Overcoming Apartheid

Overcoming Apartheid

Apartheid education is alive in America and rapidly increasing in hyper-segregated inner-city schools. And though it’s now fashionable for policy-makers to declare integration a failure, effective programs across the country still survive–and deserve to thrive.


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.

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 interdistrict 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.

There will be further legislative efforts like these in the future, says Jack Linehan, the former Shorewood superintendent–this, he notes, despite academic outcomes for the students in the transfer program that are consistently far better than those of students who remain in Milwaukee. The four-year graduation rate of inner-city students who have been attending school in the suburban districts is typically 95 percent or higher, Linehan observes, while the rate for students in Milwaukee’s schools averages below 60 percent. If the legislature should succeed in cutting funding for the interdistrict plan, says Linehan, suburban districts would be forced to raise their local levies up to 25 percent to keep on with the program. “The only other option is to send these children back, which I believe would be immoral. We cannot say, ‘We didn’t mean it, now there’s no more money.'”

In perhaps the most disheartening development, the interdistrict program in St. Louis is facing the risk of termination in the next three years. A court-supervised phaseout of state funding for the program, while it does not prohibit integration, significantly discourages suburban districts from accepting students from St. Louis after the 2008-09 academic year. The suburbs, for the most part, have wanted to continue; indeed, students in the affluent community of Clayton walked out of classes in 2004 to protest a possible withdrawal from the program, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The principal of Clayton High School told the paper he was “proud to be part of a community that values diversity in a metro area so segregated.” But the state, beginning in late 2004, cut assistance to the district from the full per-pupil cost in excess of $13,000 to approximately half that sum, a loss in funding that has led the Clayton School Board, against the wishes of its students, to vote to terminate the program and accept no further applicants after 2008.

Other St. Louis suburbs may be driven to the same decision. Already, as a result of the first stages of the phaseout, the number of city students going to suburban schools has dropped by about 3,000 from a peak of 13,000 in the 1990s, while the number of suburban children going to St. Louis schools has dropped to half the number who were making this commute during the 1990s. “The state government,” Orfield notes, “beginning under former Governor John Ashcroft, has fiercely opposed the integration program. It works, so it will be killed, unlike charter schools, which do not work and will be expanded.” As in Milwaukee, the success of students in the program has been documented thoroughly. Ninety percent of transfer students graduating from suburban high schools have pursued postsecondary education, most attending two- or four-year colleges, compared with only 47 percent of graduating minority seniors in St. Louis. And the volume of applications by minority parents to enroll their children in the program has continued to be strong and is, indeed, increasing. In 2004 nearly 6,000 parents submitted applications for the 1,300 openings that were available.

Is it accurate then to say that most Americans, and black Americans especially, as we are told so frequently, have decided to give up on integrated education? National surveys, Orfield notes, do not bear this out. More than two-thirds of Americans believe “desegregation improves education for blacks,” and “a growing population is convinced” it has a positive effect for whites as well. In surveys among young adults, 60 percent believe the federal government ought to make sure that public schools are integrated. The same percentage of black respondents do not merely favor integrated education but believe that it is “absolutely essential” that the population of a school be racially diverse. (Only 8 percent of blacks and only 20 percent of whites say this is not of much importance.) Opposition to desegregation among whites, Orfield pointedly observes, is highest among those who have no experience of integration. Yes, as those who have participated in these programs rightly note, there are the multitude of challenges that transfer students often do confront; and these are not always minor problems, nor are they exclusively, as some may think, “the problems they bring with them.” Many are created by insensitivity or insufficient care in prior planning on the part of the receiving districts, others by resilient racist suppositions on the part of educators or administrators even in some of the most self-consciously progressive white communities.

Still, oral histories of students who experience desegregation usually reveal that even when the social adaptations may be difficult at first, the students consider the benefits they ultimately gain to be well worth the challenges they’ve faced. And despite the social tensions students in these interdistrict programs do sometimes encounter–and despite those famous “separate tables” in the cafeterias to which black students often gravitate, and in regard to which an awful lot of lamentation is devoted in the press–many of the white and nonwhite students get to know each other far too well not to be drawn to one another, finally, as friends.

Most parents of black and Hispanic students who have asked for my advice when they were trying to decide upon a school their children might attend have told me they have rarely thought about the pros and cons of trying to enroll their children in suburban schools or, indeed, in racially desegregated schools within their district, because they do not believe it possible that they would have the chance to exercise this option if they wanted to. Orfield believes that we can make it possible on a far broader scale and that we have, in any case, a moral obligation to devote ourselves to heightening that possibility in any way we can.

In answer to those who say they share this goal but point to the obstacles presented by the current makeup of the federal courts and the lack of any apparent interest in advancing such a purpose on the part of national elected leaders or the leaders of state government, Orfield, a political scientist by training, gives a clear, unshakable response. “The notion that apartheid in the South could be dismantled 50 years ago seemed wildly improbable as well,” he noted. “Breaking down the barriers to interdistrict integration and reducing residential segregation in the suburbs have at least as good a chance of ultimate success. It will take a major political thrust in order to achieve this. We will certainly need some better people on the courts. But look at what Charles Hamilton Houston and W.E.B. Du Bois and those who worked with them during the decades long before the Brown decision faced when they were looking at a system of apartheid in the South which nobody was seriously resisting and which neither political party was opposing. And they nonetheless were asking, ‘How do you take this thing apart?’ And they did it. They started a movement. They created the intellectual force to make it possible. This is what we need to do as well.”

And, he said, with a determination that is seldom heard within the discourse of too many tired-sounding liberals these days, “When we do create that force, it will be successful also.”

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