A powerful incentive to integrate

Continued progress toward school desegregation works best when it is not just a social good but a practical good for students.


Progress depends on perspective. Take public safety. Crime has fallen sharply in the United States over the past two decades. Streets are safer almost everywhere. But if you live in a community struggling with crime – parts of Chicago, for instance – you don’t see progress. Similarly, infant mortality, extreme poverty, and other basic indicators of well-being have been declining worldwide. Vast swaths of humanity live longer, healthier lives than they did a generation ago. But that’s not the case in the Horn of Africa, where drought has persisted year after year, and parts of the Middle East, where civil wars rage.

The cause of equal education has seen undeniable progress in historical terms. Nobody with a sense of fairness or justice can still believe in separate but equal (if the equal part was ever really true) for public schools. As Richard Nixon put it in 1970, “[T]he pull of conscience and the pull of national self-interest both are in the same direction. A system that leaves any segment of its people poorly educated serves the nation badly; a system that educates all of its people well serves the nation well.”

Sixty-three years ago, government-enforced school segregation, which was practiced by 17 states primarily in the South, was outlawed. Today, schools in the South are less segregated than those in the North and West – mostly because of court orders and because Southern school districts are relatively large. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of segregated white schools (those with 10 percent or fewer nonwhite students) has been cut in half, according to a 2016 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

That seems like progress. But the percentage of segregated all-black schools (with 10 percent or fewer nonblack students) has tripled in the same period. The result, the report points out, is that “whites can perceive an increase in interracial contact even as African American and Latino students are increasingly isolated, often severely so.”

Much of that disconnect is due to de facto segregation. As whites, blacks, and other groups have sorted themselves into geographically separated communities, minorities have been bused to white schools but not vice versa. But that’s not the whole story either. Some cities are actively combating de facto segregation. Simon Montlake’s cover story (click here) shows how Hartford, Conn., has built a vital, diversified school system.

It’s hard to argue against the value and comfort of neighborhood schools, of knowing the same friends from kindergarten through high school, of walking to class along familiar streets. So there has to be a powerful incentive to put a kid on a bus. The R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts in Hartford has created that incentive, not just because of the theater and music programs it offers but because of the racial diversity it embraces. The nation that every student will enter into after graduation, after all, will be similarly diverse. 

Schools like Kinsella must succeed – for reasons of conscience and national self-interest.

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