De Facto School Segregation Growing, Study Says

A new Harvard University study finds America's public schools are more segregated now than they were 15 years ago. Ed Gordon discusses the findings with Harvard professor Gary Orfield, a co-author of the study, and with John Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEW AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon,

A recent Associated Press Ipsos Poll found that 78 percent of white Americans and 66 percent of black Americans agree we're closer than ever to Dr. King's dream of racial equality. But a new study released by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project suggests, when it comes to public education, we still have a ways to go. America's schools are more segregated than they were 15 years ago, and some districts are so segregated, that they have what the study calls apartheid schools. For more on that report, I sat down with Gary Orfield, professor of education and director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, and John Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Mr. Brittain says, our judicial system deserves credit for ordering desegregation in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board decision, but also blamed for failing to keep the promise of that ruling today.

Mr. JOHN BRITTAIN (Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law): I don't think we went wrong. I think the court shut the door to school integration. They've become much more hostile; they require intent; they impose large burdens; and the federal government, particularly the Department of Education, that once was a champion of school integration, how now abandoned the effort. Furthermore, to let school districts build schools in black and Latino neighborhoods perpetuates segregation with state full funding and they let predominantly white schools renovate and build new schools in the suburbs that also maintains desegregation. So, our laws have failed and our government actors have failed.

Mr. GARY ORFIELD (Professor of Education and Director of Civil Rights Project, Harvard University): You also see that this line has been drawn between city and suburb, as if we were two different civilizations. Once you get an overwhelmingly minority city, the Supreme Court basically says you can't do anything about the problem unless you can find the state constitutional right or something like that, even though it would be a very feasible and successful solution.

GORDON: What of those who will suggest, Professor, that it's simply a failed experiment to force people to go to school together was the mistake that we really should have fought for, even if it were separate but equal, a sheer equation that gave equal dollars to equal systems.

Professor ORFIELD: So far as I can tell, there's no school district that's ever achieved separate but equal schools on any significant scale; and that's because, as our data shows, in more than three-quarters of the cases, segregated minority schools have concentrated poverty. Putting money into those schools without changing classmates, without changing teachers, without changing curriculum, without changing levels of competition, connections to college and so forth, just doesn't make them equal. You could put money into your local community college, a lot of it, and it wouldn't be Harvard, because you wouldn't have the students and the faculty, the connections, the opportunities, and so forth.

Everyone who is in favor of school integration, is also in favor of trying to do everything possible to equalize city schools, so far as I know; and they're not contrary things. They both need to be done because there's no desegregation policy that's going to accomplish everything in any short period of time. Separate but equal isn't really possible on any scale in a society where almost everything is related to race in quite powerful ways.

GORDON: John Brittain, let me get this point out, and then please pick up on your point there. You've been in the game for a long time, practiced civil rights law for years in Mississippi. When you take a look at the landscape today, there will be those who suggest that the idea of just intermingling was the focus far too often and too much in terms of the push for integration, and that we didn't put into the equation the idea of white flight and the inability to force it to happen. How much can we lay credence to that thought?

Mr. BRITTAIN: Well, that rewards the sinner, so to speak for the sins of segregation by allowing the white flight to take place, and then insulating it, like Gary said, with this kind of apartheid border between the urban district and the suburban district. We saw the massive transformations of a society move to the suburbs, the exodus of money and investment in the inner city, the creation of jobs, the lack of transportation in the suburbs, and we didn't account for the changing demographics in the city. One of the things that's different today, 50 years after Brown, is that we have these large concentrations of poverty in inner districts that are mostly non-white.

And the poverty has as much of a significant effect upon the educational performance and upon the ability of a poor school district already to deliver an equal educational opportunity. And we have to address these large concentrations of poor children who occupy the predominant number of schools, particularly elementary schools, in the urban center, and poverty is a proxy for many disadvantages that neither the school district nor the students and their families can overcome without massive government assistance and without integration and the disbursement of the high concentration of poor children throughout other schools in a region.

GORDON: Professor Orfield, here's what's interesting in your findings, for me. Often when you talk about desegregation, a lot of people look south. But you found that the top five segregated schools, the states were New York, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and New Jersey.

