Reevaluating the Dream of School Integration

By Alexandra Lee Gugliuzza

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Gugliuzza A. Reevaluating the dream of school integration. HPHR. 2021;30.

Reevaluating the Dream of School Integration

The Re-Segregation of the American School System

America’s cities and suburbs are still separate and unequal. Since the seminal Brown v. Board of Education ruling more than 65 years ago, America’s school system has slowly and systematically re-segregated itself via state-sanctioned court ordered releases. The Supreme Court decision meant to break down the racial caste system the country was founded on by creating equality of opportunity through school integration, has revealed a patten of persistent racial inequality and racialized treatment. A victory of the Civil Rights Movement has faltered with devastating consequences. Today, classrooms look as segregated as they were when the practice was declared unlawful in 1954; but now, looking this way is shrouded in carefully curated segregation upheld by legal and cultural acceptance.


 In 1964, 1% of Black students in the South attended schools that were at least 50% White; by 1984, 44% of students attended such schools; and in 2011 this statistic plummeted to 23% (Chang, 2018). Today, half of American students attend school in which more than three-quarters of their peers are of the same race, and this statistic is continuing to widen (Strauss, 2019). New York City public schools, one of the most segregated in the country shows, in stark numbers, just how serious the problem is. 85% of Black students and 75% of Latinx students attend schools that are less than 10% White; on the other end, half of all White students are clustered in 11% of schools, which are uncoincidentally the city’s top performers (Hannah-Jones, 2016). This can be largely attributed to the 1991 ruling by the Supreme Court which ruled that desegregation plans were never intended to be permanent after intense pushback from White groups (Reardon et al., 2012). Following this declaration, many of the school districts that were once under court order began to be released from court oversight. Research by Reardon et al. shows that over half of all districts under court ordered desegregation have since been released from oversight, with the majority occurring in the early 2000’s (2012). This research also found that after being released from court order, school districts did not maintain the levels of integration they achieved under mandated integration, becoming steadily more racially segregated in the decade after release (Reardon et al., 2012).


What Johnson and Nazaryan describe as “policy amnesia” in Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, is the political tendency to resort to short-term interventions and hide from ambitious policy making. We have proved unwilling to boldly address the maintenance of segregation, resulting from the nation’s exploitative and racist history. Today, we are reaping the consequences of this resegregation as documented surges in racial prejudice, racial intolerance, political polarization, and dramatically worsening economic inequality are defining the current decade (Strauss, 2019). These are a direct product of the systemic and historical inequalities in educational opportunity and access to resources pervasive across the American public school system.


School Integration’s "Spectacular Achievement"

School desegregation policies are commonly perceived by politicians and the public alike as failed social manufacturing that shuffled around schoolchildren for decades, with no real benefit (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019). The reality is that significant efforts to integrate schools occurred for only 15 years, peaking in 1988, before court ordered desegregation began to undo itself. During this short period however, America witnessed a monumental convergence of Black-White achievement gaps, educational attainment, income, and health.


Using nationally representative, longitudinal data spanning four decades, Rucker Johnson was able to take advantage of randomized conditions to create a natural experiment with a high degree of reliability. What Johnson uncovers is described as a “spectacular achievement” in America and summarized in two words: integration works. For Black students, more years of integrated schooling meant significantly higher educational attainment, including greater high school and college attendance and completion. In 1960, 20% of Black men were high school graduates compared to 50% of White men and 3% of Black men were college graduates compared to 13% of White men; just twenty years later, these rates for Black students rose to rates comparable to those of White students (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019). The role of desegregation also played a significant role in positive later life outcomes. For Black students exposed to desegregated schooling, the probability of adult incarceration fell by 22 percentage points and family income rose by 25% in adulthood. These effects are also observed in health status, with an increase of 11 percentage points of annual incidence in being in excellent or very good health. Exposure to integrated schools also predicted lower levels of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity later in life (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019). Even more remarkable, Johnson found that these successes had multigenerational effects, extending to the children and grandchildren of students who attended desegregated schools.   


White parents seeking to hoard opportunity criticize school integration by perpetuating the narrative that doing so occurs at the expense of their children. This racist belief system is simply incorrect. Johnson found that White students exposed to school integration neither improved nor worsened their educational performance and attainment. More importantly however, benefits of integration to White students include lessening of prejudiced beliefs and greater empathy, diversified social networks and friendships, more progressive political and social views, and development of intergroup competency (Anderson, 2010). Johnson and Nazaryan describe school integration as “nothing less than the primary engine of social mobility in the decades after the civil rights movement.” Overall, school integration is proven to break intergenerational cycles of deprivation and benefit people of all races. Moving from desegregation to integration has the power to heal divisions and move societal framing from access to inclusion and from exposure to solidarity.

The Realities of School Integration for Black and Brown Children

Despite compelling and sustained evidence of the benefits to school integration, the dream of school integration is rooted in racist underpinnings that put undue burdens on children of color. The reality of school integration means placing Black and Brown students in White supremacist environments where they are required to navigate White spaces as a condition of their existence. Black children spent more time commuting and were more likely than Whites to be moved away from their home districts (Garland, 2012). In addition, Black teachers and principals were more likely to be fired when White and Black schools merged, and more Black schools were closed to make desegregation more convenient for Whites (Collier, 2002). Social justice scholars have questioned the levels of institutional racism present in public schools, racialized practices of teachers and school administrators, and the social and emotional pressures felt by students of color in majority White schools.


