After All These Years, Separate Still Looks Unequal

Summary: Resegration of American neighborhoods leaves kids of color disproportionately exposed to the challenges of growing up in homogeneously poor neighborhoods and going to inferior schools. Comparisons to their poor white counterparts show the latter more likely to live in economically mixed neighborhoods with correspondingly better schools. Will one day we hear renewed calls to desegregation of schools and communities?

As the efforts of the 60’s and 70’s to desegregate schools lost steam to political and socioeconomic challenges, the Brown decision’s clarion “separate but unequal” marker has yielded to efforts to improve schools where low income kids of color live.hands-1950980_1920

The on the ground challenge to the desegregation ethos has persisted; resegregation of communities has intensified in the current day. Yet the passion of the political and social conflict has hardly receded, witness the rise of political movements such as “Black Lives Matter.”

I recommend a recent read on these events, We GonBe Alright, by Jeff Chang, the Asian-American Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford. His “Notes on Race and Resegregation” (subtitle), a useful and thoughtful polemic, heightened my sensitivity to the increasing separation of racial communities, the vitality of the associated ongoing turmoil, and its implications for the future of school progress.

Around the same time I was reading Chang, an Education Lab (Seattle Times) article about detracking efforts in Seattle schools and in Rockville Centre, New York, was percolating on my personal back burner. Carole Burris, formerly a high school principal in that New York school district, related her discomfort at the racial division between upper track classes (white) and the lower track classes (kids of color). Essentially, ability level was a means to resegregate within the same school, an experience replicated in schools throughout the nation.

The solution was to detrack, mix the heretofore high and low skill kids, provide extra study periods before school to support the low skill kids, now challenged beyond the previous measure, as well as early buses to get them there. Three social workers and two psychologists provided additional support, and Ms. Burris worked hard to make sure the mix of students in each now upper range integrated class would work.

Maybe the spirit of “separate is inherently unequal” isn’t dead yet; this tale is about a desegregation action where de facto segregation was the norm.

The Rockville Centre set of interventions essentially follow the research based tenet that heterogeneous grouping in its complexities benefits the academic growth of lower skilled kids, those who are overwhelmingly of low income. Whether from the modeling of the higher skilled kids, the persistence of higher expectations, or through the extra help afforded these kids in the Rockville Centre model, test score results reportedly improved not only among the low income group, but ALSO among the originally higher achieving kids.

So often in the literature “low income” serves as code for African-American or Latino urban students. The truth is we have a greater absolute number of white students in poverty than any other racial group, even while it is true a disproportionate share of kids of color live in poverty.  Where are these poor white students? How are they prospering or not?

Though we are newly sensitized to the struggling poor whites abandoned by the demise of factories in the Midwest, and their “poor white” cousins in Appalachia, it turns out that a white kid living in poverty is significantly more likely to go to school in a district marked by economic heterogeneity and a higher percentage of better off folks than a similarly poor black kid. For example, a prototypical white kid living in a family whose income is $13,000 on average lives in a community where the average income is $45,000. By contrast, a middle class black family with an income of $53,000 lives on average in a community with a median income of $43,000, or slightly below the median income of communities where poor whites live.

Statistics vary depending on the study, but the upshot is that white kids are much less likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than kids of color.

Nationally, to continue the march of numbers, and as noted by the afore mentioned Jeff Chang, 8% of white kids attend high poverty schools while 48% of black and Latino kids attend schools where the poverty rate is at least 75%.

Poor black kids therefore are more likely to be exposed more intensively to crime and street violence, where the stress level of parent and kid is heightened and optimal cognitive/emotional development slowed. And they are less likely to go to a quality school with higher performing students such as those that were integrated with lower performing kids in the Rockville Centre example.

As testimony to the power of living in a relatively better off community, test scores of poor white males are similar to black males who live outside of poverty.

Such a statistical comparison carries within its belly some rough quantification of the combined effects of institutional racism as visited in the lives of black kids, otherwise white kids would perform similarly to black kids in the same economic circumstances.

Separate is inherently unequal, at least in the present period. I reflect on my own suburban (Kent) high school that gradually gathered within its walls an increasingly diverse and poorer student body as Seattle gentrified and parents of color migrated to the cheaper suburbs. To the credit of the district, decisions were made with the particular challenges of low income students and their increasing diversity in mind. In this integrated and increasingly complex student body approximately 65-70% of senior black and Latino males graduated on time in a recent year, which exceeds national rates, and outstrips the graduation rates of inner city poor neighborhoods in many sections of the country. Hardly a study, certainly, but still…..

It is true the Baltimore schools, by contrast, are 81% African American and 9% Latino, with a 65% poverty rate, yet have instituted policies that have raised the African American graduation rate and cut the African American dropout rate, so perhaps foreshadowing a future in which “separate” need not imply unequal.

Still, I find it hard to shake a premonition that sometime in the next 10-15 years we will hear calls for programs that desegregate as a tactic in bringing African American kids more school success and more broadly as a strategy in a renewed war on poverty. A future will come where there is enough economic heterogeneity in a predominately black or Latino community that racial segregation does not imply lesser opportunity, but in the mix of race and class in America, I fear that particular arrival is still a long ways off.

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