School Segregation 65 Years After Brown v. Board (ep. 46)

May 16, 2019
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May 17 marks the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that declared state laws enforcing racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Yet more than six decades later, segregation in some public school systems is worse than ever. Dr. Ansley Erickson, associate professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teacher College, joins At Liberty to discuss Brown’s legacy and why desegregation has been so hard to achieve.

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[0:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host.

May 17th marks the sixty fifth anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court decided that state laws enforcing segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. In the wake of the decisions, schools across the country were integrated through a variety of means, including controversial busing programs that cause backlash in communities throughout the United States.

Despite six and a half decades of integration in fits and starts, today segregation in public schools is worse than ever in some places. Why is school desegregation so important and why is it such a hard problem to solve? To help with these questions, our guest is Dr. Ansley Erickson, an associate professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teacher College. She's also the author of “Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits.” She's also a former New York City school teacher. We'll talk about the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and the current state of school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in America.

Professor Erickson, thanks very much for joining us in the studio. Welcome to the podcast.

Thank you.

So Brown vs. Board was decided 65 years ago and one might have anticipated that school segregation would have been solved by now. But of course it hasn't, and in many cases it's getting worse.

How do you evaluate the legacy of Brown and where we stand today?

Just a small question to start.

Exactly, yeah.

So thinking about 65 years beyond Brown, what we might notice is that the tools that we were using to attack segregation have always been smaller than the tools that we used to build it. So it's true that busing for many people — busing for school desegregation, for example — felt like a massive intervention in what they thought their relationship was between where they lived, where their kids would go. But when you measure it against the federal and state policies and private actions that built the segregated landscape, it's actually relatively modest.

[2:18] So one way to think about those 65 years is, again, learning that segregation has been a persistent problem in American life and especially in education. We've never used tools as big to challenge it as we used tools to build segregation in the first place.

That's a great point. And I hear you saying that the tools that we're using are insufficient to overcome the problem, but in fact the problem is also getting worse in some cases.

Yes. The problem is getting worse in some cases because of the historic legacies, for example, like housing market redlining, right. This is a famous example, but a really powerful one. That's a story that's most vivid in the 30s and 40s and 50s in the U.S. But the consequences of that remain really present.

So redlining is one of the ways to understand massive wealth inequality in the U.S. And one of the ways to understand residential segregation is as a product of that wealth inequality.

I think most folks understand that segregation existed and that there have been efforts to combat it. But what has actually happened in terms of whether segregation is getting better or worse is hard to understand.

Do you have any thoughts on what kinds of misconceptions are common in the public understanding of where we have come in the last 65 years?

One of the people I was honored to meet and talk with a lot in writing a book about Nashville, Tennessee was a civil rights attorney who worked on that case for a long time and is now a local judge.

And he likes to quip, “Well it's not that desegregation failed. It’s that we never did it.” And what he's trying to get at there is this misperception, right, that there was a period of very active desegregation in the US and then because of backlash, it went away.

[4:04] What that misportrays is both the long period after Brown in 1954 when — despite the efforts of attorneys and citizens and mothers in lots of locales to try to push to make Brown a reality — for about a decade in most places, nothing happened. And I don't mean to minimize the work of local activists. And there are of course places like Little Rock and Nashville and others where very dramatic moments of desegregation occurred. But even in those places, they affected the lives of a very few children.

So if you look nationally at levels of segregation, it's not until 1964, really — a full decade after Brown — that you see any movement in the proportion of students who are going to school with students who are not of their same racial category. So it takes ten years for anything to happen at all, and then it takes another decade really for the law to move from prohibiting legal barriers to actually requiring action towards desegregation.

And then, with 1971 and the beginning of busing orders for desegregation, especially in the metropolitan South, you do see an increase in the level of school desegregation nationally. But the restrictions and the move away from that also happen pretty quickly. So by the mid 1980s, the courts are beginning to pull back from those orders and the sort of arc of levels of desegregation starts to turn downward.

