Campus & Community

School segregation on the rise

6 min read

Almost a half century after the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that Southern school segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” a new study from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard shows that segregation continued to intensify throughout the 1990s. The study, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” by Professor of Education and Social Policy Gary Orfield with teaching fellow Nora Gordon, analyzes statistics from the 1998-99 school year, the latest data available from the National Center of Education Statistics’ Common Core of Education Statistics.

Researchers found that much of the progress for black students since the 1960s was eliminated during a decade that brought three Supreme Court decisions limiting desegregation remedies. The data also show that Latinos, the nation’s largest minority, have become increasingly isolated for the past 30 years, with segregation surpassing that of blacks. Additionally, the rapid growth of suburban minorities has not produced integrated schools.

This resegregation is happening despite the nation’s growing diversity, in particular the rapid growth (245 percent) in the Latino student population during the past 30 years. According to Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project, resegregation is contributing to a growing gap in quality between the schools attended by white students and those serving a large proportion of minority students.

“Though our schools will be our first major institutions to experience nonwhite majorities,” says Orfield, “our research consistently shows that schools are becoming increasingly segregated and are offering students vastly unequal educational opportunities. This is ironic considering that evidence exists that desegregated schools both improve test scores and positively change the lives of students and that Americans increasingly express support for integrated schools. Minority students with the same test scores tend to be much more successful in college if they attended interracial high schools.”

Key findings include the following.

  • Steady resegregation occurring nationally and in the South
    A total of 70.2 percent of the nation’s black students now attend predominantly minority schools (minority enrollment of more than 50 percent), up significantly from the low point of 62.9 percent in 1980. More than a third of the nation’s black students (36.5 percent) attend schools with a minority enrollment of 90 percent to 100 percent. The proportion of black students in such schools has been rising consistently since 1986, when it was at a low point of 32.5 percent.

    Although the South remains more integrated than it was before the civil rights revolution, it is moving backward at an accelerating rate. In the decade between 1988 to 1998, the percentage of black students in majority white schools decreased steadily from 43.5 percent to 32.7 percent. The resegregation in the South is noteworthy because this region saw the greatest increase in racial integration of its schools between 1964 and 1970.

  • Latino segregation growing
    The most dramatic trends in segregation affect Latino students. While intense segregation for blacks is still 28 points below its 1969 level, it has actually grown 13.5 points for Latinos. In 1968, 23.1 percent of Latino students attended schools with a minority enrollment of 90 percent to 100 percent. In 1998, that number rose to 36.6 percent of Latino students.
  • Whites most segregated in schools
    According to the data, despite of the rapid increase in minority enrollment in schools, white students remain the most segregated from other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where more than 80 percent of the students are white and less than 20 percent of the students are from all of the other racial and ethnic groups combined. Even in the District of Columbia, where fewer than one student in 20 was white, the typical white student was in a class with a slight majority of whites. Blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53 percent to 55 percent students of their own group. Latinos attend schools with far higher average (12 percent) black populations than whites do (8.7 percent), and blacks attend schools with much higher average Latino enrollments (10.5 percent) than whites do (6.9 percent). American Indian students attend schools in which about a third (31 percent) of the students are from Indian backgrounds.
  • Strong links between segregation by race and by poverty
    Segregation by race is very strongly related to segregation by class and income. Racially segregated schools (for all groups except whites) are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty. Almost nine-tenths of segregated African-American and Latino schools experience concentrated poverty. The average black or Latino student attends a school with more than twice as many poor classmates than the average white student. Data from 1998 to 1999 show that in schools attended by the average black and Latino students, 39.3 percent and 44 percent of the students are poor, respectively. In schools attended by the average white student, 19.6 percent of the students are poor. Poverty levels are strongly related to school test score averages and many kinds of educational inequality.

Policy recommendations

The census data show that, increasingly, there will be entire metropolitan areas and states with either no majority group or where the majority group will be Latino or African American. This will be a new experience in American educational history. Researchers at The Civil Rights Project recommend the following policy actions in order to curb racial and ethnic polarization and educational inequalities:

  • expansion of the federal magnet school program and the imposition of similar desegregation requirements for federally supported charter schools; 
  • active support by private foundations and community groups of efforts to continue local desegregation plans and programs, through research, advocacy, and litigation; 
  • creation of expertise on desegregation and race-relations training in state departments of education; 
  • documentation through school district surveys of the value (in legal terms, “the compelling value”) of interracial schooling experience in their own cities; 
  • creation of many two-way integrated bilingual schools in which students of each language group work with, learn with, and help each other acquire fluency in a second language; 
  • provision of funding for better counseling and transportation for interdistrict transfer policies; 
  • promotion and funding of teacher exchanges between city and suburban school districts, and training of teachers in techniques for successful interracial classrooms; 
  • exploration of school and housing policies to avoid massive resegregation of large sections of the inner suburbs; 
  • sponsorship through federal and state funds and universities of integrated metropolitan-wide magnet schools; 
  • launching of serious new scholarship focusing on the most effective approaches to effective education and race relations in schools with three or more racial groups present in significant numbers, and two or more languages strongly represented; 
  • careful documentation of the impact on students in districts that restore segregated neighborhood schools.