We often think of racial segregation as a thing of the past in America. The Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were supposed to put an end to a shameful aspect of American history that was marked by Jim Crow laws and institutionalized racism.
Half a century has passed since U.S. Marshals first escorted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Yet, despite a period of progress in the integration of the American educational system, segregated schools are on their way back.
The Geography of Segregation
Based on an analysis we conducted of data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, we found that approximately a third of U.S. public schools are considered segregated. The commonly used standard in the academic literature for determining whether or not a school is segregated considers whether more than 90 percent of a school’s student body is entirely white or entirely non-white.
The paradox of the new era of segregation.
School demographics now look very different from the way they did during the Civil Rights Era. Schools that are overwhelmingly white are much less common, and their numbers continue to fall. If you’re a white student, diversity at your school is probably improving every year. White parents are watching their children interact with more people of color, and they might be coming to the conclusion that the problem of racial segregation has been conclusively solved. And lawmakers—the majority of whom are white—are observing the same phenomenon.
But if you’re black or Hispanic, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a very different picture: the number of segregated schools with non-white student bodies has been steadily increasing. In fact, William Frantz Elementary—where Ruby Bridges became a civil rights icon in 1960—is now a charter school called Akili Academy, and 97 percent of its students are black. Ruby Bridges’ elementary school is segregated again.
Definition: Apartheid school (n) — a school that is more than 99 percent non-white; the students at these schools are usually black or Hispanic, and they tend to be incredibly underserved. Apartheid schools are correlated with having fewer resources, higher student-to-teacher ratios, and lower test scores
How we got here
For a while, the legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement were successful in moving the country towards a more integrated school system. Federal desegregation orders forced many Southern school districts to address racial inequities—or lose federal funding. It worked: only four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, a third of black students in the South went to school alongside white students.
As the rights of minorities became codified in federal law, there was considerable backlash in many white communities. In Detroit, racial tensions propelled the city into a violent riot in 1967; in its aftermath, thousands of white Detroit residents elected to move into the suburbs. This same pattern of “white flight” repeated across the United States, and many schools—especially in Northern and Western states, which had not been placed under federal oversight—reflected the demographics of the segregated communities they served. To counteract the effects of residential segregation, the government established busing programs that would bring minority students to schools in white neighborhoods.
For decades, things did improve. Test scores between white and nonwhite students were narrowing. By the 1980s, the government started to step back from taking an active role in school integration.
Then, a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions in the 90s, coupled with Reagan-era cuts to federal desegregation programs, set the stage for segregation to mount a comeback. In recent years, many Southern school districts have been released from court desegregation orders. The trend towards resegregation in these districts has been pronounced. Consider the Fulton County School District, which serves almost 100,000 students in the area surrounding Atlanta, Georgia.
The number of students attending segregated schools in Fulton County, Georgia, had been slowly declining until 2003, when the district was freed from court oversight. Since then, that number has been rising. As of 2013, 73 percent of black students in the Fulton County School District attend segregated schools.
Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Georgia, is one of the biggest high schools in the district. Like most other schools in the area, it is segregated—and has been for some time: in 1994, it was 5 percent white and 89 percent black. Since then, segregation has only gotten worse: Tri-Cities High School is now on the cusp of apartheid status, with a 1.5 percent white student body. It is also one of the lowest performing schools in Georgia
The spread between town and country
Analyzing the data from 2013, we found that for schools in the United States, there’s a stark difference between urban and rural demographics.
Schools in rural areas are often overwhelmingly white; urban schools, meanwhile, skew even more markedly towards predominantly nonwhite and can be found at the heart of nearly every major metropolis. For instance, even predominantly white Salt Lake City (75% according to the 2010 Census) contains an inner core of segregated schools with non-white student bodies.
There are five segregated elementary schools in the heart of Salt Lake City: Guadalupe School, Dual Immersion Academy, Backman School, Edison School, and Meadowlark School. Together, 77.5 percent of the students attending these schools are Hispanic; 83 percent of them qualify for free lunch programs. At the start of the 2013-2014 year, many of these schools were among the lowest academically performing elementary schools in the state according to Utah’s school accountability rankings.
A Black-and-White Issue?
Much of the racial discourse of the United States tends to approach race as a binary: white, black. And for many decades, these two groups did constitute most of the American population: according to the 1960 U.S. Census, black and non-Hispanic white people accounted for approximately 96 percent of the country.
But the black-white dichotomy is today not an accurate representation of American racial dynamics, and its failings have become even more conspicuous with recent changes in the country’s demographics. In the last 20 years, the Hispanic population has overtaken the black population as the largest minority group in the United States—and it should be noted that Hispanic people can be of any race. With the way that school demographics are currently tabulated, there is no distinction made between white Hispanic students or black Hispanic students.
Meanwhile, Asian students are the most integrated. Alongside the “model minority” myth, schools with significant Asian-American populations tend to be high performing; in some examinations of school segregation, these students are grouped with white students because of comparable levels of academic success. Another thing to keep in mind: some racial groups are not even included in the Public Elementary and Secondary School Survey. For the past few years, immigration to the United States from the Middle East and North Africa has increased significantly, but there is no count of the Arab-American population, whether of the general public or of public school students.
Racial inequality in the United States is a pressing and challenging dilemma that remains to be solved. What is certain is that the policymakers of the future will need better data.