Demographics and Politics Leave Desegregation Behind


The United States seems to have left school desegregation behind.

Not that the job has been completed. Most black students attend majority-black schools.

Not that anyone is proposing that black and white students be separated by law, as they were in 17 states before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 40 years ago this week, that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."

But political and demographic trends are combining to limit how much children of different races are brought together. Even the goal of having black and white kids in the same classrooms is being questioned, while a new generation of race-related issues -- performance gaps, tracking, Afrocentric curriculum -- is getting more attention in the post-desegregation era.

Nationally and in Maryland, there was dramatic change in the 20 years after the 1954 decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. Some school districts -- including Baltimore and suburban districts in Maryland -- moved almost immediately to dismantle their legally required separate school systems. Other districts -- in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, and throughout the South -- moved much more slowly, but eventually were pushed into action by federal pressure and court orders.

At first, desegregation seemed simply a matter of allowing blacks to attend previously all-white schools. Then, the legal ground shifted, leading to desegregation plans including the often-reviled "busing" -- moving students so that one school in a district looked pretty much like another in terms of racial composition.

But while there was dramatic change in the first 20 years, national studies show that over the ensuing 20 years there has been little change in the amount of racial isolation in schools. There has even been some resegregation in the past decade.

Governments are no longer pushing much to change this trend. Neither are most civil rights organizations, which tend to talk more these days about providing opportunities for all students and less about making sure that black and white children are attending the same schools.

And while political pressure has lessened, changes in housing patterns have made desegregation problematic. Whites moved out of central cities (in many cases, the movement began before 1954). For a while, people talked about a "doughnut" problem -- a ring of white suburbs surrounding a black city.

Now, the doughnut is disappearing. Blacks and other minorities also began to move to the suburbs. But often the result was not integrated suburban neighborhoods but minority concentrations in new locations.

Here's how those trends have played out nationally and in Maryland:

Urban school districts have been left with school-age populations that are overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic. A December report of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that, "In the central cities, 15 of every 16 African-American and Latino students are in schools where most of the students are nonwhite."

The 25 largest urban school systems, the report said, contain 30 percent of all Hispanic students, 27 percent of all black students and 3 percent of all white students.

In Baltimore, while black population remained virtually unchanged between the 1980 and 1990 censuses, white population dropped by about one-sixth. In the current school year, fewer than 16 percent of the public school students are white. Of the city's 178 schools, 114 have minority enrollments of 90 percent or more.

Desegregation once seemed a problem only in large cities or in the South. But as minorities moved to the suburbs, so did desegregation issues.

Some suburban school districts have desegregation plans, but school enrollment patterns in most suburbs match housing segregation. The Harvard study found that in suburbs of the 33 U.S. cities with populations over 400,000, 58 percent of blacks attend "majority minority" schools and 22 percent attend schools where the enrollment is 90 percent or more minority.

Although many suburbs treat minority populations "like an infectious disease," says Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, "Suburban communities need to realize they are going to be much more diverse a generation from now.

"Suburbs will not be immune to the problems of the cities unless they do something different than the cities," Dr. Orfield says. "There ought to be suburban housing and school desegregation policies. People should discuss very seriously whether they want to relive the center city experience."

While few suburbs have "busing" programs for desegregation, some are attempting to improve racial balance by open enrollment programs -- allowing parents to choose the schools their children will attend -- or by magnet schools designed to attract children from outside a neighborhood.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.