And we're seeing in some ways just the continuation of that process of moving away from desegregation. So although desegregation drew a great amount of sort of political heat, what was actually happening on the ground was much smaller than the sort of political controversy would suggest.

[5:58] That's really helpful historical context. And I do want to come back to some of the specifics of what happened in Nashville for better or for worse.

But just to orient us in terms of where actually is our goal, because I think you hear a lot of different kinds of justifications for desegregation, whether it's equality or achievement.

But I wanted to hear from you, what is your concept of what is the goal of desegregation?

I think the goal of desegregation is equitable, high quality, just education for all children. And that requires a kind of equality — both material and social equality — that has been next to impossible to achieve in the context of segregation. So that is not just about test score equality. It's possible in a segregated system — although it's been less likely to happen — it is possible to imagine that you get all children to the same reading scores and math scores via various kinds of interventions in a segregated school system. What's not possible to imagine is that they come out of those schools ready to participate in a diverse democracy and understanding that any structure that strictly separates children by racial category is itself a problematic thing.

So I think that desegregation is necessary not only because of the way that it has increased progress towards achievement measure equality, but it's also crucial on on social metrics, on civic metrics that we should care about just as much.

We'll definitely get into those metrics and the difficulty in trying to measure progress.

But I'm interested in how you came to this area. What sparked your interest in school desegregation?

One place to start is that I was a teacher in New York City small public high schools in the early 2000s.

I taught for two years in a small high school in central Harlem and then one year in a small high school in the South Bronx. And those are both places that are statistically segregated schools. Both of them had some amount of racial diversity. There were Black and Latinx kids who came from various parts of the world. But neither of them had white students in any quantity, and both of them were overwhelmingly schools that served children living in poverty.

[8:24] And so I was there and trying to understand what it meant to be a teacher there in a very unequal world. And for family reasons I knew I was going to move to Nashville, Tennessee in about a year and a half. And I started reading about Nashville and one of the things that popped up quickly was that Nashville was a place that had a different school desegregation story than a place like the South Bronx, for example. And very superficially the narrative that I heard was, well, the South Bronx is one of the most segregated and poorest congressional districts in the country. That was the rhetoric of the time. It may still be true. And that Nashville is a place that had a relatively successful story with school desegregation.

So I thought, OK, well this is an interesting thing.How do these two things compare? And in the year that I was in Nashville, I started working on recording interviews with people who had been participants in the first phase of busing for desegregation in 1971. It was part of trying to get to know the city that I was living in. But it was also part of my trying to understand what the relationship was between a starkly segregated New York City that I experienced and the experience that students had in a more desegregated context.

Let's dive into the Nashville case study a bit. So Nashville as you said has been considered by many as a success story, if maybe a qualified success story, of desegregation. But it's also seen by many as a cautionary tale about some of the pitfalls that can come along. So can you just run us through, what did Nashville do, and maybe what went right and what are some of the things that didn't go well?

So Nashville is a success story if we think about desegregation as a statistical matter — did the school system move more white children into schools with Black children and Black children into schools with white children? And in the 1970s through the 1990s, Nashville was a really binary Black/white place, so that's why I'm speaking in those terms.

[10:14] And because of two factors, the presence of an extensive court order for busing that was in place from 1971 to 1998, Nashville did that. And it did that because it was working with a metropolitan — so countywide — school system. The school system in Nashville covers about 530 square miles, and that means that as of 1971, rural areas of county, suburban areas of the county, and the core city were all in the same school district.


That's not the normative thing in the U.S. where lots of cities, school systems are confined by the city municipal boundary or even something smaller in some cases, and then suburbs have their separate school systems. So Nashville was in a position, demographically, to bring a diverse population of kids into the same school. And they had the lever that was a court order for desegregation to require that they do it.