Professor ORFIELD: No, it really hasn't been a predominantly southern problem since 1970, about a third of a century, because the south was really forced to desegregate by the Civil Rights Act and the Johnson administration. The Supreme Court didn't even require desegregation in the north until almost 20 years after Brown. The Nixon administration, most of the administrations that have been in power since then have done nothing about it. In fact, a number of them have actively opposed it. And I think that the south is the only area that's experienced serious desegregation. The south is the only area that has many school districts that combine the city and the suburbs in a single big county-wide district. So they were able to do a city/suburban desegregation, which is, by far, the most successful.

On the white flight issue that you raised before, our study actually looks at that. It finds all of the places that ended desegregation did not have the predicted tide of whites coming back. It didn't happen almost any place in any serious school district. The basic transition, racial transition that we see in our cities took place whether or not there was school desegregation. It's basically housing driven, and we see it in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, LA, that never had significant school desegregation. They still went through that racial change. And people mixed up that housing transition with school desegregation.

GORDON: When you look at the landscape today, Mr. Brittain, how problematic is it to believe that we're going to find some way to force school districts and to force governments to really look at equal opportunity education for young people?

Mr. BRITTAIN: At the state level, there is still some hope. Brown was decided in 1954, and it required integration. Just 20 years later, in 1974, the Supreme Court decided perhaps the second biggest significant school desegregation case to the harm and detriment of integration, called Milliken v. Bradley. And what Milliken said, from Detroit, Michigan, is that you could not extend the remedy of integration beyond the city/suburban district. And that's, as Professor Orfield points out, the beginning of the apartheid, that they created this kind of invisible wall between the suburbs, and the minority people were increasing in the inner city, and they said, this is the wall and we cannot extend integration beyond it.

Then came 1990, as you said, it was the Dow case from Oklahoma, in which the court said that for the districts that were formerly (unintelligible) by law segregated, they could now eliminate their burden of a court order if they could show that any resulting segregation that's continuing is due to, quote, demographics of just where people move and just kind of innocently where school districts build schools. But all of the factors of where people move with banks, and loans, and mortgages, and housing, and jobs, and transportation are all the result of government planning. So, segregation, for the most part, doesn't just happen; it's created by a number of government policies. But the court put on blinders and wouldn't look at.

So today they say--and we just lost a big case down in Georgia--that when you now have segregation, or as the Harvard Center points out, re-segregation, the courts say, oh, it's not due to any government policy; it's just due to where people live and where they go to their neighborhood school instead of requiring more integrated and more spread out education among many.

But there is hope in this Lynn vs. Massachusetts case and out in Seattle, where school districts on their own set up voluntary measures to assign students to schools, and in two cases, two courts of appeals have held that this is constitutional on the same theory as the big University of Michigan cases in 2003 that diversity is a compelling state interest in our society today.

Professor GARY ORFIELD: We have studied students who are in integrated schools in areas all over the country, and we find that the black students, the white students, the Asian students, the Latino students all find this a very positive experience. They all feel that they're ready to live and work in a interracial setting. In the case in Massachusetts that John mentioned, in the schools in the Lynn district, where they've had a voluntary desegregation plan, and they've now defended it successfully in Federal court, the students feel that the kids in the adjoining districts that are segregated are clueless about the nature of this society and just don't understand how to operate in it.

I think that the other thing that's important is we talk about this as if we're talking about central cities and education is declining everywhere in the United States. Education is not declining everywhere in the United States. The public schools are either stable or are improving slightly in math and science, and most of our kids live in suburbs, and as of the 2000 census, some 40 percent of blacks and 50 percent of Latinos in metropolitan areas were already in suburbs.

A lot of this is about whether we choose to replicate the re-segregation that took place in the cities in our suburban districts.

ED GORDON host:

Do you believe most of those suburbs want to integrate?

They don't want to re-segregate, and when they do experience...

GORDON: But that's a different question.

Professor ORFIELD: Yes. Some of them want to integrate, and they decide to take a positive stance earlier, and they have the best chance. All of them--in my experience--by the time that it becomes apparent that they're in danger of being ghettoized or turned into an all Spanish-speaking community or something like that, they want to do something different, but it's usually too late.

Integrated communities that really are committed to it as a goal are extremely positive places for people from every racial background, and we need to help suburbs understand that it, there isn't a choice to remain all white in many cases anymore because of the nature of the demography of our country. You have to either decide to integrate or to leave.

GORDON: Gary Orfield, professor of education and director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project and John Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Professor ORFIELD: Pleasure to be with you.

Mr. BRITTAIN: You're welcome.

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