Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.

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