‘Double Segregation': The Deepening Racial Divide in Schools

The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education overturned state-sponsored segregation in public schools, but over the last two decades a disturbing trend of re-segregation has emerged across the United States.

In their recently released report, E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” UCLA’s Civil Rights Project notes the continued dramatic increase in the segregation of American schools by race and poverty, even as minority enrollment has skyrocketed.

“These trends threaten the nation’s success as a multiracial society,” said Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

The growing resegregation of the nation’s schools, said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, is unacceptable.

“We still have students who are suffering because we have failed to level the educational playing field and give our students what they need,” said Van Roekel. “We must continue to focus attention and resources on improving learning conditions in schools and transforming our education system, so that it becomes the model of what is possible when we focus on what is best for all, and not some.”

With minority students quickly approaching the national level of white students, the disparity in school equality is striking. The report notes that, “the typical white student attends a school where three-quarters of their peers are white,” while conversely, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools (50-100% minority), and 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks attend intensely segregated schools (those with only 0-10% of whites students) across the nation.”

The problem is even worse in the Southern and Western states, as noted by the Civil Rights Project in their companion regional reports,  “The Western States: Profound Diversity but Severe Segregation for Latino Students,” and “Southern Slippage: Growing School Segregation in the Most Desegregated Region of the Country.” Latinos are the fastest growing racial demographic in the country and their growth in the Western states has been particularly profound—Latino students now represent the dominant minority group in the region. This has lead to a huge influx of Latino students into the region’s school systems, but racial divisions have isolated these minority students from their white peers.

Latino students’ exposure to white students in the classroom has trended downwards nationally, leading to a decrease in cross-racial interactions. When the Western states are examined separately, the data shows that this trend significantly increases, as “The typical Latino student in the region attends a school where less than a quarter of their classmates are white; nearly two-thirds are other Latinos; and two-thirds are poor.”

In the South, once at the forefront of integrating schools after Brown vs. Board of Education, school segregation is again becoming the norm. Together, black and Latino students combine for a majority of the region’s students, with white students representing the minority. Nevertheless, contact among the races has also dramatically decreased in the South, with the report noting the troubling statistic that, “white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.”

According to the Civil Rights Project, the reoccurrence of segregated schools stems from the 1991 Supreme Court decision Oklahoma City vs. Dowell, which made it easier for school districts and courts to dismantle desegregation plans. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, school integration—particularly in the South—was strongly implemented through successful national efforts. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the levels of equality in schools began to diminish as these efforts were scaled back, leading to two decades of unchecked re-segregation.

The racial divides in the classrooms have created a major wealth disparity between minority students and whites, classified as “double segregation” by the Civil Rights Project. This process has not only curtailed the exposure of white students to minorities, but has also forced lower income students into similar schools, often ones which are poorly financed, maintained, and performing.

The Civil Rights Project is calling on the Obama Administration, state and local officials, and organizations around the country to take proactive measures to ensure that all students, regardless of race and wealth, have equal access to a successful education. These recommendations include: giving priority in competing for funds to pro-integration policies; changing the operation of choice plans and charter policies so that they foster rather than undermine integration; supporting diverse communities facing resegregation with housing and education policies; helping communities undergoing racial change to create voluntary desegregation plans, and training for administrators and teachers’ to achieve successful and lasting integration.

For more information, visit the Civil Rights Project.