Student networks and relationships are critical for building social competence, self-esteem, development of self-identity, and emotional regulation. Integration has limited the ability for students to build support networks that are critical for Black affirmation and survival. Researchers studying student connectedness, defined as the “willingness to participate in the school curriculum and form relational bonds,” are lower among Black and Hispanic students in majority White schools (Chapman, 2014). Furthermore, Black students in majority White schools exhibited lower levels of self-esteem and “cultural flexibility” compared to Black students in schools where students of color were the majority (Carter, 2010). Teachers are also compounding the problem in their practices. Researchers have found that teachers in majority White schools relied on discourse of colorblindness when discussing their teaching practices and beliefs. Those same teachers were also found to exhibit a deficit frame when discussing their students of color as underachieving and less capable (Chapman, 2014). Implicit biases have further revealed themselves in imbalanced approaches to subjective grading, student recommendations, and parent relationships, advantaging White students and their parents (Archbald et al., 2009).


We cannot disregard Johnson’s evidence that students of color in integrated schools perform better and have higher rates of graduation and college attendance. However, we must be critical of the way integration has both served and marginalized students of color who suffer from racial anxiety, hostile school environments, and a lack of support from peers and school authorities that can significantly affect their schooling experience (Anderson, 2015). Although these effects are less visible and harder to quantify, the costs to students’ self-esteem and exacerbation of internalized racism of academic achievement are serious.


More serious is the de facto cultural erasure to Black power and culture via the prevailing color-blind and race-neutral practices of integration. Integrated spaces manifest as the elimination of racialized spaces and an expectation of Black assimilation into “White oblivion” (Kendi, 2019). Ibram Kendi in How to be an Antiracist describes that “through lynching Black cultures, integrationists are, in the end, more harmful to Black bodies than segregationist are” (2019).  The belief that America’s public education system is an engine for social and economic mobility is a retelling of the myth of the American Dream. The reality of school integration’s idealism fails to acknowledge the deeply rooted systemic racism and institutional barriers that the country is built on and that school integration alone cannot overcome.

Considering Alternatives - Connecting Educational Opportunity with Social Justice

School integration matters. But integrated schools (to the extent that they existed) have failed to take into account and address racial inequalities that result from racism that is historically rooted and culturally ingrained. Educational policies often treat these structurally shaped inequalities as a separate issue and seemingly suggest that broader inequalities result from educational shortcomings within communities of color (Diamond, 2006). Educational reform and strategies require a simultaneous attack of structural, institutional, and cultural inequalities that characterize the educational system and broader society.

Creating Identity-affirming Counter Spaces

The role of same-race peer networks and space racism should not be underestimated. Drawing on a yearlong qualitative investigation, Dorinda Carter chronicled the use of identity-affirming counter spaces serving as a positive resistance strategy and means for maintaining a strong racial sense of self by Black students in predominantly White public high schools. Findings by Carter reinforce the importance of having safe spaces in predominantly White learning environments for students of color to escape emotional, psychological, and physical stress stemming from experiences with racism in school (2007). The Black space, a space of cultural solidarity and protection against racism, is a matter of Black survival. Creating and uplifting ways for Black students to nourish and celebrate their Blackness freely is integral within school systems and particularly within White dominant spaces.

Representation of Black Educators Matters

Statistics on teaching diversity are striking. About half of the children in America’s schools receive a 12-year education without ever facing a teacher of their own ethnic and cultural background (Collier, 2002). Looking back at history, an estimated 50% of Black teachers lost their jobs through the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, damage that continued to mount throughout the wake of integration and transfer strategies (Collier, 2002). Marta Collier describes the implementation of Brown as most significantly accounting for the disparity of Black teachers in the modern day. In 2014, less than 20% of teachers were minorities, of which 7% were Black; most strikingly, only 2% of teachers were Black men (Fay, 2018). The need to diversify the teaching force in an increasingly diversifying generation is urgent and necessary to cultivate student support and empowerment from teachers that look like themselves. Despite the focus on the importance of teachers in school, teachers generally bear the burden of blame. It is important to note that district administrators and school leadership have greater institutional power in cultivating an antiracist environment and need to be held accountable in doing so.

Restructuring the Provision of School Funding

A more systemic approach to addressing schooling is to overhaul the way school funding works in America. Schools are funded by property taxes. In poor, urban districts this rarely adds up to enough to adequately fund schooling; whereas suburban districts are able to exploit high property values to lavishly fund their schools (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019). This is a byproduct of the government sanctioning of redlining and the enforcement of residential segregation that was designed to protect Whites from social interaction with Blacks (Williams and Collins, 2011).  Vast inequalities are built into the system of school finance that have become so normalized that no one questions the deeply unequal access to quality schooling and opportunity. School reform should redistribute resources and remove policies that appropriate school funding by zip code. School budgets should not suffer from the ills of residential segregation. Instead, funding should be distributed equally to schools with an extra boost for historically deprived districts as a reparatory measure to facilitate equity of opportunity.            

Funding and Uplifting Black-designated Schools

Building on the significance of identity-affirming spaces is the rise of ethnocentric school schools. Although rare in primary and secondary education, Afrocentric schools have begun popping up in New York City, Washington D.C., and Oakland, California (Shapiro, 2019). As an alternative to integration, Black families are choosing schools explicitly designed for Black children to escape traumatic experiences of coded racism and marginalization in integrated schools (Shapiro, 2019). These have been championed by Black leaders as spaces that assert Black power, pride, and excellence in a way the traditional public school has suppressed. School districts across the country should advocate for and divert funding into opening expressly Black-centric schools as an option for families of color.


School integration works, and policies to unravel decades of re-segregation are needed. But looking ahead requires a more thoughtful approach that prioritizes and centers children and families of color, lives that have been historically exploited and neglected under the guise of equal opportunity.


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About the Author

Alexandra Lee Gugliuzza

Alexandra Lee Gugliuzza is an MPH candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is interested in exploring ways to unravel systems of oppression and their manifestation in disparate health outcomes.