Segregation by Law vs. Segregation by Choice

class_gapMichael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, May 14, 2014

The good news: Explicit segregation of our schools has been illegal for some time. The bad news: Subtler means of segregation have led us to a school system as racially isolated as it’s ever been.

The major modes of racial segregation have changed over the years. The racially restrictive deeds and housing practices of post-Depression federal housing policy countrywide and Jim Crow era school segregation at the state and local levels in the South have given way to subtler mechanisms of maintaining racial homogeneity.

White flight and major shortages of affordable housing in the suburbs, combined with insufficient investment in the central city neighborhoods with high levels of affordable housing, have kept too many neighborhoods racially isolated. In that landscape, school attendance zones usually don’t have to do much to keep most schools fairly homogeneous, although some school boundaries display the sort of convoluted logic usually reserved for gerrymandered legislative districts.

And then there’s the choice factor.

In both housing and education, we’ve seen a move toward policies that increase the power of families to make choices about where they live and where their children go to school. The great disappointment of those who hoped such policies would lead to increased quality from market-based competition and increased equity from family empowerment is that the nominal increase in choice hasn’t led to much, if any, increase in overall quality. Whether it’s school or home, the options people pick don’t often turn out to be that different quality-wise from where they started.

In education, we’ve also seen the movement towards choice facilitate white flight from the remaining diverse schools, with the end result that most charter schools in Minnesota tend to be racially homogeneous. Whether white, black, East African, Hmong, Latino, or another background, charter schools have facilitated and accelerated the racial concentration that was already developing in the public school system.

This is understandable, if not desirable at the system level. Similarity is comfortable. Many of the benefits of diversity come after, or as a result of, the discomfort that initially comes from being with lots of people who aren’t like you. For the many communities of color who have justifiable concerns about public schools’ historical use as tools of assimilation, oppression, and institutional racism, the ability to create and sustain a school shielded from those concerns is also rational.

The net effect of all this, though, is increased racial isolation, to everyone’s eventual detriment. Correcting it requires more people pursuing diversity for its strengths, despite its discomforts, as well as a concerted effort to make school districts and their schools welcoming places of empowerment for the students they serve.

This is a much tougher cultural shift to achieve than the legal victories in the Brown v. Board era, and it may require some temporary recourse to similar judicial requirements. Ultimately, though, it’s the path we need to take.

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