America’s school-age population is more diverse than ever before, reflecting the demographic shift rapidly taking place in our country. America’s schools, however, are more segregated than they have been for decades.
During the two decades between 1970 and 1990, the nation made steady progress toward school desegregation, particularly in the South. At peak, 40% of black southern students attended a formerly all-white school, while less than a third of all black students attended black schools.
Since the 1990s, that progress has been reversing in Southern public schools, while the largely intractable segregation of the Northern cities has intensified. Nationwide, nearly 75% of black students attend so-called majority-minority schools, and 38% attend schools with a white population of 10% or less. Similar statistics apply to Latino students: 80% and 40%, respectively. Both black and Latino students are much more likely than white students to attend a school where 60% or more of their classmates are living in poverty, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs.
Separate remains unequal as schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are more likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities and fewer classroom resources.
The cost of school segregation and white racial isolation is immense.
Legal constraints have much to do with this backward momentum. Some 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, a series of key Supreme Court decisions have dramatically reduced the number of implementation methods available to communities engaged in school desegregation. They have eliminated strategies such as cross-district busing, dismantled local court supervision of desegregation plans, and limited use of race-based admissions to ensure diversity in magnet school programs.
According to an analysis by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the number of intensely segregated schools with zero to 10% white enrollment has more than tripled as these options for desegregation have been curtailed. Students are, once again, predominantly assigned to public schools based on where they live — and to the extent that neighborhoods are segregated, the schools remain so. The persistence of residential segregation now ensures continuing school segregation.
Is that a national concern? Apparently not for most people.
A 2017 poll found that while 70% of parents would like to have their child in a racially diverse school, 57% prefer proximity over diversity. That is, they would rather send their child to a less diverse school in the neighborhood than a more diverse school farther away. Only 25% think diversity would be worth a trip.
The obvious solution is to diversify neighborhoods, but that’s elusive. Contemporary surveys of racial attitudes among whites indicate that the larger the hypothetical black population in an area, the more likely white respondents are to express discomfort about living there. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen report that high levels of black-white segregation have remained relatively unchanged for the last 40 years. A similar pattern is visible among Latino families in the country’s two largest Latino communities — New York and Los Angeles, where nearly 20% live in extremely segregated, or what researchers call “hypersegregated,” neighborhoods.
Such continuing segregation helps explain the 2013 American Values Survey finding that 75% of white adults have entirely white social networks, without the presence of any people of color.
The cost of school segregation and white racial isolation is immense. As long as children of color remain trapped in under-resourced schools, many won’t have the opportunity to develop their talents — a loss not just for those children and their families, but the whole country. Meanwhile, white children won’t have sufficient opportunities to develop the skills needed to engage effectively in a multiracial society. Racial isolation means that experience of “the other” is too often rooted in well-worn stereotypes, rather than in knowledge nuanced by ongoing engagement. Fear and anxiety about the unfamiliar are the common result.
Colleges and universities have a role to play in changing course. More and more young people are making the choice to pursue higher education; even Harvard University has reported that for the first time in its history students of color make up more than 50% of the entering class. For many students, regardless of racial background, the higher education environment will be the most racially diverse learning environment they have experienced in their lives. It is incumbent upon educators to provide the scaffolding needed to help students engage effectively across lines of difference.
Proximity alone will not be sufficient. Because of both lack of direct contact and repeated exposure to cultural stereotypes while growing up, cross-group interactions can be uncomfortable. Even genuine efforts at friendship can be derailed by awkward interactions and unconscious bias. But institutions that create meaningful opportunities for structured interactions such as cooperative learning and intergroup dialogue have a chance to change our social trajectory.
Students who had the most diversity experiences during college continued that pattern of cross-racial interaction — in their neighborhoods and at work — several years after their college graduations. These young people have the potential to finally interrupt our well-established patterns of residential segregation and can perhaps begin to make the ideal of the Brown ruling a reality in this century.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, is a psychologist and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race.”