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. Hypersegregated 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 interdistrict 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 interdistrict 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.