Con: Why Richard T. Ford Thinks School Integration Could Use a Makeover
Did black lose more than they gained with desegregation?
In our Pro vs Con series, we ask two experts to weigh in on a hot button topic. This week, we tackle segregation in schools. Richard T. Ford is the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the author of Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.
Loop 21: How did school desegregation following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education impact the African-American community?
Richard T. Ford: School desegregation really didn’t start in earnest until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tied federal funding of public schools to desegregation efforts. The ten years between Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act was the era of Massive Resistance, when southern schools did everything they could to avoid desegregation. Once desegregation really got going, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the consequences for African-American communities were mixed. Desegregation typically meant closing Black schools and sending the students to formerly all-white schools. Desegregation meant access to better schools—schools with superior resources and better trained teachers. But it also meant that black schools—including some very good ones—were closed, and Black teachers and administrators laid off. It’s important to remember that these schools were often sources of real and well justified pride in some communities—teachers and principals were respected community leaders, and school was a haven for impressionable young people—a place where racism did not intrude, and where Black role models predominated.
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Many communities resented and regretted the loss of their local schools, even though people supported the broader goal of integration. And it’s an understatement to say black students were not always welcomed in their new schools. Teachers were often openly contemptuous, others coddled black students—the soft racism of low expectations. Schools that were integrated on paper were typically, in fact, internally segregated, both because of informal choices of individual students and because of academic tracking policies that relegated the often less well prepared Black students to slow learner and remedial classes. In some cities, resistance was so intense that students feared for their safety. Needless to say, these were not conditions conducive to learning. This kind of friction was, of course, to be expected, but it’s fair to say desegregation was, for many black communities, a mixed blessing at best.
Loop 21: How is the legacy of school desegregation currently impacting the African-American community?
Ford: Again, a mixed bag. Some black students benefited a great deal from the better resources and exposure to white peers; they learned to get along with whites, made friends across the color line and established the social habits necessary to succeed in the mainstream. But others did not benefit, and some may be worse off than they would have been in segregated schools—especially if one posits that segregated schools would have received increased resources as an alternative to legally mandated desegregation.
Loop 21: Do you think desegregation of our nation’s schools, as it is currently implemented, is necessary in 2012? Why or why not?
Ford: Yes. For better and for worse, we have chosen desegregation as the means to remedy our nation’s long ugly history of Jim Crow style segregation. Desegregation, properly implemented, has profound benefits for students of all races. We haven’t finished the job yet, so the challenge today is to learn from the mistakes of the past and work to craft more effective desegregation policies.
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Loop 21: What are the pros of integrated schools?
Ford: Integrated schools at their best promote cross-racial understanding and help to form the bonds of common citizenship. They send a powerful message that we are indeed one nation under the law. Integrated schools help underprivileged students by reducing the isolation many poor people experience, exposing them to the social norms of the more prosperous mainstream. And it’s still true to some extent that “green follows white”; integrated schools help to reduce the funding inequities that characterize the nation’s public schools, or at least ensure that those inequities do not consistently track racial divisions.
Loop 21: What are the cons of integrated schools?
Ford: At worst, integration is a sort of reparations on the cheap. It doesn’t really repair the damage done by generations of racial discrimination and deprivation, but it makes people feel better without justification. Integrated schools, when poorly implemented, did not take the concerns of Black people into account. It made Black children foot soldiers in a war waged by politicians and lawyers, it undermined viable and important institutions in the Black community and it elevated a symbolic victory over tangible improvements for Black students.
Loop 21: In your opinion, are there any education policies or social practices that undermine the positive effects of desegregation? What are they?
Ford: Academic tracking is a controversial policy. There are good reasons for it, but it has often undermined the positive potential of desegregation by introducing an internal segregation inside formally integrated schools. Also, because desegregation was, at least at first, judicially mandated, it was often designed by people without much experience in school administration, lawyers and judges. As a result, desegregation was not always thoughtfully implemented and this led to unnecessary backlash and resentment.
Loop 21: What does the success of de facto segregated charter schools (such as KIPP, where 95% of students are Black or Latino, and 90% of middle schoolers are outperforming district averages) say about the potential efficacy of segregated schools?
Ford: It says that de facto segregated schools can be good schools. This doesn’t mean we should accept re-segregation, but it does suggest a more measured approach to the problem. A good all-Black or Latino school may produce a better outcome than a troubled integrated school.
Loop 21: How do you think the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, which ruled that assigning students to schools on the basis of race is unconstitutional, has impacted the racial balance of our schools?
Ford: It has clearly made matters worse, although resegregation was already a problem before Parents Involved. The federal courts have been lifting desegregation orders at a rapid pace since the early 1990s. What’s most tragic about Parents Involved is that it has blocked the modest efforts at desegregation that have been blessed by the popular politics and school administrators—precisely those efforts most likely to succeed and meet with widespread acceptance. So the irony of the rights-based approach to school desegregation is that it began by imposing desegregation policies that few people would have chosen and that many resented, and it is now blocking desegregation policies than most people want, all in the name of racial equality.
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Loop 21: Many ethnic groups in this country choose to live, work and be educated in exclusive enclaves—a practice that is effectively voluntary segregation. In your opinion, how does this segregation impact a group’s sense of community?
Ford: That depends. Often this voluntary segregation is not all that voluntary; instead it is born of a fear of racism in integrated settings. But it’s also true that often people gravitate toward those of their own cultural background and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a mistake to confuse ethnic solidarity with the isolation that is the result of bigotry and exclusion.
Loop 21: Should those who practice voluntary segregation worry that this practice could lead to future involuntary segregation? Why or why not?
Ford: That depends too. If the separation takes a hostile and militant form, then yes, it is possible that it will provoke a backlash that could lead whites to feel justified in their own segregative practices. But again, if it’s simply the kind of solidarity and community that is the natural result of common social backgrounds, then no, I think it’s unlikely that this will lead to involuntary segregation in the future.
Loop 21: What does the optimal school integration program look like to you?
Ford: That would vary depending on the local situation, but the ideal program would be something that comes from the local political process if at all possible and therefore reflect local concerns and conditions. A lesson of the desegregation efforts of the past is that there is no one-size fits all approach and there should be no absolutes. The ideal program would be pragmatic, results oriented and flexible. I think many school districts and local communities are now ready to craft such solutions. Today, the courts are as likely to be in the way of progress as they are to be catalysts for improvement.
Loop 21: Is there anything else our readers need to know about segregation in 2012
Do you think segregation has its drawbacks? Tell us in the comments.