Sit in classrooms, eat in lunchrooms, romp on playgrounds and wander the hallways in randomly selected public schools in America: It’s right here, in the nation’s increasingly segregated and astonishingly unequal schools, where one finds the most convincing case for keeping affirmative action intact.

The most recent statistics–compiled, analyzed and released by the Civil Rights Project, at Harvard–reveal that America’s schools are now in their twelfth year of a continuing process of racial resegregation. The integration of black students, the new study shows, had improved steadily from the 1960s through the late 1980s. But, as of the 2000-01 school year, the levels have backed off to lows not seen in three decades.

It’s true that the Supreme Court decisions and the enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that followed the Brown v. Board of Education ruling forced the South to desegregate. The region went, between 1964 and 1970, from almost complete segregation to becoming the most integrated region. After 1974, however, school integration efforts outside the South were stymied by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which prohibited heavily minority urban systems from including nearby suburbs in desegregation plans. School districts in the North usually run coterminous with municipal borders. Thus, Northern school districts usually reflect housing segregation rates, which are highest there. In the 1990s, a new set of decisions by a more conservative Supreme Court required that many large (and successful) desegregation plans be dismantled across the country.

Nearly 40 percent of black students in 2000 attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent black–up steadily from a low of 32 percent in 1988. In 2000, about one-sixth of blacks attended schools where 1 percent or less of their fellow students were white. In 90 percent of these schools, the majority of children were poor. The average black student, meanwhile, attended a school where just 31 percent of students were white.

Latino students are America’s most segregated minority group and have become steadily more segregated in recent decades. The average Latino student now goes to a school that is less than 30 percent white, a majority of the children are poor and an increasing concentration of students do not speak English.

Segregation is not a word commonly associated with white students, though it should be. Whites are the most racially isolated group in America’s public schools. Statistics from the 2000-01 school year show that the average white student goes to a school where 80 percent of students are white. Only whites who live in the South and West have experienced increased racial integration over the years.

Segregation is so deeply sewn into America’s social fabric that the media rarely see it. And policy-makers, social thinkers, pundits and “education reformers” steer around the gross fact of segregation as if it were heaven-ordained, without insidious cause or acceptable cure.

But decades of research clearly demonstrates otherwise. Discrimination–past and recent past–created our segregated society. This is especially true of the poor ghettos and barrios whose schools have proven–with some celebrated but rare exceptions–impervious to reform efforts for a half-century. Nine times in ten, an extremely segregated black and Latino school will also be a high-poverty school. And studies have shown that high-poverty schools are overburdened, have high rates of turnover, less qualified and experienced teachers, and operate a world away from mainstream society.

It is astounding that the well-documented and grave implications of racially separate elementary, middle and high schools barely warrant mention by commentators–on all sides–in the raging debate over affirmative action. The most practical reason for maintaining racially conscious admissions policies of the sort used by the University of Michigan is found by facing the hard truth of segregation. Affirmative action may well be the only tool left with the potential to ameliorate the negative effects of a college applicant’s prior twelve years of segregated schooling. Michigan, in fact, has recorded some of the highest school-segregation levels for decades.

Conservatives have suggested that the “10 percent” plans used by some universities (such as in Texas) would provide a fine race-neutral substitute for affirmative action. But in too many of the high schools affected by these plans, even the top students lack the knowledge and exposure to academic rigor needed to survive in a competitive college. The plans, ironically, provide far less access to well-qualified minority students who’ve been in academically rigorous, racially diverse schools but who, because of the school’s many other well-prepared students, may not have been in the top 10 percent. The plans create a perverse incentive, therefore, to attend a low-performing, segregated school.

The Harvard Civil Rights Project study demonstrates that for more and more high school students–especially the white ones–a college campus like Michigan’s would provide them their first chance to interact, learn, work, even just walk around in a multiracial environment that approximates the American society they’ll soon join. And previously segregated minority students are still likely to attend high schools and live in neighborhoods that just plain do not offer them the opportunity to develop their full potential. Segregation is the social condition that shaped those proverbial “unlevel” playing fields. If we as a nation are content to let segregation rates rise, then we have a moral duty to permit affirmative action to play a double role as bridge and equalizer in a divided, unequal society.