Overcoming Apartheid Education

Black & white silhouettes of people, on red background, 6-2-95
This article was written by Jonathan Kozol.
Apartheid education, rarely mentioned in the press or openly confronted even among once-progressive educators, is alive and well and rapidly increasing now in the United States. Hyper-segregated inner-city schools — in which one finds no more than five or ten white children, at the very most, within a student population of as many as 3,000 — are the norm, not the exception, in most northern urban areas today.

"At the beginning of the twenty-first century," according to Gary Orfield and his colleagues at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous resegregation. The desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has receded to levels not seen in three decades." The proportion of black students in majority-white schools stands at "a level lower than in any year since 1968." The four most segregated states for black students, according to a recent study by the Civil Rights Project, are New York, Michigan, Illinois and California. In New York, only one black student in seven goes to a predominantly white school.

The fashionable reflex nowadays is to declare that integration "failed" and to settle instead, in Orfield's words, for better ways of "doing Plessy" in the urban schools as they now stand. Such declarations of futility ignore the reality that as many as 10 million black, white and Hispanic children have attended school together in inter-district programs in which integrated schooling has become a fact of life for an entire generation of black children. In large numbers, the inner-city students in these programs have gone on to universities and colleges and become civic leaders in their own communities.

In the Milwaukee area, for instance, twenty-two suburban districts currently participate in a student-transfer program to promote school integration across district lines, which has been in operation now for nearly thirty years. Under the program four thousand students transfer between Milwaukee and its suburbs. In the middle-class suburb of Shorewood, for example, 11 percent of the student population comes into the district from Milwaukee. Including minority children who already live in Shorewood, says Jack Linehan, the recently retired superintendent, "our school district is about 19 percent black and Hispanic, and the community has a great comfort level with that… I think parents got to know each other as friends… I think that evaporated away a lot of the psychological resistance." Linehan also notes that starting integration in the elementary grades made it much easier for children "simply to be children with each other." Stereotypes fall away, he adds. "It's more difficult to conjure up 'the other' when you're building sand castles together."

In St. Louis also, a suburban-urban inter-district transfer program has been in place for more than twenty years. The program, initiated under a court order in 1983, today enrolls about 10,000 children from the city, who represent nearly a quarter of the school-age population of black children in St. Louis, while about 500 children from the suburbs make the opposite commute. Although recent cutbacks in the funds provided by the state to underwrite these transfers have imposed a heavier financial burden on the sixteen districts that participate, most of the education leaders there have made clear their preference to continue with the program even in the face of opposition from the state.

In the Louisville area as well, school integration, initially carried out under court order, has now been in place without court order for a quarter-century. The sweep of the program, under which the city schools and county schools have been combined into a single system in which more than 90,000 black, Hispanic, white and Asian children are enrolled, has had the effect of rendering Kentucky's public schools the most desegregated in the nation. The typical black student in Kentucky now attends a school in which two-thirds of the enrollment is Caucasian.

When a proposal was made in 1991 to terminate or cut back on Kentucky's integration program, protests were voiced by community groups, the teachers union, the local press, the Jefferson County Human Relations Commission and the regional branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. A survey revealed that the number of black parents who believed their children's education had improved under the busing plan exceeded those who took the opposite position by a ratio of six to one. Less than 2 percent believed that education for their children would be better in resegregated schools. Despite occasional recurrences of opposition from groups or individuals who represent small pockets of resistance, support for school desegregation in the Louisville community continues strong and unabated to the present day.

Public policy has largely turned its back on the aspirations embodied by these instances of school desegregation. "Even many black leaders," notes education analyst Richard Rothstein, are weary of the struggle over mandatory busing programs to achieve desegregation and "have given up on integration," arguing, in his words, that "a black child does not need white classmates in order to learn." So education policies, he says, "now aim to raise scores in [the] schools that black children attend." "That effort," he writes, "will be flawed even if it succeeds." The Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision, he reminds us, "was not about raising scores" for children of minorities "but about giving black children access to majority culture, so they could negotiate it more confidently… For African-Americans to have equal opportunity, higher test scores will not suffice. It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught, no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience."

Nonetheless, programs that promote school integration continue to be threatened in some sections of the nation. In Milwaukee, for example, legislation has been introduced three times since 1999 to do away with or substantially reduce inter-district transfers. Much of the pressure has come from those who argue that the money spent for integrated education should be spent instead to upgrade schools within the city, the assumption being that the state cannot afford to make both of these purposes attainable. In the first two attempts, the legislation was defeated. When on the third attempt, in 2003, the legislation was approved, it was vetoed by Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.