The Resegregation of US Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to deliver another–perhaps fatal–blow to affirmative action, in its pending decision on the University of Michigan’s admissions policies. But the Bush administration is already pursuing the next target in its mission to destroy the gains of the civil rights movement.

At least 10 universities–including Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)–announced they will eliminate summer programs for Black and Latino teenagers after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating whether they violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Accusing programs aimed at redressing decades of racial discrimination with violating the Civil Rights Act would once have been dismissed as an absurdity. But that absurdity has become reality in Bush’s America, where organizations masquerading behind names such as the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute dedicate themselves to fighting for the rights of whites only.

“If you’re a member of the wrong race, you’re not eligible for the program–period,” huffed the Center’s spokesman Roger Clegg in indignation at the idea of educational programs for Blacks and Latinos.

Yet more than 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first school desegregation decision, schools have re-segregated to the same level as before busing began, the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University reported in January.

White students attend schools that are, on average, 80 percent white. The most racially segregated schools are in the North–New York, Illinois, Michigan and California–where many rich suburban schools tend to be all-white and many of the poorest inner-city schools all-Black or -Latino.

In 2000, according to the Education Trust, New York school districts with the highest concentration of white students received $2,034 more per student in state and local funding than those with the highest concentration of minorities–a difference of more than $50,000 per classroom.

Schools in the South became more integrated than in the North–but are more rapidly re-segregating. And many Southern schools continue to cling to segregated practices even within integrated schools. For example, Taylor County High School in Butler, Georgia (80 miles south of Atlanta), still holds a whites-only senior prom each year, despite the efforts of Black students to hold a single, integrated event. Black and white seniors take separate class trips, the school yearbook chooses both a Black and white “most popular couple,” and even school elections are segregated–with whites and Blacks separately voting for a white and Black class president.

School segregation is not isolated from other aspects of racism, like housing–because government policies have historically restricted Blacks from settling in more prosperous white areas. Federal housing programs that helped millions of white families buy homes from the 1940s through the 1960s excluded most African Americans by catering to local racist ordinances. Even when Blacks managed to get mortgages, armed racist mobs terrorized their families to drive them out, firmly establishing all-white enclaves across the country.

And states that are so reluctant to fund poverty-stricken schools serving minority students invest massively in prison systems to incarcerate them once they approach adulthood. Paul Street of the Chicago Urban League documented in a recent study that 90 percent of all imprisoned drug offenders in Illinois are African American–in a state that is only 15 percent Black. “The top 15 zip codes for prison releases contain 10 of the city’s top 15 zip codes for poverty, 11 of the top 15 zip codes for unemployment, 10 of the lowest 15 zip codes for median income, and 10 of the lowest zip codes for possession of a high school degree,” Street reported.

In 2001, just 933 African Americans received bachelor’s degrees from Illinois’ state universities, while 7,000 were released from prison on drug charges.

The connection between racism and education couldn’t be clearer. That is why a multiracial crowd of more than 30,000 students protested outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 1, as it heard the University of Michigan arguments. The fight against segregation is far from over.

SHARON SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker.


SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: