Students leave Stuyvesant High School, one of the few specialized public high schools in New York City.Bebeto Matthews / AP

Why does integration seem to be at the heart of so many fights about schools? Because desegregation is the one factor that seems to consistently yield results in closing the racial achievement gap in education. In the wave of desegregation that followed Brown v. Board of Education, Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in 2014, black children given access to the same educational resources as white children began to catch up. One study found “black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money ... They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.”

And yet in the decades since Brown was decided in 1954, many schools have resegregated. There are a multitude of mechanisms by which once-integrated schools can slip, especially when parents are motivated by powerful incentives to do what they perceive as best for their kids. The result is a kind of arms race, and one in which courts seem increasingly outgunned.


To help you understand these challenges, we’ve put together a briefing on today’s school segregation and asked our education reporter, Adam Harris—fresh from profiling New York City’s new schools chancellor—to explain what’s next.


The Masthead Briefing: School Desegregation

By Karen Yuan and Caroline Kitchener

We read back through The Atlantic’s recent coverage of school desegregation. Here’s what you need to know.

  • Racial segregation in American schools is getting worse. For the first time, Will Stancil wrote, there is “something approximating a consensus” on this point. From 1996 to 2016, the number of segregated schools in the United States more than doubled. (A segregated school is defined as one with less than 40 percent white students.)

  • In fact, many formerly integrated schools are becoming resegregated. At the start of President George W. Bush’s first term, there were 595 schools under desegregation court orders. By the end of Bush’s second term, that number fell to 340 as the Department of Justice de-prioritized civil-rights reform. One of the South’s signature integration success stories in the 1970s, for example, was Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. By 2014, reported Hannah-Jones, it had “moved backwards in time.” School districts released from court orders have, on average, unwound about 60 percent of their former integration.

  • The headline numbers obscure changing demographics. The move to desegregate schools no longer only hinges on balancing the number of black and white students, as Hispanic and Asian students account for a greater percentage of the U.S. student population (from 17 percent in 1996 to 31 percent today). This demographic change has prompted some conservatives to argue that the growing number of segregated schools reflects only “the growing diversity of the American population.” In reality, Stancil wrote, school segregation is almost certainly getting worse—it’s just really hard to measure: “The effects of large-scale demographic change and those of local school policy get tangled up with one another.”

  • The courts’ influence on desegregation is on the wane. Brown v. Board of Education put the Supreme Court at the center of segregation. But in the decades since, many school districts have found ways around court orders. Over the years, the whiter areas of Jefferson County, Alabama, broke off to form their own school districts. The district that was leftover transformed from 75 percent white in 2000 to 40 percent white in 2018. The long legal battles that result from cases like this can produce inconsistent results, where even judges widely known for their strong support of desegregation rule in favor of schools that are resegregating. That happens in part because the segregation of today is, according to Stancil, typically “far less explicit.

  • There’s no easy, system-wide solution. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a plan to increase the numbers of black and Latino students who attend the city’s elite public high schools. He proposed getting rid of the standardized test students must take in order to gain entry. But some say that approach would only help a few students, since these schools only account for six percent of all of the seats in the city’s public high schools.

  • Even devoted reformers face long odds. New York’s newly-installed chancellor of education, Richard Carranza, is on a mission to deepen the integration of the city’s schools. “As I’m asking questions, we’re actually moving policy,” he told Adam Harris. But Carranza’s own track record shows how difficult it will be to move from action to policy. He previously led the much-smaller San Francisco school system for four years, but at the end of his tenure, African-American students still scored poorly on statewide tests. In New York, changing the rules around standardized testing—the tip of the iceberg—would require the state legislature to act.

A handful of solutions are available. These are some of the strategies reformers have tried or proposed.

  • Revise neighborhood school boundaries. The simplest strategy for a school system is often to attempt to integrate by redrawing the maps that dictate which students go to which schools. A study found that the number of schools doing so have exponentially increased over the past three decades; more will likely try. But redrawing district maps often produces pushback from parents who see themselves as losing out.

  • Plan metropolitan-wide school districts. In the 1970s, Louisville, Kentucky, was deeply segregated. Today, the average black student in Louisville attends a school that has a half-white population. Part of its integration success can be attributed to its metropolitan-wide approach, uniting the city and suburb, in sharing tax revenues and resources. Integrating the city with the broader region has reduced white flight from the city and kept home values and tax revenues stable. “When families are thinking about moving around the metro area, they know that any neighborhood is going to be linked to a school with a racial composition that reflects the broader-metropolitan area,” said the researcher Genevieve Siegel-Hawley.

