REYES: Segregation persists in modern-day schools


Opinions Column: Concrete Jungle Gym


The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson found Louisiana's “separate but equal” law of authorized segregation constitutional, building on white supremacy and the flawed notion of black inferiority. Nearly 60 years of Jim Crow laws along with deliberate pushback and positive gains made by people of color in the South culminated in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which overturned Plessy stating separate schools are “inherently unequal.” After ordering the lower federal courts to require desegregation efforts to be carried out swiftly, school districts began to integrate black students into predominantly white schools through school busing. However, an enormous amount of white flight into the suburbs (and out of urban communities) beginning in the late 1960s made it difficult to sustain busing programs, particularly after the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley which ruled that suburban students (i.e. white students) could not be used to desegregate inner city schools. White flight went on, leaving the poor and working-class as the remaining tax base ultimately leading to poorer cities and extremely underfunded schools. Additionally, the busing programs that continued placed a tremendous burden on students of color — in many instances, students traveled more than one hour, sometimes to contentious neighborhoods.

While the type of segregation by law (e.g. proclaiming a school “whites only”) that we saw in the South has been declared illegal by the highest court, segregation that happens based on the racial and ethnic imbalance of a community persists today especially in Northern urban cities like New York City. However, it is a fallacy to believe that our neighborhoods are segregated by mere coincidence — the racial homogeneity of our communities is no accident, carried out through explicitly racist, restrictive housing policies including redlining, the practice of denying services or selectively raising prices to residents based on race/ethnicity in specific areas. Redlined communities were cut off from essential capital that made homeownership beyond reach for many families of color that has had transgenerational impacts on family wealth, exacerbating the racial/ethnic wealth gap.

Alongside the rise of residential segregation, public schools that were released from the obligation to integrate saw the gap between white and black students grow by 24 percent after a decade compared to while still being under court order. This divide has been made wider through dramatic enrollment shifts in our public school system. Since 1968, enrollment among white students dropped 28 percent but increased by 19 percent among black students and an incredible 495 percent among Latinos. Today, the typical Latino student attends a school that is primarily made up of Latino students (nearly 57 percent), more segregated than their black and Asian peers. While race is a major characteristic utilized to base segregation efforts, recent research conducted by the University of California—Los Angeles highlighted the strong correlation between racial and economic segregation. In high poverty schools, black and Latino students represent more than half the enrollment and because public schools rely heavily on locally raised property taxes for funding, needier schools often have less qualified teachers, dilapidated facilities and inferior materials and resources. An astounding 20 percent of New Jersey schools report conditions as “so potentially hazardous that they cause an imminent peril to the health and safety of students or staff.” In the end, students of color and low-income students are trapped in a disastrous cycle that penalizes them for being born to parents of color in high-poverty neighborhoods, further reinforcing white supremacy and widening the opportunity gap. Without court oversight, our students' rights to equal protection under the law and due process are not being defended, a cruel and insidious injustice.

To be clear, housing and zoning policies and lessening legal protection have contributed immensely to the racial and economic segregation of our communities, especially our urban cities. Nevertheless, when white parents are faced with efforts to integrate their schools, their good intentions, anxiety and privilege coalesce behind the notion of providing the best education for their children (despite an extensive evidence base that shows even white students benefit from integrated schools) or downright stereotyping of students of color bringing “increased crime and drugs” to strike down said attempts. A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research “revealed” preferences of white and higher-income parents for schools with higher in-group concentrations and “carefully curated integration,” the kind that exposes their kids to some poor peers of color but “not too many.” The fact of the matter is you do not need to be intentionally racist for your actions to have racist implications. If we truly seek a diverse and equitable future, we need to correct the inherently discriminatory links between education, land, location and political power to provide equal opportunities that benefit all children.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Concrete Jungle Gym," runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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Thalya Reyes

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