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Jim Crow in the Classroom: New Report Finds Segregation Lives on in US Schools

Wednesday, 23 April 2014 11:49 , Democracy Now! | Video Interview
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As the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a ban on affirmative action in Michigan and the country marks 60 years since the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, we look at how segregation is still pervasive in U.S. public schools. An explosive new report in ProPublica finds school integration never fully occurred, and in recent decades may have even been reversed. Focusing on three generations of the same family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the story concludes: "While segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened." We are joined by Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose article, "The Resegregation of America's Schools," is the latest in the ProPublica series "Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide."

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Supreme Court has upheld Michigan's ban on affirmative action at state colleges and universities. The case centers on a 2006 voter referendum in Michigan that barred race- and sex-based preferences in admissions. An appeals court previously ruled the ban violates the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. But in a six-to-two decision, the Supreme Court overruled the lower court. The justices in the majority argued policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued, quote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race ... is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

Tuesday's ruling will likely bolster similar anti-affirmative action measures in several other states, and it comes as this spring marks 60 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which was intended to end segregation in America's public schools. But an explosive new report finds school integration never fully occurred and, in recent decades, may have even been reversed. "The Resegregation of America's Schools" is the latest in an ongoing series by ProPublica called "Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide," and it focuses on three generations in the same family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

AMY GOODMAN: The report concludes that, quote, "while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened."

Well, for more, we're joined by the author of "Segregation Now," the whole series, Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers civil rights for ProPublica, with a focus on segregation and discrimination in housing and schools.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Congratulations on this remarkable series, and coming out now at the same time that the Supreme Court has backed a ban on race as a factor in college admissions. Before we talk about Tuscaloosa, if you could briefly comment on this idea that race shouldn't matter when you look at the schools of America.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think it's very obvious, if you just look strictly at the facts, that we still have a racialized K-12 system and that black and brown students tend to be in schools where they're receiving an inferior education. They have a less rigorous curriculum. They're less likely to get access to classes that will help them in college, such as advanced placement physics, higher-level math. And they are most likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers. So, when you have this system where black and brown students are receiving a very different education than white students, and then once you get to the college level you say race no longer matters, and despite your disadvantage in a public educational system, that now we are all—everyone should compete at the same level, I think, in some sense, it's just—there's just a big disconnect between what's happening on these two levels of education.

AMY GOODMAN: It's interesting, Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Sotomayor's dissent, very eloquent dissent, against Chief Roberts.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, so, in 2007, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in a decision striking down voluntary desegregation orders in Seattle and in Louisville, Kentucky, and these were two districts that wanted to maintain integration in the schools because they understand the value of that for students as—I guess, really in terms of education. And what Chief Justice Roberts said, a very pithy response, the way to stop discriminating on race is to stop discriminating on race. And Justice Sotomayor definitely addressed that and said, "You can't ignore the existence of race, and the way that you eliminate racial inequality is not to pretend that it doesn't exist." So, she was directly kind of addressing that response.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, Nikole—you said that minorities, black and brown students, receive an inferior education. Could you give a kind of overview of why that's the case? Is it because of districting, where schools—what schools get what kinds of resources, etc.? Why is that the case?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: What's often forgotten about Brown was Brown was really addressing the system of racial caste that we had then and that resources will really—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by Brown, Brown v. Board of Education.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Oh, I'm sorry. Right, Brown v. Board of Education, which was the 1954 ruling, the landmark ruling that struck down the concept of separate but equal in schools. And what it understood was that resources follow white students in this country, that schools that have a significant percentage of white students get better teachers. They get better textbooks. They get better, really, curriculum. And so, today, that's still the case. We have not eliminated that kind of connection between resources and race.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you talk about what it is that prompted this study? This was a year-long investigation that you conducted. How did you come upon the topic and decide to research it in this way and focus on Tuscaloosa?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I had—prior to working on school segregation, I had spent nearly two years working on housing segregation and really looking at the federal failure—the 45-year federal failure to enforce the Fair Housing Act, and asking why, when we have a fair housing law, we still have so much racial segregation. And so, during the course of that, I became very interested in the connection between segregated housing and segregated schools, and I knew I wanted to do some reporting on school segregation, in particular.

