Segregation is back in class

Fifty years after court-ordered integration of Central High School in Little Rock, a federal judge recently ended court supervision of that city’s school district, ruling that it had redressed its history of racial inequality.

Little Rock joins many school districts across the country that have shed court-ordered integration. Even voluntarily adopted plans to achieve racial integration, such as those in Louisville and Seattle, are being challenged. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the legality of those cities’ plans this term.

In a post-civil rights era, many people believe that segregated schools are no longer a concern and that conscious efforts to create integrated classrooms are misguided. Sad to say, but segregation is alive and becoming more pronounced in public schools in many cities than it was after decades of integration. The reasons for promoting integration are perhaps even more critical now than in 1957, when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort nine black children into that all-white school in Little Rock.

But today, segregation is not simply a black-and-white issue. With the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans swelling in our multiracial nation, segregation is more complex and its antidote more necessary. The court-ordered remedies and voluntary plans that created integrated classes are far from obsolete and should be part of all discussions of education reform.

Our resegregation : Analysis by The Civil Rights Project, the nation’s leading research center on racial inequality, directed by Gary Orfield, tells the story of resegregation since the early 1990s, when courts began dismantling integration plans put in place 20 years earlier.

“Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation,” a year-old study by Orfield and Chungmei Lee, tracks erosion of integration in every region of the country. Southern states and many of those bordering them, where the first legally enforced integration plans were imposed in the civil rights era, have experienced the most acute regressions as black students become concentrated in schools with fewer white students:

•In 1991, 39% of black students in Southern states attended schools that were majority white; in 2003, only 29% did. •In Arkansas, home to the historic integration effort, the percentage of white students in schools attended by black students decreased by 8 points from 1991 to 2003. •In Kentucky, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Oklahoma, 69% of black students attended majority non-white schools in 2003; in 1991, only 59% did.

But the legacy of desegregation in the South is still strong, and its schools are still more integrated than in the Northeast and West, where legal challenges to segregation lost federal support during the Nixon administration, Orfield and Lee report. What’s worse, the growth of Latino populations in the North and West has only exacerbated segregation in schools. For Latinos, California and New York have the dubious distinction of ranking first and second respectively as the most segregated states for Latino students. Forty-seven percent of Latinos in California, and 58% in New York, attend schools that have what Orfield and Lee call “intense segregation” — schools with 90%-100% non-white students. Where it’s happening : On average, Latinos in New York have been consistently segregated; today, they attend schools that are 80% non-white. In California, the average Latino student, meanwhile, attended schools that were 54% white in 1970; by 1991, they attended schools that were 73% non-white. In Nevada, which saw its Las Vegas-area integration plan dismantled in the 1990s, the average Latino student in 2003 attended schools that were 63% non-white; 20 years earlier, these schools were nearly 66% white. Overall, in the West, which has seen the Latino population swell, 81% of Latinos are in majority non-white schools; in the Northeast, 78% are in majority non-white schools, while 44% are in intensely segregated schools. In the past, segregated schools were a result of legally segregated neighborhoods. In the South, Jim Crow laws endorsed segregation. Today, it’s de facto housing segregation — fostered by factors that include income, race and ethnicity — that has created neighborhood schools with a monochromatic hue. It’s difficult to integrate neighborhoods when housing prices and family finances determine a community’s color. That’s why conscious efforts to transcend housing segregation remain a critical tool. Public schools remain the first and best place for children to learn to live together, so that when they are adults, they can live and work side by side with others who make up our wonderful and diverse society.