There were very few children — Black or white — attending a segregated school in Nashville, especially in the 1980s. And with the end of court ordered desegregation in 1998, the proportion of students who are in segregated schools in Nashville is much higher. So in that way, Nashville's like the national story. But statistical desegregation is not substantive equitable integration.


And part of the reason I think it's important to use the term desegregation rather than integration to highlight what happened in Nashville is exactly that gap, that the process of desegregation in Nashville replicated, reproduced, continued core inequalities that had been part of the story of segregation.

Even if people were technically in the same building.

Yes. I mean there was what's called white flight in Nashville. There was lots of popular resistance to busing for desegregation. But the majority of students experienced desegregated school contexts. But in those school contexts, there was inequality in terms of the resources that were available to children inside schools, especially in terms of curriculum. There were inequalities in the way that the burdens and challenges of desegregation were meted out across the population. So, who's expected to leave home to go to school, at what age? How long on the bus? Which communities get to have schools and which communities won't?

Those were all areas that somebody made decisions about.

[12:40] Desegregation doesn't just happen. It rests upon thousands of these little decisions. And in Nashville, like in lots of other cases, those decisions were made in ways that privileged the experience of white residents over the experiences of Black communities and children and residents. So the paradox here is that you have a place with one of the highest levels of statistical desegregation in the country, and you have a lot of evidence of the same kind of inequalities that produce unequal outcomes for kids over a long period of time, not just in Nashville, but elsewhere.

One of the things that really struck me in reading the book was that it was the Black kids who had to ride the bus. And many of the schools in the Black communities — and I think this was true not just in Nashville — but many of the schools in the Black communities were actually closed. This is what you were getting at in terms of who has to bear the burden. And also there's the cultural burden of going into a school in a different neighborhood with a different normative culture as well.

Yep. absolutely.

So Nashville, like many other districts in the country, decided that the schools that should stay open, the schools that children should attend were schools in historically white areas with historically white student majorities and predominately white faculties.

And that meant either the literal closure of schools in Black communities or the reorganization of those schools so that a school that had historically been a high school, for example, which has a particular kind of cachet and community center element to it, would no longer be that school. And that's a story that happens in lots of places.

[14:13] Lots of other places approach school desegregation in even more unequal terms; for example, never asking white children to travel into the center of the city or to travel into historically Black schools.

So Nashville did actually have busing in two directions, but you can still have inequality in the process of that two way busing.

And even within the classroom, there's persistent bias in terms of tracking students by race and other more subtle ways in which teachers and other administrators can discriminate even within the same student body.

Absolutely. So you can have a very desegregated student population at the school level, but students may experience very little desegregation at the classroom level, if, for example, you have a high school that tracks children between a vocational or a general academic or a college-bound path. And in Nashville, the question was who's making decisions about which kids go into which pathway? And this system had very few Black guidance counselors. And the former students that I talked to talked about experiences of being shifted into tracks that were a poor match for their capabilities and for their ambitions.

And that becomes yet another way where families with different resources are able to navigate these challenges differently. So Black families with relationships to teachers and to other kinds of social capital might have pushed back and said, “No, you're not putting my kid in a vocational track. He was doing exceedingly well in his historically segregated Black school before and you're moving him,” whereas other families, other children didn't have the networks that allowed them to to feel comfortable pushing back in that way. And they then ended up with a different trajectory.

One of the things that you noted that was unique about Nashville is this district that includes urban, suburban, and rural areas.

[16:03] But your book is called “Making the Unequal Metropolis,” and the lens is very much about desegregation in the urban and metropolitan context. And I'm wondering, is this really an urban and metropolitan problem? What about rural areas — how do they figure into the overall conversation around desegregation? Is it some of the same questions or is it categorically different?

That's a very good question.