  • Try a radical approach: Reform the college admissions process. Perhaps the biggest roadblock to fully desegregated schools is the cohort of wealthy, white families who worry that desegregation will create a more difficult path to college for their kids. While “the benefits of an integrated student body are very clear for kids of color,” Mimi Kirk wrote for CityLab, the undeniable benefits for white kids, “such as the acquisition of higher-level thinking and empathy … are less well-known, less quantifiable.” The reformer Thomas Scott-Railton proposes a solution that would make wealthy, white parents want to enroll their kids in desegregated schools: “Take demographics of schools into account in college admissions—giving priority to applicants who attended schools with a certain threshold of low-income students (say, above 40 percent).”


Education Writer Adam Harris Weighs In

Adam recently profiled Richard Carranza, the new equity-minded superintendent of New York City’s public schools. We asked Adam questions that arose from our briefing, and ended up talking to Adam for nearly half an hour. You can listen to the full recording of that conversation, or read the transcript.

Caroline Kitchener: What does it mean to say that segregation is getting worse?

Adam Harris: “Getting worse” is kind of hard to quantify. I can say that it's kind of the consensus now that schools are resegregating. You've had, in the course of 20 years, school districts that are consistently getting either more black or Latino or just getting whiter. And it's not Jim Crow de jure segregation; it's more based on housing policies and the way that population shifts have changed. So even if we talk about America getting more diverse culturally in our mores and traditions, there are still these basic things that the court decided 64 years ago that haven't changed.

In schools that have resegregated, you have high populations of not only black and Latino students, but also low-income black and Latino students. It's economic segregation alongside racial resegregation. You'll see fewer resources devoted to those schools, and you'll see less experienced teachers.

The court, of course, is definitively settled. But the issue comes when schools prove to the government that, yes, we've desegregated our schools, and then they're free to do whatever they want. You can prove to a judge that you desegregated by meeting percentage markers for minority enrollment. Once you've done that, you're good. You can get out of your court order, and then if [the school] so happens to resegregate naturally after that, then you have to prove the intent that you have a policy that is intentionally segregating schools. And that's where you run into the problems. I think the appetite for aggressively policing resegregation is not necessarily there.

Karen Yuan: What is persuading superintendents like Richard Carranza to leave very present problems of segregation in their former city for a new city?

Adam: Carranza kept mentioning the fact that what's going on in New York City shapes what's going on in the rest of the country. And there's a certain responsibility that comes with that. He was saying that when he was in San Francisco, he would be looking at what was innovative about what they were doing in New York. It was the same when he was in Houston. And now that he's in this position, he's helping to shape the conversation nationally around schools and around public schooling.

Say the Ivy League schools wanted to get rid of the SAT and fundamentally change how they're admitting students. That would send a powerful message in terms of actually achieving equity, and actually thinking about diversity and how you're admitting students. I think Carranza is of the same estimation when he is thinking about removing the specialty-schools standardized test.

Caroline: One radical solution to integration proposes incentivizing colleges to admit students based on how segregated their high-school classes are. Could that actually work?

Adam: There are merits to it, and I think that it could work. If you weight students who are going to more socioeconomically diverse, more racially diverse schools, then that makes parents say, if I want my kid to get into Harvard, then I'm going to send him to a more diverse school. The question is whether it would actually happen in practice, which seems a little bit less likely. Some say the reason why school integration isn't happening is because people don't genuinely want it to happen. They say that people who want their kids to go to the best schools don’t realize that if they thought about what's best for their kids in terms of good, cultured experiences, that would lead to more diversity in the pipeline.


Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: Where have you seen the effects of school integration—and segregation—in your life? We’d love to hear your stories. You can email them to themasthead@theatlantic.com or discuss on the forums.

  • What’s Coming: The Masthead book club is up and running for the summer. We’re reading two bestsellers: The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder and Educated by Tara Westover. They’re very different—one is about the rise of authoritarianism in America and Russia; the other is a memoir about growing up in rural Idaho. We couldn’t decide between them, so we’re hosting discussions on the forums for both. You can follow along the conversations for The Road to Unfreedom here and Educated here. In August, Snyder and Westover will join members to discuss the books.

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