Schools for a more perfect union: Reaffirming the goals of racially and economically integrated education

By Genevieve Siegel-Hawley

“Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools,” declared President Barack Obama a year ago in his landmark speech on race relations in America. “We still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

Obama’s words, part of an address titled, “A More Perfect Union,” represented a rare moment of political candor on an issue that still deeply divides the nation. In an era of educational policy largely defined by standards and accountability, school choice and merit pay for teachers, a dream continues to be deferred.

Our public schools, charged with advancing opportunity, are today more Balkanized than ever. Hypersegregation refers to schools characterized by – as the prefix suggests – extreme racial isolation. These are places of learning where 90 to 100 percent of students come from underrepresented racial backgrounds; and where, nine times out of ten, racial isolation is correlated with high concentrations of poverty.  Using this definition, many schools affiliated with Richmond City Public Schools, Petersburg City Public Schools and, to a lesser extent, Henrico and Chesterfield County Schools, would be classified as hypersegregated.  Social science evidence indicates that high poverty schools are associated with fewer resources, restricted access to challenging and enriching curricula, less qualified and experienced teachers and high rates of staff turnover. Today this layered inequality affects nearly two out of every five black students, according to a forthcoming report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The situation is equally dire for Latinos, who have experienced rising levels of segregation each year since 1968, when the U.S. government first began collecting statistics on Hispanic students.

In the Richmond area (defined here as Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield), patterns of racial and economic isolation in schools are heavily influenced by jurisdictional boundaries. But even within the same district white and black students experience very different educational settings. For instance, in 2008 the typical black student in Richmond City Public Schools (RPS) enrolled in a setting where more than 70% of their fellow students qualified for free or reduced lunch.  By contrast, the average white child in RPS attended a school where just over 40% of students received free or reduced priced lunches. In Henrico the discrepancies were even more startling.  The typical white or Asian student headed to a Henrico school where poor students constituted one-fifth of the student body, compared to the average black or Latino student where poor students made up nearly half of the enrollment.

White students are often excluded from conversations about segregated schools. Yet, white students, on average, enroll in schools where three-quarters of their peers are white, making them the most racially isolated group of American students.  While their isolation is not generally associated with a set of inferior resources, it is cause for concern in a world that increasingly relies upon the ability to connect easily with people of other backgrounds and cultures. Indeed, isolated schooling disadvantages all of our students in this respect.

Resistance to the Dream

Unfortunately, it’s easy to develop pat answers to the extraordinarily complex issues of race, poverty, language, identity, equity and opportunity. The truth is that, for a brief while, when the political stars aligned after an epic battle for equality waged in streets and schools, on buses, and at lunch counters, the United States seemed ready to face the tremendous task of rebuilding a nation damaged by slavery and apartheid. After fifteen years of massive white resistance to school desegregation, the courts handed down a string of decisions that put the full weight of the law behind Brown’s mandate. In an astonishingly short period of time, the South – the land of Jim Crow – became the most integrated region in the country. Attitudes changed with the law as the civil rights movement swept forward. In Louisville, Kentucky, a city that greeted school desegregation in 1975 with a red carpet rolled out by the Ku Klux Klan, residents opted to voluntarily continue efforts to integrate schools after just five years of court-ordered implementation.

It is also true that even during the most active period of desegregation, proponents of school integration faced significant setbacks and were required to make political compromises. A 1974 judicial decision – handed down by a Supreme Court newly filled with Nixon appointees – granted a reprieve to northern suburbs for their role in facilitating residential patterns of segregation.  In Milliken v. Bradley, the now rightward-leaning court discounted evidence of the government’s past involvement in contributing to racial isolation and ruled against a metropolitan desegregation remedy for Detroit. The decision meant that, barring proof of intentional suburban discrimination, future desegregation efforts occurring across district boundary lines would have to be voluntary. The country now struggles with a situation where the vast majority of school segregation exists between districts, rather than within them.  Locally, Richmond Public Schools is today comprised of a student population that is roughly 86% African American and 70% poor (in Petersburg City, black students constitute almost 95% of the enrollment and 75% of students qualify for free and reduced priced lunches), while surrounding suburban districts either boast considerably more racial and economic diversity or are largely white and wealthy.

Beyond the geographic challenges presented by the ’74 Milliken decision, and amidst the initial and vocal opposition to desegregation from whites, there were also voices from communities of color ambivalent about strategies that placed their children in close proximity to visceral racism, strategies that often meant abandoning thriving black schools with rich histories of their own. These voices have not died over the years.

Much of this resistance stems from years of struggle and unfulfilled promises. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, after a painstakingly slow process, a far-reaching city-county desegregation plan was implemented in 1972.  The plan ensured that whites and students of color attended the same schools, but did little to combat segregation occurring inside the system’s educational facilities. The practice of tracking, or sorting black and Latino students into lower level, special education, or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes – while white and Asian students are grouped into honors and AP courses – can undermine even the most integrated school building. These discriminatory school level policies, engineered by those interested in preserving white privilege, sabotage the most well-crafted district student assignment plan.  Nevertheless, research from the era of comprehensive school desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg pointed towards positive outcomes for students of all races attending integrated schools.

Despite this uneven but steady progress in Charlotte, the school system was released from court oversight in 2002.  A decade earlier the Supreme Court declared that a school system could be deemed unitary once it had shown “good faith” in complying with its desegregation orders. This ambiguous legal standard allowed school systems around the country to be prematurely released from judicial supervision– with chilling effects. For example, since Charlotte’s court order was lifted, the system’s public schools have resegregated with alarming speed. In 2006, four years after the court granted CMS unitary status, the number of racially identifiable schools in the district had nearly doubled.  This phenomenon of resegregation, or the reversal of gains made during desegregation, has meant that levels of racial isolation for black students have increased every year since the “good faith” ruling made it easier for school systems to gain unitary status.