So I think it depends very much on which rural area you're thinking about. So one of the ways to understand resistance to desegregation is thinking about the rural South, where in some cases big rural counties responded to desegregation effectively by not explicitly, but implicitly creating one big county high school that would serve white children and one big county high school that would serve Black children. Or in some cases, simply all of the white children start attending a local private school and the public school system becomes a school system that serves Black children.

One of the things that could connect a place like Nashville and those rural contexts are that state power can be used to segregate in a lot of subtle and capacious ways, and that probably is the story that I think applies to rural contexts as well. But there are also rural contexts where there are very few children of color period, right. Then it's harder to understand how this story might connect, but one of the broader things that I'm trying to think about in understanding the current conversation about school desegregation is the ways that we think of particular places as sites of concern about segregation and other places that sort of seem to disappear from the conversation.

I think that we have to not let ourselves think only of schools that are majority students of color as segregated schools. Those white suburban school systems or the enclave majority white schools inside a big city system should be understood as segregated spaces. They are the product of policy choices and the product of individual preference, and they do a different but similar kind of harm to their students in that they provide them a distorted understanding of the world because of their attendance in these highly segregated spaces.

[18:18] One of the challenges in writing about desegregation and the way that debating desegregation happened worked often to define Black schools as the problem.

And so while I want to pay attention to the injustices of the policies that enforced segregation, I've also struggled — and this is not just about this book but ongoing work — in trying to make sure that we recognize the robust and important history of Black educational attainment, often in segregated spaces and the number of ways in which Black Americans have created educational opportunity for themselves and their children, despite the obstacles that segregation threw up. And in some cases got to define a Black educational tradition inside those segregated spaces.

The 1960s and 1970s desegregation story didn't recognize that, didn't ask the question, what would a desegregated or integrated space look like that recognized Black educational traditions that didn't speak in terms of assimilation into majority white spaces?

I mean, Nashville literally defined a desegregated school as a majority white school.


And that's not a definition that works for 2019 because of the demographics of our nation. And it doesn't recognize that there are Black and Latinx educational traditions that should be really robustly visible in desegregated spaces.

And maybe what we have the chance to do in 2019 is not think about desegregation on a white educational paradigm, but instead to say what does it look like when all of those educational traditions could possibly be visible in the same place.

[20:11]That's really fascinating.

Most of your effort is around analyzing the problem and you call this sort of a political economy lens. And I think what you're getting at there is focusing on policy-making rather than this idea sort of de facto segregation, which has been a big part of the narrative. Can you just talk about what you think is the problem with this narrative around quote unquote “de facto segregation?”


So to the present, it's a very typical way of talking about school desegregation.

The term de facto had a particular kind of value for both desegregation advocates and segregation advocates, frankly, when it became common in the 1950s. New York, for example, school system leaders here very much liked the term de facto segregation because it let them say, “Yes, there are patterns of segregation in our schools. Absolutely. But they don't have an identifiable causal lineage. They come from housing,” for example. Another way to put that is that label became an excuse.

At the same time legal advocates needed a way to talk about segregation in the North when there wasn't black letter law that said the schools will be segregated.

And so they started to use the term, too. But over time the term became more of an excuse than a tool for advocacy.

And what that has meant legally is that it's been possible to say — and Justice Scalia spoke in these terms in the early 1990s — that the causes of segregation are inscrutable or that it would be guesswork. These are his words. It would be guesswork to understand what makes a segregated school. You know, there there are decades now of historical scholarship and I'm just trying to add to that work that names the kinds of choices that people made — people as citizens, people as policymakers, sometimes people as judges — to sustain segregation.

[22:12] The de facto label, it's a way to disappear that history. There is a tremendously wide range of ways that the U.S. government and state governments have encouraged segregation. And so some term like “state-sponsored segregation” is a lot more useful and doesn't let us hide behind the de facto term.

One of the things that I think defines the desegregation effort — and I don't know if this is unique to this area or not — but even when you have well-meaning folks who are trying their best to desegregate schools, you have history is littered with examples of people trying things with the best of intentions and having unintended consequences.

