Reflections on the return of school segregation

On Jan. 16, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released a 67-page report with a grim message: racial segregation has returned to U.S. schools at levels not seen for three decades. The report has implications for contemporary activists, such as those in Lewiston, Maine, who recently demonstrated against racism. Its findings are of a piece with rampant onslaughts of discrimination and division throughout the world.

The report is based on cumulative data from “virtually all” U.S. schools. One learns that: Minority students now make up 40 percent of U.S. public school students. They were 20 percent in the 1960s.

One sixth of all Black students – one fourth of the Black students in the Midwest and Northeast – attend “apartheid schools,” those with 90 to 100 percent minority students.

Since 1990, Black students attending majority white schools fell 13 percent, the lowest level since 1968.

Seventy percent of Black and Latino students attend schools with over 50 percent minority enrollment, a 10 percent increase over 10 years. 37.4 percent attend schools with at least 90 percent minority enrollment.

The average Black student now attends a school with 31 percent white students, 10 percent fewer than 10 years ago.

The average white student goes to a school with at least 90 percent white students. Only 14 percent of white students attend multi-racial schools (defined as three races, each 10 percent or more).

The data in this report suggest that poverty and segregated schools go together. In 2000, the average student attended a school where 19 percent of the white children, 50 percent of the black students, and 44 percent of the Latinos were classified as poor. In 15 percent of the predominantly white schools, but in 86 percent of the intensely segregated black schools, 50 percent or more students receive free or reduced-rate lunches. The student body in 80 percent of the schools with less than 30 percent white students contained a majority who were classified as poor.

According to the Harvard report, for 30 years public opinion polls and student surveys have demonstrated rising rates of approval for desegregated education. Integrated education has accounted both for minority students graduating from high school at increasing rates and for a narrowing of racial gaps in test scores and academic achievement. The report attributes re-segregation to changes in the racial makeup of communities and the population of children, and to a 30-year refusal by Washington officials and the courts to promote and protect school integration.

In Lewiston, 5,000 people marched against racism on Jan. 11. They were reacting to a protest the same day by a few Illinois white supremacists against 1,100 just-arrived Somali immigrants. To what extent can well-disposed, overwhelmingly white, Maine people, motivated by decency, human brotherhood, and solicitude for their state’s image, be counted upon to pitch in against the institutionalized, pervasive racism described in the Harvard report?

The task will require more than abstractions and concern about appearances. Howard Zinn hints (Progressive, Dec. 2002) at an expanded notion of equality that may serve as a tool for action. Writing about war in Iraq, he suggests that for the U.S. government, the value of Iraqi children is low. Their deaths are “worth it,” as a recent Secretary of State said.

Those children are, in effect, assigned to the category of disposable people. And by all indications, the child victims of the re-segregation of U.S. schools will be put there too.

They will join 6 million children under age 5 who die each year from easily preventable diseases, 12 million children under age 15 with HIV/AIDS, and the 12 percent of sub-Saharan children who are orphaned by the deaths of their parents from AIDS. African Americans of all ages gain a place on the list, because they die earlier and are sicker than whites. Certainly young people in Chicago, age 16 to 24, the ones interviewed by Bob Herbert, are disposable – “out of jobs, out of school, and all but out of hope” (NYT Feb. 6). He reports that there are 100,000 such expendable young people in Chicago, 200,000 in New York.

The lesson for Lewiston activists is this: disposable people serve as an important prop holding up a system based on greed and competition. For those who have gained a niche in regular society, disposable people serve as reminders of a precarious existence. Let down your guard, and disposability may be your lot. Fight the system, lose, and meet your desperate replacement, coming up from the lower depths, where you are headed. And for inflating fears and maintaining divisions, racism is the tool of choice.

In a dog-eat-dog world like this, any notion of equality must focus on the basics, what people need for survival and dignity – all people, down the street and throughout the world. Whether or not such an idea is labeled socialism – as it should be – is less important than its role as a principle for action. The Lewiston marchers could call upon a Massachusetts neighbor, Henry Thoreau, for commentary: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary …”

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a part-time pediatrician in rural Maine. He can be reached at pww@pww.org