America’s segregated schools: We can’t live together until we learn together

The main reason school districts have been gerrymandered to perpetuate segregation is the tacit, and at times explicit, approval of people of means.

Stefan Lallinger

June 23, 2020

Would George Floyd be alive today had he and Derek Chauvin grown up together and attended the same schools?

It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s an important one to ask — in part because it’s about more than George Floyd and Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded for his life, or even the criminal justice system.

It’s a question at the heart of race relations in America today.

In 1974, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall presciently wrote, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

Derek Chauvin and George Floyd didn’t just not live together; they lived worlds apart.

Floyd grew up in a poor, racially segregated area of Houston. Chauvin grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1980s, when the city was almost 90 percent white. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the public middle and high schools that Chauvin attended were 94 percent white and less than 2 percent Black at the time.

April Sherrod joins hundreds as they wait in line to pay their respect to George Floyd during a public memorial service on Monday, June 8, 2020 at The Fountain of Praise Church, in Houston.

We see this pattern of exclusion across the country, both in our schools and our neighborhoods. While such sorting often disguises itself as the harmless byproduct of personal choices — simply a result of the free market — neither the causes nor the impacts of segregation are innocuous.

Consider public education. More than 65 years after my grandfather, Louis L. Redding, helped argue the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case at the Supreme Court, our nation’s classrooms remain stubbornly segregated — by some measures, even worse than in 1954.

Unequal funding also plagues schools

Today, nearly one-fifth of public schools have almost no children of color, while another one-fifth have almost no white children. The number of highly segregated nonwhite schools has tripled over the last quarter-century. What’s more, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding compared with predominantly nonwhite school districts, according to a recent report.

This segregation persists despite mountains of evidence demonstrating that students who attend school in integrated settings harbor fewer prejudices and have less discriminatory attitudes. Research shows that attending a diverse school helps to counter stereotypes, leading students to seek integrated settings later in life. Students in diverse classrooms are less likely to drop out and more likely to enroll in college than students in high-poverty, racially segregated schools — and these benefits accrue to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Our inability to even acknowledge, much less confront, the continuing scourge of segregation is emblematic of our broader failure to remediate racial injustices that date back to our country’s founding. What manifests in the streets today is the culmination of centuries’ worth of oppression of black people, and the anguish and rage that oppression engenders.

Racism infects all institutions

We’re witnessing a reckoning with the reality of racism in America — a growing recognition that whether it’s the disproportionate deaths of black and and brown people from COVID-19, or the fact that communities of color are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout, racism infects all our institutions and facets of life, in ways big and small, both conscious and subconscious.

More privileged Americans, in particular, are now considering their part in how our country arrived at this moment, and what role they should play going forward. That role must include advocating for greater diversity in our public schools.

The primary reason that school districts across the nation have been gerrymandered to perpetuate segregation is the tacit, and at times explicit, approval of people of means. In a society that confers significant choice with respect to where people send their children to school, it is incumbent upon those with privilege and power to demand change, even if that change implicates themselves and their families. 

Living and learning together across lines of race and class won’t solve racial inequality on its own or prevent every killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of law enforcement. But it will provide people of all backgrounds with a better understanding of how others live and what experiences they face. It will contribute to a sense of shared humanity and common purpose.

Efforts like ending single-family residential zoning, which Minneapolis recently enacted, are a good place to start to diversify our neighborhoods. The federal government also has a role to play, and policymakers should pass the Strength in Diversity Act to support community-driven strategies to increase diversity in schools. Most important, people at the grassroots must take action. There is no shortage of proven approaches to integrate schools at the local and state level; there is only a lack of will.

America’s highly segregated school system belies our ideals of equal opportunity. Unless and until we integrate our schools, there is little hope for meaningful racial progress elsewhere.