Politics & Law

School desegregation and the fear years

Jonathan Simon

UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp’s powerful op-ed in the May 20th Sunday Review section of The New York Times (read it here) restating the overwhelming social-science case in favor of school desegregation drew a bevy of weighty and thoughtful letters in the  New York Times (read them here).

That evidence shows that the educational gap between Whites and Blacks — recently embraced by both parties as the holy grail of reducing the accumulating disadvantages of generations of de jure racial segregation in America — shrank the most substantially during those years between 1970 and 1990 when school desegregation orders were most active in American states.

It was in these years that the epic legal campaign to desegregate schools, which had achieved a historic Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education, actually began to effect numerous schools around the country, due to the increase in federal financial incentives beginning in the 1960s and because desegregation orders began to reach large northern urban districts where generations of soft segregation strategies (based on residential segregation and school location) had left public schools almost as segregated as the infamous Jim Crow schools in the South.

It was when northern Whites began to actively oppose desegregation orders in their own areas that political support for desegregation in the political parties began to collapse and its legal status come under sustained attack.

Milliken v. Bradley, the crucial 1974 precedent that Kirp cites as the fatal wound against effective school desegregation (by removing the possibility of metropolitan area wide desegregation strategies) involved a northern school district, metro Detroit.

By making it impossible for desegregation planners to reach White students whose parents had moved to the suburbs, Milliken guaranteed that White flight to the suburbs would make desegregation an empty gesture, and the basic promise of forcing equal effort to educate Black and White children impossible to achieve. Professor Kirp and his interlocutors share a general pessimism about the prospects of reviving school desegregation as a viable national project.

Certainly the silence out of Washington D.C. during the nation’s first national Administration to be headed up by an African American is no reason for optimism. But there is another reason, a very good reason to be optimistic that a new opportunity to meaningfully desegregate schools is upon us — actually, two reasons.

The first is that the White suburbs, where two generations of school children have grown up since Milliken, secure in their White schools, are facing a structural problem — as those in the rising generation indicate, in all kinds of ways, that they would rather raise their families in cities with higher population densities, more cultural institutions, and the opportunity to reduce or eliminate automobile commuting.

The housing bust has intensified this by reducing the appeal of home ownership — a market that pushed marginal buyers toward the most distant suburbs — and the new economy seems likely to continue it by emphasizing flexibility and rental housing. These economic trends mean that newly forming middle-class families (White, or Asian, or Mixed Race) are potentially available to the very urban school districts, cut off from enough of them to meaningfully desegregate schools, that became virtually all African-American and Latino in the 1970s.

The second, perhaps even more important to the viability of desegregation today, is the great crime decline; since the early 1990, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in violent crime (and indeed all kinds of crime), a reduction deepest in the large cities that were so much the fulcrum of white flight back in the 1970s (read Franklin Zimring’s two crucial books on the crime decline).

Then, in what I call the “fear years,” the tripling of violent crime rates since the early 1960s and the violent rioting in African American neighborhoods of the late 1960s and early 1970s undermined any chance that school desegregation in the North had of winning consent from Whites. Only the most ideologically committed White parents with means were willing to let their kids go to school with African American kids perceived as angry, undisciplined, and potentially violent.

I know, because my parents were the kind of ideologically liberal pro-civil rights parents who decided that Chicago’s public schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s were just too chaotic and sometimes violent to stay in. They were culturally allergic to the suburbs, and with ways and means to put my brother and I into the University of Chicago Lab Schools (where President Obama’s daughters went before 2009).

One can revisit distortions involved in White fear as well as the many failures in the management of desegregation that made things worst. But it is hard to imagine how school desegregation could have worked, given the squeeze the crime fear was placing precisely on middle-class families to avoid urban schools. But to young families forming now, the fear years of the 1970s are history and even the media shadows of those years, which haunted the 1980s and 1990s, have largely faded.

They are the fertile ground for a new urban school offensive. Interested in living in central cities, and economically sensitive to the cost of private schools, parents will be potentially open to integrated public schools.

If done well, it might not even require race-conscious admission criteria as much as investment in new buildings, state-of-the-art technology, and the kind of staff-rich and culturally sensitive school regime designed to make everyone feel safe and included.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "School desegregation and the fear years":
    • Vitaliy

      I think what remains an underlying factor, though it’s subject to change, is the effect of rising percentages of minorities on the real estate in the neighborhood. Gary Orfield also wrote what I believe lies at the heart of the problem:

      “City school districts have been losing white enrollment for decades, in spite of neighborhood schools, because the neighborhoods are highly unstable along the racial boundaries. Minority families desiring to move out of poverty areas are highly unstable along the racial boundaries. Minority families desiring to move out of poverty areas are directed to a very limited set of communities, and whites tend to leave or not to move into racially changing areas.

      These problems are typically intensified within neighborhood school systems because the minority families who move out are often young with children and are seeking good public schools. The whites that live in the receiving communiites are often older, with fewer children, and more likely to use parochial and private schools. This means that neighborhood schools who go through racial change much faster than neighborhoods; even where there is a very high level of acceptance of school integration, attitudes are far more negative about schools with a non white majority.”

      Looking at maps like these only furthers his point:

      [Report abuse]

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