Why are American public schools still segregated?

Representations of segregated classroom in a museum

A reconstruction of two segregated classrooms in the South during Jim Crow displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Elise Boddie remembers being bused to a public school outside of her local school district. It was the late 1970s, more than two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, and the busing was part of a statewide effort to integrate those schools that were still segregated.

“I have a picture of my kindergarten class, and it’s very diverse, actually,” Boddie recalled. “That was a very happy experience for me as a child.”

Elise Boddie smiling

Rutgers law professor Elise Boddie is also the founder of The Inclusion Project, A new Jersey-based group working to advance racial inclusion. (Photo courtesy of Elise Boddie)

Boddie moved to Texas and attended a high school that was predominately white. As one of the only students of color at the school, she felt alone and isolated. The experience fueled her perspective on what public education should be.

That issue is at the center of a discussion Boddie will lead on Thursday, March 6, from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Barrows Hall. 

The event, “Struggling for the Soul of Public Education: Lessons from the Frontlines of the Battle to Integrate Public Schools in New Jersey,” is part of the campus initiative to commemorate 400 years of resistance to slavery and injustice.

A professor at Rutgers Law School, Boddie is a leader in the current effort to integrate New Jersey’s public schools, advocating for a court case that challenges school segregation statewide.

“I think the true measure of public education is how well it teaches students to function in a democratic, pluralistic society,” she said. “Does it teach them to share power and resources and to create a society that is equitable and just? … I don’t believe that you can do that in a segregated system.”

Boddie sat down with Berkeley News to talk about the reasons segregation still exists in America’s public schools and how the federal government is currently impacting that segregation.

Berkeley News: Why is there still segregation in our schools?

Elise Boddie: It’s a little bit of a complicated answer. The main answer is that the federal constitutional law shifted in profound ways in the South. The South was historically the most integrated part of the country and still is. That’s because after Brown v. Board of Education, Southern school districts that were intentionally segregated were subject to constitutional remedies that were supervised by federal courts.

Although quite a few school districts in the South are still subject to federal oversight, many re-segregated after changes in the law made it easier for federal courts to release them from supervision.

In other parts of the country where cities were segregated—but not by law—the only way to integrate was through metropolitan desegregation plans that crossed into the suburbs. But the 1974 United States Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, limited the power of federal courts to order integration across school district boundaries. As a practical matter, the case made school desegregation in these areas very hard to achieve.

How has the history of slavery in this country impacted the segregation we still see in our public schools?

In my mind, there is unquestionably a connection between segregation and the history of enslavement in this country and segregation, because the tragic story of America is that the forces of white supremacy replicate themselves.

We had a brief period of Reconstruction; and then the federal government pulled out of the South, which led to a resurgence in white domestic terrorism against black people. After that, we had Jim Crow for over half of the twentieth century, including forced segregation not only in the schools, but across every facet of society throughout the South and places in the North.

So, the system of slavery adapted and regenerated itself through these other systems and social practices.

 

How can the federal government play a role in integrating schools?

School segregation really lies at the epicenter of racial inequity in this country. Students in schools that are segregated by race and poverty have a much harder time graduating from high school and going to college, which makes it harder to get a job and to earn an income that allows them to support themselves and their family.

School segregation also feeds into housing segregation, which is a major source of the racial wealth gap. So, in order to deal with racial inequity, we have to address segregation.

It’s clear to me that this administration has no interest in this issue. You know, it’s probably hostile to this issue. We have a secretary of education who does not value public education, clearly. So, let’s just start there. Let’s have somebody who is the secretary of education who values public education.

The current administration has no interest in this issue as far as I can tell. I don’t even believe that the secretary of education values public education.

But there are important things that the federal government could do. For example, it can provide financial support and technical expertise for school districts that want to integrate.

Why should the public help in this fight to integrate public schools, and how would it benefit future generations?

We are living in a time of intense social divides and racial “othering” that is often made worse by social media.

Other than K-12 public schools and post-secondary education, it’s hard for me to think of a single place that provides sustained opportunities for dynamic social interactions with people from different backgrounds, where people have the chance to relate to one another across their differences.

When you engage with people across time, and up close, you see their complexity. It’s much harder to stereotype and to make assumptions about how “those people” are. Imagine if we could replicate those experiences across public schools?

I’m not saying that it’s easy; integration is hard work. But it would move our country to a better place if more people were open to difference and didn’t fear it.