And I focused on the South because, despite what a lot of people think, the South actually did desegregate. And it went from being completely segregated to, within a span of 40 years, even now, to becoming the most integrated region of the country. The South also educates the most black students. So you have the one region of the country that actually did desegregate, and they're educating the most black students, and they are starting to now slide back on that. And so, to me, it was critical to write about the South first because that's where we have the most to lose.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 2007. The Tuscaloosa School Board approves a redistricting plan then that further segregated black students. This is school board member Ernestine Tucker speaking in a video that accompanied the ProPublica investigation.

ERNESTINE TUCKER: My position was: We've rushed into this. We need more time. We need more research. But for the majority of the people on the school board, who represented the majority of the voters, it was OK. And I said to them, "We will experience the damage of this decision for the next 50 years." I said, "It's criminal, what we've done tonight."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tuscaloosa School Board member Ernestine Tucker. This is Shelley Jones, former chair of the Tuscaloosa School Board.

SHELLEY JONES: We have maintained a desegregated school system. There are all kinds of evidence that—that every day, I think, the board endeavors, yet today, to maintain that and to ensure that. Those who had doubts that this would—that desegregation and the Green factors would be maintained of desegregation, I think now they realize, in fact, yes, we do—we see it in action. It is taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Tuscaloosa School Board Chair Shelley Jones from a video by Maisie Crow called Saving Central. Can you talk about the role of the school board in Central High? You know, it's interesting, Central, because Central was also Little Rock, Arkansas.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But you looked at Tuscaloosa.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. So what brought me to Tuscaloosa, what I was interested in was the South had been reshaped largely because of federal court orders. So the courts had forced integration on the South, and it had been successful. And over the last 20 years, we've seen a lot of those segregation orders lifted by the courts, and what we found was that as districts lose their federal oversight, they do begin to resegregate. And Tuscaloosa has become one of the most rapidly resegregating school districts in the country. And that's largely because of what the school board did with Central.

So, in 2000, when a federal judge released Tuscaloosa from its court order, the school board immediately voted to split up Central. And Central had been created by the court order. In 1975—or, excuse me, '79, 25 years after Brown, Tuscaloosa still operated a virtually black high school and a white high school. And so, a court forced the merger of those two schools, and it created Central. And it was actually an integration success story. But because of fears of white flight, the board voted in 2000 to split apart that school, and they created three high schools—two integrated and one that was entirely black.

And so, what I really wanted to show with this report is that segregation is not an accident. And I think a lot of times we focus on, well, it's just—you know, it's natural, or it's based on where people live. But the irony of Central High School is Central High School is actually located in an integrated neighborhood, but the white students right across the street from the school are gerrymandered into a district to go to an integrated school, and that Central was created as a black school by the intentional drawing of district lines.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, Nikole, why is it that federal judges have been lifting court-ordered segregation mandates? Because that's obviously had an enormous effect on this resegregation.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. I think part of it is—I mean, in the '90s, the Supreme Court began to really roll back desegregation. And so, it made it much easier for school districts to get out from under desegregation orders. Prior to that, the Supreme Court had a very high standard, which was districts had to eliminate, root and branch, all vestiges of segregation. But by the '90s, the court was saying that they only had to do it to the extent practicable. In other words, they didn't actually have to eliminate it, but if they showed that they tried in earnest, then a court could release them. So, that started to happen. And then, during the two Bush terms, Bush really had a policy of trying to get as many of these orders dismissed. There was integration fatigue. I think people felt like, after 40 or 50 years, that enough time had passed and that we had eliminated anything that could be related to the time before Brown, and any current discrepancies and any current disparities are related to kind of things like neighborhood and poverty and have nothing to do with race.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's go to the principal of Central. Let's go to Clarence Sutton Jr., speaking in the video Saving Central: One Principal's Fight in a Resegregating South, which accompanied the ProPublica investigation.

