Despite the rhetoric of change and racial transcendence the schools that our children attend are deeply segregated. In fact, according to scholars like Gary Orfield, schools are more racially segregated now than they were in the Jim Crow South. However, today’s segregation is so pernicious because it is overlooked and we, as a country, continue to fail to address school segregation’s root in housing segregation. If we are to address the issue of quality schooling and segregation we must move beyond two common errors. The first error is believing that segregation is the problem. The second error is believing that segregation is not a problem.
Last week, the New York Times published a map of New York City school segregation and found that the overwhelming majority of schools suffered from racial segregation (while class segregation is also alive and well this wasn’t the target of analysis). New York City is often thought of as a prime example of the racial “melting pot” metaphor but, in reality, racial residential segregation runs deep. The New York Times also noted that charter schools in NYC tend to be more segregated than already segregated traditional public schools. When it comes to school segregation, New York City is not unique; a growing mound of evidence like, “Choice without Equity” finds that charter schools nationally are very racially segregated which helps breed educational inequality.
Knowing that schools remain segregated is important because as the Supreme Court found in 1954, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” However, is segregation the root of school inequality? Not likely.
Many people believe that once schools are desegregated educational equality will result. This is far from the truth. It is much more likely that if schools were desegregated we would see better educational performance for students across racial groups, but an achievement gap would remain. Desegregating schools without touching housing segregation would be like adopting a workout regimen but maintaining an unhealthy diet. One may see some positive results, but maintaining those gains or reaching optimal health is unlikely.
Sadly, segregation is as American as apple pie. Because freedom in the United States is interpreted as the “right to choose,” people with greater economic means choose not to live near those with fewer economic resources or in areas with high concentrations of people of color. Additionally, people of color and those with fewer economic resources are often denied equal access to quality housing. The sad reality is that our “individual choices” on housing are not just our own.
Another approach has been to argue that segregation does not matter and that it is more about school quality than color. Steve Perry, CNN education contributor and principal of Hartford’s Capital Prep Magnet School, has argued that school segregation is not the issue; instead lack of choice and school quality are the issues. Perry, an outspoken advocate of school choice, argued that many families opt for charter schools due to poor quality local public schools. In Perry’s estimation, because parents have made a choice, they are not suffering from segregation and via choice they are able to get a quality education.
Unfortunately, this also misses the mark. Contemporary segregation is based on constrained choices. While outright discrimination has been outlawed the legacy of limited choices, poor quality, and unequal provision remains at the center of American schooling and society at large. When we look at students of color piled into schools that are high in poverty and lack ethnic diversity we are looking at the result of segregation. When we look at White students in schools with abundant resources and with few students of lower economic status and with little ethnic diversity we are looking at segregation.
Key to Perry's argument is the notion that segregated schools that feature large number of students in poverty and high concentrations of Black and Latino students can always beat the odds. While beating the odds is possible, it is not probable. Segregated schools suffer from disparities in resources ranging from teacher quality to class offerings. As I was recently reminded by a trip to the casino, if you want to truly beat the odds you have to really know the odds you are facing.
In this political moment, there are those who would line up to say only race matters and those who line up to eschew the significance of race. Neither of these groups are being entirely accurate. If we fail to recognize that race matters, poverty matters, and neither bussing nor school choice will fully rectify our schooling issues, then we fall short. We must challenge the status quo of segregated housing, schools, and resources to gain traction in a fight for education justice.
In 2012, the racial divides that plagued previous generations persist, but we have become less equipped to talk earnestly about them and less equipped with responses that reach to their core. The first step in producing quality schooling for all is to have candid discussions that link the inequalities of the past and the conditions of the present. Until we do that, we will continue to spin our wheels wondering why over fifty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education our schools are still separate and unequal.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website