I notice that one of your mentors that you mentioned in the book is Ted Sizer who also happens to be a friend of my family…


... and so I was happy to see his name in the book. But he was a widely respected, renowned, and beloved school innovator in a variety of ways, and also founded an early charter school. And the charter school movement as you know obviously now has come under a lot of criticism for diverting funds from traditional public schools and also in many cases for reinforcing segregation.

So this is just a illustration of someone who had the best of intentions, was trying to tackle this problem. But the charter school history is mixed at best. So is there something that we can understand about why desegregation is so hard even for people with the best of intentions? Why is this nut so hard to crack?

Well I think one way to think about it is that power is very capacious, right. So one of the things I'm trying to do there is suggest that economic power shapes policy in cities, and the pursuit of profit through a variety of mechanisms is really a powerful force in policy.

[24:00] That's a very sort of big and structural part of the story. But there are lots of other kinds of power that make desegregation hard to attack. So the power that individual families have to deploy their networks, to use the available options — and this is where we come back to charters — in ways that serve what they think are their interests. That's another kind of power, and not every family is positioned in the same way in that process.

So when people like Ted Sizer and his allies embrace not only charter schools, but the idea of choice in the public system as well, one of the things that was missing was an express attention to how people with different kinds of power can use those choices, right. And that's not distinct to charter school choice or formal public school choice. It's also part of what happens when families look at where they want to live and families with more resources can say, “I want to look broadly at a metropolitan landscape and figure out where I think the best place is to buy a house.” That's a crucial kind of school choosing, too.

But given that unequal power, simply saying everybody can choose the school, we shouldn't have been surprised that the result of that is the concentration of greater resources and greater kinds of power in some schools than in others.

Well one of the things that you've touched on, and I think you put it really eloquently in the book, is the idea that schools are not just subject to the dynamics around them — whether it's sort of quote unquote de facto segregation or housing segregation or poverty — they're not just subject to these inherent dynamics, but they are also drivers of creating the metropolitan ecosystem. They're a part of the society, they're part of the culture, and the policy decisions that affect the schools directly affect other areas as well.

And as we said, we’re focusing mostly on the district level because that's where most of these decisions are made with regard to schools. But is there anything that can be done on the national level? I'm thinking about our current Secretary of Education. Does it matter who the Secretary of Education is, or is this really about local decision making?

[26:10] The federal level has been crucial in this story for several reasons. One is that it really is federal judges who do a lot of the work to create court orders like in Nashville. And the federal use of Title 1 funds.

And requiring that school systems that are going to receive Title 1 funds at least nominally were desegregating was a big part of why 1964 is a point of inflection, right. So there is a ton of money that comes into the public school system in 1965 through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That's what is now the ESSA today, right. It's just a reauthorization of that earlier law.

So that money flows in. But the fact that there is a Civil Rights Act requirement that that money is only going to go to school systems that aren't actively segregating, that means that school systems have to pay attention to that. So that's an example of how federal money can be a carrot in this process. The courts can be a stick; the federal dollars can be a carrot.

But we could imagine other kinds of federal and maybe even more assertive federal incentives for desegregation, right. Federal incentives for charter school expansion for example were part of the Obama era's education policy. If there were federal dollars organized to encourage districts to desegregate, that could really matter. Right now, that's not the case. And even during the Obama administration when there were some of those incentives in place, they were much smaller than the scale of investments in other kinds of education reform.

Well as you said many of the tools that we try to use to undo segregation are nowhere near as strong as the tools that created it. And many people point to the idea of, you know, the real problem is not the school but it's poverty. The real problem is not the school but it's systemic racism that has led to housing segregation. And it's easy to sort of fall into the trap of thinking, well, if you can't solve anything without solving everything, then how can you solve anything? Are there any promising reform movements that you are interested in following to see how they turn out?