CLARENCE SUTTON JR.: If we did school 8:00 to 3:00 like we always did it, we would still be in the same spot. You just can't do school like everyone else does school. It takes me giving up my day, my evening. It takes my wife saying, "Do what you have to do," and be understanding. It takes a faculty to say, "We'll come in our school free. Don't worry about paying us. We'll all donate two hours. We'll come in on Saturday." It takes that kind of people. It's a system that's just getting in place, but I feel like we're 10 years behind. So we're working faster to play catch-up. When I went to Central High School, I felt special. The whole state thought we were special. You had National Merit scholars. You had four or five foreign languages being taught. You had the best teams. You had a math national championship. But to break that up, that's something I think I will never really understand.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Clarence Sutton Jr., principal of Central High School in Tuscaloosa in that video by Maisie Crow. Explain who Mr. Sutton is and his role at Central.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, Dr. Sutton is the principal of Central, and he actually attended the integrated Central and then was a product of that integration and now is teaching at a school that is 99 percent black and more than 84 percent poor. And so, he really talks about the educational struggles, because it's not just the racial segregation, but it's also the segregation of these students by income, that you take the most disadvantaged students and concentrate them in one school, but also don't give that school the resources. I mean, for 10 years, Central didn't even offer a physics class. There were years where it didn't offer advanced placement classes, while the most integrated high school had 12 advanced placement classes. Teachers who were let go of other schools could be rehired at Central. So, what people feared would happen when Central was broken apart, which was that these poor black students would be separated and written off, is largely what people say happened at Central.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also suggest, Nikole, that Alabama state officials actively encouraged white parents to remove their children from public schools. Why did they do that? And what was the impact of that ultimately?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I think today we tend to forget that there was a reason the Supreme Court had to rule on the issue of school segregation. In the South, it was written into the law. White supremacy was written into the law. And there was a belief that black students should not attend schools with white children. And elected officials fought very virulently against desegregation. And when it became clear that the courts were going to force desegregation, white officials in Alabama and other parts of the South shut down schools. They shut down sometimes entire districts. And they also encouraged what were called segregation academies, which were white flight academies, private academies that were set up to educate white students who were for fleeing the public schools. So, a lot of times we attribute white flight to busing or to desegregation, but it really was begun and led by public officials.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Another striking fact that you bring up in your piece is, while there was this racial segregation, there was an enormous amount of economic diversity. One of the people you profiled, James Dent, one of his classmates at Druid High School was Condoleezza Rice. So how is it that that economic diversity works together with this racial uniformity?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. So, at the time, in Tuscaloosa and other places, every black person in the community went to the same high schools, because the schools were segregated. So, no matter how wealthy you were or how poor you were, you went to the same high school. And that economic diversity has always been very important. But now, what happens is that in—the integrated high schools are largely being integrated with more middle-class black students, and what's left behind in these segregated schools are the poorest black students in the community. And so, not only are they experiencing no racial diversity, but they're also experiencing no economic diversity.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I wanted to go to the title of your investigation, "Segregation Now." Let's go to that famous inauguration speech by Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who had been elected as a Democrat on November 14, 1963.

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this Earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Democratic Governor George Wallace in his inauguration address after winning the race for governor. That was back in 1963, Nikole. That was more than a half a century ago. And that is the title of your series that you've spent a year investigating and writing.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: We chose "Segregation Now" not to necessarily say that what George Wallace predicted would be true, because it's not. What George Wallace and others like him wanted was all-white schools. All-white schools don't really exist anymore. But all-black schools do. And that's the segregation today, is that 60 years after Brown, and really, I show through a single generation of one family, integration is gone for many students.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, in New York, a study has just shown New York has the most segregated schools in the country.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. And this is one of the things where I hoped the story—excuse me—would do some myth busting, because we all up here have this perception of the South. The South did integrate. We have never seen true desegregation in the Northeast or the Midwest. And if you look at in terms of neighborhoods and schools, the most segregated parts of the country have—for black people, have consistently been in the Midwest and in the Northeast.

AMY GOODMAN: Seventy-three percent of charter schools in New York City were deemed so-called apartheid schools, where white enrollment was below 1 percent?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yes. And over all of the New York public schools, it's about a quarter of black students. And in Chicago, it's a third of black students are in these so-called apartheid schools. So I think there's a lot of reckoning to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Why apartheid schools?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: They call them apartheid schools because they're 99 percent black or brown. And that's not my terminology, but when you talk to the researchers who use this term, is they want to shock Americans with that term. They want to say—because we have kind of come to accept once again separate but equal. When you look at Race to the Top, when you look at No Child Left Behind, we're still trying to make these separate schools equal. And never in the history of our country have we managed to do that. So I think what they're really trying to do is say these schools are unjust, and they want to shock people with that terminology.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nikole, you've done a remarkable job. We're going to link to your series. Nikole Hannah-Jones joined ProPublica in late 2011, covers civil rights with a focus on segregation and discrimination in housing and schools. Her major ongoing investigation is "Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide." And we will—her latest piece, "The Resegregation of America's Schools." We'll link to it at democracynow.org.

When we come back, the new Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer Dan Fagin will join us. His book is called Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Stay with us.

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