The tenacity of school segregation

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Twenty-five years from now, will our nation's schools be as segregated as they are now?

On the one hand, it seems unthinkable. We've developed stunning wireless technology, an artificial heart, a life-saving treatment for HIV. In the year 2037, could we still be sending our white children and our black and brown children to separate schools? Aren't we better than that?

Not yet we aren't. It'd be nice to report that we recognized the problem of school segregation long ago, vowed to work at it until we fixed it, thought inside and outside the box, and ultimately found our way to racially and economically integrated schools.

But school segregation is still thriving in Chicago and much of the country. I wrote last week about contemporary apartheid schooling, as exemplified by the experiences of two Chicago-area students—one from the North Shore and one from the south side. A study published in September by the Civil Rights Project found that school segregation has increased nationally in the last 20 years.

Although white kids and minority kids both lose something because of school segregation, there's no question who loses more. Whites and minorities are both deprived of experiences with other kinds of people, but minority kids also get vastly inferior educations, which in turn constricts their futures. If you want to lock inequality in place, there's no better tool than school segregation.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote another Reader story about school segregation in Chicago. Most of the students in the Chicago Public Schools then were from low-income families. They were way behind national norms in reading and math, and the dropout rate was high. The city enrollment was 87 percent minority, so if significant desegregation was going to happen, it had to involve the suburbs. No metropolitan effort was attempted, however—and today, Chicago's school enrollment is 91 percent minority and 87 percent low-income.

On an October day 25 years before my 1988 article, local civil rights leaders staged a boycott of Chicago schools, protesting their segregation and the inequities it produced. On Oct. 22, 1963, most of the black students and a few of the white ones—225,000 in all—were absent. The organizers of the "Freedom Day" boycott called for an end to the neighborhood-school policy that was causing the segregation.

The city's student body then was about half white and half black, but completely segregated: there were white neighborhoods with white schools, and black neighborhoods with black schools. In the black schools, classes were overcrowded, teachers were generally less skilled, and the facilities were inferior. When the black schools got so crowded that students could no longer be stuffed in them, school officials stuffed them in mobile units on vacant lots and put them on double-shifts rather than burden nearby white schools with black kids—even though the white schools had empty seats.

Mayor Richard J. Daley wasn't about to stand by passively while school segregation harmed minorities. The mayor instead lent segregation his full support.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal money to local schools. That October, the U.S. commissioner of education, Francis Keppel, withheld $32 million from Chicago, accusing the city of purposely maintaining racial segregation in its schools. Keppel wanted to compel school desegregation in northern cities (a good idea), and decided to start with Chicago (a bad one). Daley called LBJ and let him know who was Boss. As Nicholas Lemann later recounted in his book The Promised Land, "Keppel said Johnson later told him, 'Frank, you know what Daley said to me? He said he could be difficult.'"

No president was going to make our mayor desegregate our schools. The money was soon on its way to Chicago, and Keppel was soon no longer commissioner of education. (As he told Lemann, he was made "assistant secretary of HEW in charge of nothing.")

Boycotts and marches eventually forced Chicago school officials to change a few boundaries and feeder patterns, yielding a speck of integration. White families, who were already fleeing for the suburbs, fled faster.

School officials finally agreed to get serious about segregation, out of a basic sense of fairness that a federal lawsuit forced them to develop. In a 1980 consent decree, they agreed to try desegregating the schools, now that it was too late. The schools were 81 percent minority by then.

The parents who kept their kids home that October day in 1963 likely doubted that the schools would desegregate quickly. But I don't think they could have imagined that school segregation would still be so pervasive here a half century later—that, for instance, nearly a third of the city's schools would have not a single white student.

And it likely will still be pervasive 25 years from now unless fixing it becomes a priority. As I noted last week, the ingredients are there in Cook County: the school enrollment is nearly equally black, white, and Hispanic—but most of the minority kids are in the city public schools, and most of the white kids in the suburban and private schools.

Some people maintain that the lack of progress over the years proves that school desegregation is impossible. The politics are unquestionably challenging. But there's a difference between impossible and hard.

School desegregation "is not and was never expected to be an easy task," Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in 1974, in a dissenting opinion in a school desegregation case (Milliken v. Bradley). "Racial attitudes ingrained in our nation's childhood and adolescence are not quickly thrown aside in its middle years."

Marshall would know. Twenty years before he wrote that opinion, he'd been the lead lawyer in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case in which racially segregated schools were declared unconstitutional because they were inherently unequal. The 1954 ruling brought about much desegregation in southern schools, but little in the north, and the Supreme Court has slid backwards on school desegregation in several cases since.

"In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities—one white, the other black," Justice Marshall wrote in 1974. "But it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret . . . . Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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