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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights Monitor

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The CIVIL RIGHTS MONITOR is a quarterly publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Back issues of the Monitor are available through this site. Browse or search the archives

Volume 10 Number 4

Harvard Civil Rights Project Reports Rise In School Segregation

A report issued in June 1999 by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education finds that students in U.S. public schools are becoming more segregated by race and class. The study, Resegregation in American Schools, is based on the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics and highlights several important trends in public schools. Among these trends are rapid resegregation in the South, severe segregation among Latino populations, increased isolation of blacks and Latinos in the suburbs, and a strong overlap between segregation by race and by class. The authors, Gary Orfield and John Yun, emphasize that these patterns appear against a backdrop of waning support for desegregation efforts among policymakers and in the courts.

Among the major findings of the report:

In the South, a region which achieved the highest national level of integration beginning in 1970, public schools have been resegregating over the past decade at an accelerated pace. From 1988 to 1996, the percentage of black students in majority white schools in the South fell from a peak of 43.5% to 34.7%.

While in the 1970s, all states with substantial black enrollment showed increased desegregation, between 1980 and 1996, virtually all of these states experienced a rise in segregation.

While more minority students are attending schools with students of more than one race, whites remain the only racial group that attend schools where the overwhelming majority of students, 81%, are from their own race.

The average white student is in a school with a 8.6% black students, 6.65% Latinos, 2.8% Asians, and 1% American Indians.

Blacks and Latinos attend schools where a little more than half the children are from their own group, on average, while American Indians attend schools that are one-third Indian [excluding Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools]. Asians tend to be in schools that are one-fifth Asian.

Although the population of blacks and Latinos has risen significantly in the suburbs, these racial groups increasingly find themselves in segregated schools. The authors warn that if definite measures are not taken to reverse this trend, the suburbs may soon experience the same degree of segregation as big cities.

The most severe segregation occurs among Latinos, the nation's fastest growing minority. Data from 1996-1997 indicates that 74.8% of Latinos attend schools with over 50% minority student population, and 35.4% of Latinos attend schools with over 90% minority student population. Both figures are significantly higher than they were in the 1968-1969 school year when 64.3% of Latinos attended schools with over 50% minority student population and 23.1% of Latinos attended schools with over 90% minority student population. Although the authors acknowledge that the increase in Latino segregation may simply reflect the growth of the Latino population, the demographic changes do not explain why whites stay segregated in regions of rapid Latino enrollment growth.

Finally the study draws a strong connection between segregation by race and schools experiencing concentrated poverty. The report finds that students in segregated minority schools are eleven times more likely to be in schools with concentrated poverty than their peers in predominantly white schools. Poverty is linked to lower educational achievement, and racially segregated schools for all groups except whites are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty. The report states, "While debates over the exact academic impact of desegregation continue, there is no question that black and Latino students in racially integrated schools are generally in schools with higher levels of average academic achievement than are their counterparts in segregated schools."

The authors argue that despite compelling evidence of ongoing segregation, the political atmosphere has been increasingly hostile towards desegregation plans. They highlight three Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s which have curtailed desegregation rights and weakened support for desegregation programs. In the 1991 Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the Court ruled that desegregation orders were temporary and sanctioned a return to segregated neighborhood schools for districts that have made good faith efforts to desegregate and remedied past discrimination "as far as practicable." In 1992, the Court argued that causes of segregation, such as changing demographics, may be out of the reach of the courts in Freeman v. Pitts, and in 1995, in Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court ruled that Kansas City's desegregation plan to lure suburban whites to inner-city magnet schools was overambitious, thus overturning a lower court decision to maintain the extensive magnet school remedy.

These rulings have set in motion the dismantling of desegregation programs in many major school districts and pose a great challenge for civil rights lawyers trying to preserve court desegregation orders. Successes, such as the settlement in March 1999 of the longstanding Liddell case are few and far between. Although the settlement scales back the busing plan in St. Louis, it provides the means for the continuance of the popular inter-district transfer program. The decision by the Boston School Committee in July 1999 to end a 25 year desegregation program under the pressure of impending legal challenge and demographic change has become a more common occurrence according to the authors.

Despite the largest increase over the last decade in segregation since the civil rights era, the Clinton administration has offered no initiatives to offset this trend. The authors strongly urge the administration to address intensifying segregation. They recommend a concerted effort by the President and Education and Justice Departments to raise awareness of resegregation and its consequences.

They also call for:

  1. the Justice Department and Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, to set clear definitions of desegregation requirements and to defend remaining desegregation court orders;
  2. incentives in Title I plans to encourage the transfer of students from "concentrated-poverty low-achieving schools" to more diverse settings;
  3. a policy of strong support for diverse suburban communities by the Education, HUD, and Justice Departments; and
  4. a program of aid for human relations, staff training, and educational reform in the nation's thousands of multiracial schools.

Forty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education declared "separate but equal" as "inherently unequal," segregation continues to produce unequal educational opportunities, particularly for low-income minority students. This report serves as a wake up call to Americans. In a time when the country is rapidly growing and becoming more diverse, it is important that the nation's schools reflect this diversity. The immense gains of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted. As difficult as progress was to achieve, without a strong national policy supportive of desegregation, it is just as easily rolled back.

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard is an interdisciplinary initiative engaged in assessing the prospects for justice and equal opportunity under the law for racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Gary Orfield is Professor of Education and Social Policy and Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and John Yun is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The full report can be accessed at www.law.harvard.edu

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