[28:15] There are districts that are experimenting with controlled choice, so trying to recognize that having some amount of choice amongst schools has seemed very attractive to families in lots of different positions, but trying to manage that choice so that it's not possible, for example, to have schools that have a majority of students living in poverty. These are programs that come out of places like Louisville, Kentucky and Wake Forest County, North Carolina, where, essentially, you try to create desegregation by creating maximum numbers of children with particular kinds of high needs at each school. And those have been promising, although they're also hard, hard examples to replicate and, and you know the New York Times recently wrote about San Francisco and San Francisco's attempts at controlled choice, and those continue to be really hard to achieve a sort of paradigm. That's a very long winded way to say I don't think there's a perfect example.

The specificity of a local geography, a local demography, a local political environment — all of that really matters. And so it's true that a lot of work has to happen really locally.

So controlled choice is one approach. And the criticism, like why think about desegregation as the way to fix this problem? Well what's this problem? Is this problem an unequal America?

It's true that schools have been used over and over again as the place to try to solve these huge social problems, and some amount of skepticism about whether schools are the right place to do that is really crucial. Because what has tended to happen — and other scholars have called this the sort of educationalization of social problems, like you're worried about children's attitudes about the world, you're worried about children's attitudes about each other — schools can fix it.

[30:10] Again, that may not be the right thing. So I wouldn't want a conversation about desegregation to displace a conversation about what constitutes a fair minimum wage, a conversation about what every family needs to be able to count on in terms of health care, a conversation about job creation.

Our listeners may be disappointed and shocked that we haven't solved school desegregation here today. But I think one of the things that I said that we found really interesting was the idea that this de facto segregation trope lets government off the hook. If we think that segregation is the natural state of things, then government decision making and policy making is sort of deemphasized. And you really want to recenter these political and economic dynamics that have led to these decisions.

But as a parent of children in New York City's school system — which is labyrinthine, to say the least — what role is there for parents and what should parents do? What kind of choices should parents make so that they're not a part of the problem? We understand that these are big systemic issues and we need to focus on policies that have put us here. But what role for the individual parent in their decision with regard to their kids?

How do people come to know what a good school is for their kids?

Often people listen to their peers; they say oh so-and-so says such and such is a good school. So and so goes there.


And that sort of word of mouth dynamic can work to limit the options that people know of, they think exist, and it can work to reinforce probably a too narrow and often segregation-favoring view of what constitutes a good school. So I would hope that people would choose to visit schools that are unfamiliar to them, right.

If you're thinking about the list of options that's available to you, do you go to the places that are already on that list and familiar to you because of playground conversation only? Or do you say, “Oh, I don't know about that one. I'll go look at that.” There's a sort of social media based network of predominantly white parents trying to think about school desegregation, and one of the things they do is ask people to take a “two school pledge,” right. They're just thinking that if there's one thing that you can do that's different, it might be actually put yourself in a school where you might encounter a place that you haven't been before and you might see things about it that you didn't know.

[32:27] It's a nice pragmatic, limited way to express… Something that you could also say is like, how do you put yourself in a space to understand how brilliant Black kids can be, how brilliant poor kids can be, how that brilliance can look in schools, even in highly under-resourced schools. You know, the first thing I learned as a teacher in schools that didn't have the resources that they needed and were segregated was that my students were brilliant, and they were brilliant in ways that were teaching me things that I absolutely had no idea they would teach me. And that's just a matter of exposure. It's a matter of my segregated upbringing having to be undone because of my existence in a place that was different than where I grew up.

And that's unfortunately a rare experience. Lots of people move through life and make decisions for their children without getting to know children that are different than their own. So that's not a very pragmatic answer. Not everybody can go teach.

No, it's fantastic advice. And I really appreciate your compassion and your insights and your scholarship, as well. And I really appreciate you coming in to speak with us today. Thanks very much, Dr. Erickson.

It was a pleasure. Thank you.
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