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Urban Segregation: Who's To Blame?

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A recent report conducted by Gary Orfield, the respected Harvard University desegregation expert, and sponsored by the National School Boards Association presented a sobering look at the extent to which America is fracturing itself along racial and economic lines. The segregation of African-American students now exceeds 1970 levels, the report showed, and Hispanic students are even less likely to be educated in integrated settings. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1994.) It was an important documentation of trends for the nation, even if many found its conclusions already obvious.

What was surprising, however, is how little reaction the report engendered in urban America. After a one-night exposure on network television, it raised little hue and cry, little consternation in the cities that were for the most part its subject.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that the reasons urban America breathed a sigh of indifference may rest in how the report unwittingly depicted the cities, their schools, and the nature of the problem. In some ways, the report helped reinforce stereotypes with which urban schools are all too familiar and depicted both the problem and the solution in a manner that subtly implied that cities, their public schools--and more particularly their students--were the source of their own segregation.

The problem of continuing segregation in the schools--or, as some have called it, the "resegregation'' of America's schools--was defined in the report as a phenomenon related to increasing birthrates in the cities and among certain populations, and rising numbers of immigrant students. The concentration on demographics could, in some minds, suggest rather ugly stereotypes and a touch of xenophobia. What was explicitly omitted as a cause for the increasing isolation of city schools was that sociological phenomenon called "white flight.''

Research from all quarters continues to be mixed on whether massive school busing throughout the 1960's and 1970's resulted in the American middle class's abandoning the cities. There were lots of cities that experienced rather dramatic busing during this time and retained their middle-class population, and conversely, there were others which had no busing and were left nearly intact demographically. There were, in fact, lots of reasons that the middle class fled the cities and moved to the suburbs, including racism as well as crime, the general quality of life in the suburbs, better transportation and jobs, affordable housing, and the like.

For all kinds of reasons, America walked out on its cities. But what is left in the educational infrastructure of those cities is not "segregated'' as the result of some act of discrimination perpetrated by urban schools--even if there is much to criticize about the state of equal opportunity in urban schools.

Yet it is urban America in this report that is depicted as the most segregated in the land, and suburban America is described as experiencing "creeping segregation.'' I am not sure who is doing the "creeping,'' but press coverage of the report's release and ambiguous wording in the report itself led one to the ultimate conclusion--however unintended--that segregation was being equated with African-American children, as if they were the problem. If it is true, as the report says, that segregation in U.S. schools is the worst it has been in 30 years, then this unfortunate inference may be the ultimate example of blaming the victim.

The problem here is not black children in urban America and now "creeping'' into the suburbs. The problem is that dominant America--largely white America--abandoned urban schools, often setting up new public and private institutions that Mr. Orfield's report comes nowhere near calling segregated, and then starved those who were left behind. Starved them politically, financially, culturally, and governmentally. It is a game of containment that even Mr. Orfield admits is not working.

And the solution? The report calls for limiting the amount of Chapter 1 funds going to urban schools because such compensatory-education funding, meant for disadvantaged students, may now be serving as a reward for segregation. The perversity of this recommendation goes to the heart of who is being blamed for their own condition. Urban schools do not need to be further starved; they require at minimum to enjoy the same national average expenditure that their less challenged, "nonsegregated'' counterparts enjoy to meet their higher educational needs.

The report calls for a renewed commitment to the desegregation of our public schools, a pursuit that deserves to be a higher national priority. Inequality in resources and in the opportunity to learn will only exacerbate America's Balkanization along racial and ethnic lines. Let us not forget, however, that much of urban America has been so abandoned by now that "desegregation'' is no longer the issue. The issue is one of how we educate the African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American children that have been left behind, so they can have access to the fruits of this land.

This report is correct in its depiction of an ever more fractured country racially. Once reached, however, this conclusion and its attendant "solutions'' should have been examined with a keener eye to why and how this is happening. The series of desegregation reports by Mr. Orfield that this latest effort is a part of otherwise will continue to hold little relevance for urban America and its schools--and will contribute further to the stereotyping of our cities and their populations.

The report completely missed the point.

Michael Casserly is the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

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