Gather together all of these strands – rapidly increasing segregation and resegregation, conservative courts, white resistance, fading hopes from communities of color – and weave among them one more. Some education stakeholders, like supporters of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools, are calling for an emphasis on schools of excellence in our most segregated neighborhoods, for funding above and beyond traditional formulas (to include money previously set aside for transporting students to desegregated settings) that would theoretically offset the hardships of racial, socioeconomic and linguistic isolation. After all, they argue, sitting next to a white student doesn’t guarantee a better education, and certainly, in some schools where tracking has taken hold, it has meant an inferior one. While the sum of many years of research suggests that the harms of segregated settings are real, and, conversely, that integrated settings contain certain well-documented benefits, with all of these challenges we come to the ever-present question: “Is integration worth it?” The years of battle, the remarkable – but in many cases short-lived – era of school desegregation, and the painful reversal of those gains brought us to the city of Philadelphia, to hear Barack Obama deliver a speech acknowledging the country’s failure to deliver on the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Dr. King’s Dream Still Matters

As a country, we daily grow more diverse. By some estimates, the United States will be a majority-minority society in 2042. For American schoolchildren, this shift will occur by 2023.  The percentage of white students has shrunk from over 80% in the late 1960s to just fewer than 54% today. Latino students now slightly outnumber black students, while the country’s Asian population continues to grow. Our nation is changing and our schools are the first to reflect these new demographic realities. Ultimately, we have two choices: we can continue to travel down our current path, standing by as suburban communities replicate patterns of racial and socioeconomic isolation that currently define American cities; or we can confront and challenge these trends.

In the past, racial apartheid has given rise to grossly unequal life opportunities for members of different racial groups. Today, as our society becomes increasingly diverse, the need for leaders and workers who have developed skills that enable them to work with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds grows ever more urgent.

The democratic ideals epitomized by the old-fashioned image of a little red schoolhouse signify some of what’s best about our country. Horace Mann’s principle, “education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men,” is contained within those walls. Great teachers, eager students, moments of insight, shared ideas – they live there, too. The fundamental commitment to the ideal of public education, though strained at times, has long guided our nation. As our global borders become more porous, as our national perimeter encloses a more diverse population, the little red schoolhouse still holds an answer. It can function as an equalizer, and it can produce civic-minded, thoughtful youth prepared to live in a new and dynamic society.

Imagine a classroom where the desks have been arranged in six different groups. In each, girls and boys from a range of racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds sit easily beside one another. The students have just read George Orwell’s 1984 and the teacher, after leading a discussion on the author’s critique of society, has asked her students to begin a project where they design their own version of utopia. The group work has the students engaged and animated. Revealing words and phrases rise above the general din: “Oh, that’s interesting, I never thought of it that way before,” and, “Yeah, I hear you, but where I come from, this is how it works.” Small revolutions of the mind occur in these democratic exchanges.

Integrated educational contexts provide students with the opportunity to learn and work with children from a wide array of backgrounds. Fifty years of research indicates that these settings foster critical thinking skills that are increasingly important in our multiracial society – skills that help students adopt and understand a multitude of perspectives. Evidence also suggests that, in the long term, graduates of integrated schools are more likely to attend integrated colleges, have friends from other backgrounds, and live and work in racially diverse spaces.  These students also demonstrate high levels of civic and communal responsibility. The acknowledgement of such benefits, both real and intangible, should be firmly embedded in our ideal of public education.

But how long has it been since we explicitly asked our public schools to perform these functions? In an era of standards and accountability, have we lost sight of another purpose of schooling: the development of our citizenry?

To meet our challenges we must test the old thinking and come to new and fresh ideas together. In the battle for desegregation, we forgot about the dream of true integration, espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” That dream is articulated today by civil rights advocate john powell who writes, “True integration moves beyond desegregation…it means bringing students together under conditions of equality, enhancing common goals, and deemphasizing interpersonal competition…true integration is transformative rather than assimilative.”

Maybe we need to find new words for this concept of true integration, in case we pick the scabs off phrases like “desegregation,” “forced busing,” “mandatory student assignment” and “white flight.” Maybe we call it Justice. Harmony. Peace. Whatever our terminology, it is time to turn towards this task. It is a tremendous one. It will take district student assignment policies that bring students together in the same building to the classroom level, where students from diverse backgrounds can have the opportunity to work cooperatively towards shared goals and aspirations.

To begin, we need a new definition of integration, one that takes into account our growing diversity, and with that, we must seek knowledge about what integration should entail in this century of changing demography. We must also recognize that the powerful link between residential and school segregation continues to make wide-scale student assignment plans necessary. To ease the reliance on school desegregation strategies, integrative housing and school policies must be coordinated. Commitment to truly enforcing fair housing laws – combined with neighborhood efforts to market diversity as an attractive and important feature of community schools – is vital to breaking the cycle of residential and school segregation.  Promoting true integration will also require serious and intense training for our teachers, the vast majority of whom are white and attended racially isolated schools themselves. And our increasingly urgent need for regional cooperation and interdependence—in the form of either district consolidation or other strategies to bridge jurisdictional boundaries—could provide us with new opportunities to create healthier schools and regions.

Out of these first steps, may a movement grow.

Portions of this article/posting (or whatever you call submissions to TSJ) were excerpted from: Siegel-Hawley, G. (2010). Reviving Brown: The Role of Local School Boards.American School Boards Journal.

National figures related to school segregation are based on a forthcoming report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project ( Prior statistics are available at:

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. Her research focuses on examining the impact of segregation and resegregation in American schools, along with exploring policy options for a more integrated society.  She is a graduate of Richmond City Schools.


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