Where Jim Crow laws were enforced, racial segregation denied black children educational opportunities, and very well-defined racial boundaries undermined opportunities for success in black communities. Particularly critical to racial segregation and discrimination was “redlining,” a practice by which real estate agents, backed by policies created and implemented by banks and the federal government, diverted black Americansinto impoverished residential areas. At the same time black communities faced widespread discrimination, whites received unprecedented support via the New Deal, largesse which built the contemporary white middle class and contributed to the wealth gap that exists between black and white communities.
The de facto segregation of schools appears to be nurtured by a culture rooted in the legacy of racial inequality and by failure to address the history of racial injustice, enslavement and the Jim Crow laws. In school curricula, the historical facts concerning the period of colonization, the transatlantic trade in Africans, and enslavement, which have been crucial to the organization of contemporary American society, are not sufficiently covered in all schools. The curricula in some states fail to address adequately the root causes of racial inequality and injustice. This contributes to the structural invisibility of African Americans.
For a time, it seemed that American schools might be integrated, but that pendulum soon began to move in the other direction as all-white "Rebel Yell" academies opened. Today, most Americans are enlightened enough not to oppose interracial marriage and are much more tolerant than their grandparents and great-grandparents, but American public schools in most areas are more segregated than ever. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes and made it possible for thousands of formerly disenfranchised black Americans to vote. Now, throughout America, there are thousands of people of colour who are city council members, mayors, members of Congress, on school boards and of course, now in the White House. During two presidential elections, black voters turned out in record numbers because they were motivated and because many of the old obstacles to voting had been removed. But a backlash has developed in that arena, too.
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, funding discrepancies among districts have led to a situation in which the U.S. Secretary of Education said school systems remain “fundamentally separate and unequal.” In the less than 20 years in which desegregation was pursued in earnest, the achievement gap between black and white students was cut almost in half. Studies have shown that desegregation had positive impacts on black achievement and no effect on white achievement, and that black students who attend desegregated schools are more likely to graduate from high school and college, earn higher incomes, and have better health outcomes.
This is no surprise given that racially and socioeconomically segregated schools have been shown to have less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials. As school districts have been released from desegregation orders over the last 20 years, schools nationwide have resegregated, leaving in place a landscape of segregated schools in many states.
Poverty increases the odds of a child experiencing various other problems that can make them vulnerable to disciplinary action at school, including housing instability, inadequate nutrition, exposure to pollution, poor health care, family abuse and neglect, exposure to violence, developmental delays, chronic stress, depression, and possibly even stunted brain development. They also are less likely to have “school readiness,” which is generally defined as a broad set of skills that affect children’s ability to learn in school: physical health, motor skills, self-care, emotional and behavioral self-regulation, social skills, communication skills, pre-academic skills, attention, curiosity, and motivation to learn.
The classic Coleman Report (1966) attempted to tease apart the relative influence of the racial and class composition of schools. Coleman found that the association between racial isolation and academic achievement can be explained by the class composition of the student body. In other words, students do poorly in predominantly minority schools because the student population is poorer, not because of the direct effect of racial isolation on achievement.
Black secondary school graduation rates have nearly tripled since 1966, and the rate of poverty has been nearly halved in that time. The emergence of a black middle class is a widely noted social development, as are the many successful African-American entrepreneurs, scholars, and literary and artistic achievers.
Recent Supreme Court decisions explore the permissible limits of “affirmative action” policies that seek to redress past discrimination and to require or encourage that public institutions reflect demographically the communities they serve. Judges are now asked to decide the competing needs in, for example, a school district that allows all parents to select their children’s school. If too many request a particular school, only some students may attend their first-choice institution. In that case, may the district assert, even as a “tiebreaker,” its desire to maintain a racial balance in that popular school to determine which requests will be honored? Should government intervene when schools are effectively segregated because of new housing patterns, and not because millions of African-American students were purposely segregated and relegated to shabby, inferior schools?
Race, class, neighborhood, and school quality are all highly inter-related in the American educational system. Racial disparities in the characteristics of schools attended by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans are well documented. Charter schools have little impact on racial disparities in schools.
Regardless of charter status, white, black and Hispanic children on average attend schools in which their group is the majority, and Asian and Native American children attend schools where their group is disproportionately represented. Black, Hispanic, and Native American children attend schools with the highest poverty concentrations (as high as 75% for the average black child’s non-charter schools), and their schools on average have substantially lower test scores than those attended by whites and Asians.
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