about 350 kids with a single white kid and a couple Hispanic kids. The rest are African-American, and I’ve asked kids what they noticed about their school demographics before. I’ve tried to teach lessons that emphasized that this isn’t supposed to be normal, that Civil Rights activists fought for a very, very long time to make schools less segregated. The fact that our school is, still, very segregated, means that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Since 1988, the share of intensely segregated minority schools — schools that enroll 90–100% non-white students, has more than tripled,” wrote the UCLA Civil Rights Project. In 1988, the number of schools that enroll 90–100% non-white students was 5.7%. In 2016, that number was 18.2%, effectively triple what it was 26 years ago.
School segregation, then, is only getting worse. We’re getting farther and farther away from the victory in Brown vs. Board of Education, and even today, 66 years later, schools are still desegregating with ”all deliberate speed”.
According to P.R. Lockhart of Vox, school segregation in the past used to be very intentional, employed by Jim Crow laws. Today, however, I argue that school segregation is more dangerous because it isn’t intentional. In 1974, Miliken vs. Bradley determined that districts with segregated schools but did not intentionally separate students by race could not be forced to be desegregated. The problem now is the same it was before Brown: schools with predominantly white versus predominantly black and/or Latino populations have drastically different access to resources.
The UCLA Civil Rights Project report states that white students only account for 48.4% of public school students, with growing shares of Latino, black, Asian, multiracial, and American Indian students. Our public schools today are much more multiracial than at the time of the Brown decision, and when you factor in this change of demographics in our public school students, school segregation is only getting worse.
In my experience, school segregation is a lot more harmful and vicious than it ever was. Not only are our segregated schools being racially segregated, but they’re being hit with the full force of poverty as well. Some would argue that a city like my own, Baltimore, is doing just fine for itself, especially since it spends the third most per-pupil as a school district in the country. And while that number may seem like our schools are being woefully ineffective and not addressing the needs of our students, have you done the research and reporting yourself? Have you been to Baltimore? Have you seen the conditions many of our students live in?
All the money in the world put into the education system here is not going to fix the problems of hypersegregation.
School segregation in Baltimore comes in the form of residential segregation. The Lines Between Us is a brilliant book that testifies to how the Baltimore region was designed to be the way it is, a hypersegregated city where the only hope for so many students is to move out of Baltimore into likely a wealthy suburb.
The solution then isn’t to just throw more money into our most impoverished districts. It goes beyond that. To fix school segregation, we have to start tackling residential segregation. We can’t look to the education system as a band-aid for all of society’s problems and injustices, but rather look to the education system as a symptom.
Most of that is looking at ourselves, too. Some of us may be part of the solution, but we’re also part of the problem.
I grew up with parents that grew uncomfortable whenever I went to a school that was too integrated, which wasn’t a predominantly white or Asian suburban school. At the time, I didn’t know any better, but now I feel conflicted. My parents wanted me to attend the best schools possible, and in America, the best schools are going to be predominantly white or Asian and in the suburbs.
I don’t think I’ll see the problem of school segregation fixed in my lifetime because the problems do run that deep. I don’t think we can always blame individual families for wanting their kids to go to the best schools. I don’t even think we can blame families for homeschooling or sending their kids to private schools when they don’t deem their local school system to be good enough.
But even though we can’t blame individual families doesn’t mean we’re not all a part of the problem. I think about my own kids in the future and how I’m going to raise them. I want them to go to school in my school district. I want them to go to school in Baltimore.
Will my parents agree? Absolutely not. There’s a good chance that the woman I marry won’t agree with that decision, either. As long as we keep the adaptive attitude that says, “look, this is bad, but desegregation isn’t happening with my neighborhood or with my kids,” the problem is going to continue. I grow disillusioned with the fact that even though I might want to have my kids fight desegregation, not everyone is going to do the same. I know most families in this country would rather send their kids to better schools if they could. Hell, most families in my school would rather send their kids to a better school if they could.
I don’t even know if it’s a problem that can ever be fixed. It’s an uphill battle with seemingly insurmountable forces in my district. But some schools and districts disproportionately take care of the kids society left behind rather than an equal distribution across economic and racial lines. How is this just? How is this fair?
Desegregation in America has to come with those in influence and power. That is where we start. The first step is being aware of how bad the problem is, and our complicity in the problem ourselves.