The United States has a deep-rooted history of racial and socioeconomic inequality. One of the most enduring, and often-times overlooked, aspects of systemic inequality is school segregation. Throughout American history, people have been fighting to ensure that every student, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, has the right to a quality education. The country is rapidly becoming more multicultural and income-diverse.
Yet, the debate over inequality in the nation’s schools persists. It is widely known that the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board banned the practice of legal school segregation. It was later found that the real problem of segregation was no longer among the students and schools within the urban districts but between urban and suburban districts (Orfeld IDK). The main factors that contribute to modern school segregation are: the remnants of past school segregation practices, changing residential patterns, and the implications of school choice.
American school segregation has a very long history. Amid the post-Civil War reconstruction period, many southern authorities wanted to keep people of color separate from the rest of society. This was accomplished through the implementation of Jim Crow, a racial segregation system that was active from 1877 to the mid-1960’s. Jim Crow laws, also known as black codes, barred people of color from sharing most public facilities used by white people, including schools.
In 1894, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were permissible under the state constitution. The US Supreme Court used this case to support their decision to uphold segregation laws in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. This enabled legal segregation to continue for another fifty years. It was clearly observed that segregating schools perpetuated a cycle of inequality for people of color.
Since the 1930’s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized to bring local lawsuits to court, arguing that “separate but equal” segregation laws were unconstitutional. In 1954, these various lawsuits were combined into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case which outlawed segregation in schools and set a legal precedent that public establishments could not enforce segregation practices.
Later studies found that school segregation declined significantly from the mid-1960’s to the 1970’s. After 1970, the principal cause of racial segregation in the nation’s public schools no longer appeared to be the official policies that school districts followed to separate students by race, but rather disparities in racial composition between school districts. These disparities seemed to be most pronounced in the largest urban areas, where the proportion of minority students in many central city districts exceeded 50 percent. (BLANK).
Over the past few decades, there has been a population shift from urban cores to surrounding suburbia. Urban sprawl may have generated racially and economically stratified communities. Despite some recent demographic changes, suburbia has long-been known for being overwhelmingly white and wealthy.
Post-World War II, American soldiers returned home to a very different country than the one they had left. Wartime production helped pull America’s economy out of depression, resulting in the rise of consumerism. Job availability, increasing wages, and the lack of consumer goods during the war encouraged young adults to use their new found spending power. New federal programs, including the G.I. Bill of Rights, allowed many young families to purchase their own homes, often located in the suburbs (BLANK).
Meanwhile, birth rates skyrocketed! Ideals around the American family and individualism were quickly changing. It was ultimately commonplace for families to own homes that could accommodate a family of four. This was the driving factor behind “white flight”. White flight occurs when a large number of people living in mostly white middle class communities move from urban areas to the suburbs. This had a significant impact on the white popularization of suburbia. As time went on, suburban families’ accumulation of wealth and investments were passed from generation-to-generation. This allowed suburban communities to maintain their status of wealth and whiteness for years to come.
Communities can become racially and economically stratified over time as a result of several factors such as: economic opportunity, transportation, white flight, etc. The practice of redlining has also played a huge role in community stratification. Redlining was a discriminatory practice that allowed banks and insurance companies to refuse loans, mortgages, and insurance policies for people that were living in certain areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods. Redlining heavily affected neighborhoods with high racial and ethnic minority populations. Residents of these neighborhoods were deemed a financial risk and couldn’t qualify for loans. This systemically prevented them from buying new homes and therefore prevented them from moving into the suburbs.
Neighborhood stratification has resulted in a massive decrease in the number of schools that have a balanced mix of white students and students of color. According to a study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the number of hyper segregated public schools, those with low populations of white students, has tripled over a 25-year period! (Blank). Without a continuous push to integrate schools, communities may still self segregate.
Some people believe that the resegregation of schools is a natural process. They believe that it has little to do with race and discrimination but rather school choice. School choice is a term for public education options, describing a variety of programs that offer parents/students an alternative from sending their student to an assigned local public school. Some options include: charter schools, magnet schools, and intra-district open enrollment. While each of these options greatly vary in operation, they all give families the option to pick where the student attends school. Supporters argue that school choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs.