Equity & Diversity

Beyond the Common Battleground

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 24, 1999 3 min read

It takes just one look at the San Francisco schools to see that desegregation reaches far beyond black and white.

The city district made national headlines just last month after agreeing to stop using race and ethnicity in assigning students to schools.

The tentative deal is an effort to settle a 1994 lawsuit brought by Chinese-American students and their parents to get out from under a 1983 racial-balance plan championed by the city’s African-American community.

While the groups may disagree about the best way to keep the schools free of discrimination, it’s clear that both have long struggled with desegregation issues.

Unlike the Chinese experience, California’s Japanese attended regular public schools at the turn of the century. In 1906, when San Francisco officials told Japanese students to attend the separate Chinese school, Japanese families filed suit. After intervention by the federal government, which wanted to avoid a diplomatic crisis with Japan, San Francisco agreed to drop its segregation policy.

By 1910, 41,000 of the nation’s 72,000 Japanese lived in California. After a new phase of anti-Japanese sentiment emerged amid the nativism of the World War I period, the California legislature in 1921 gave districts the authority to segregate Japanese. Some historians suggest that relatively few districts actually set up separate schools, however.

The most dramatic school segregation of Japanese-American students came at the hands of the U.S. government, not California lawmakers. Two months after the United States declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, the federal government moved 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into detention camps. Almost overnight, the government had to educate more than 25,000 Japanese-American children, setting up tar-paper schools behind barbed wire.

When the camps shut down in 1945 as World War II ended, Japanese-American children returned to integrated schools.

In 1947, with the appellate court ruling in Mendez, de jure segregation in California formally came to an end, though historians say it had fizzled out for Asian-Americans earlier.

But the 1994 case brought by Chinese-Americans in San Francisco shows that Asian-Americans continue today as part of the desegregation debate. And though study of Asian-American school segregation centers on California, the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Gong Lum v. Rice is an early instance in which the issue surfaced elsewhere. In that case, the high court affirmed a Mississippi district’s right to require a Chinese-American girl to attend a segregated black school, rejecting her bid to attend the school for whites.

Birth of the BIA Schools

Over the century, the task of educating American Indian children gradually has shifted from the federal government to the states. In part because many districts refused to admit Native American children early in the century, the U.S. government set up schools for them through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In Piper v. Big Pine in 1924, the California Supreme Court established the right of Indian children to be admitted to state-supported rather than federal schools, ruling in favor of a 15-year-old Indian girl’s right to attend her local public school. Although the court didn’t challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Piper decision didn’t result in large numbers of segregated public schools for Indians, according to Wollenberg.

Gradually, by offering financial incentives, the federal government persuaded districts to accept Native Americans in regular, integrated schools. In 1935, California stripped its school code of the authority to segregate American Indians born in the United States.

As a result of shifting federal policy, the 1950s marked a major migration of Indians from rural and reservation areas to urban centers and their schools. American Indians have been active in desegregation efforts in such cities as Minneapolis.

But in general, says William Demmert, an associate professor of education at Western Washington University, the Indian community tends not to see the BIA school system as racially segregated. Instead, he says, it is a political arrangement, based on the unique relationship between tribes and the federal government.

And some experts have argued that desegregation plans in the regular public schools only exacerbate Indian students’ isolation.

“They know if they scatter into the public school system, the schools are not prepared to serve their needs,” Demmert says. “And until they are, many see a continuation of the bureau schools as vital.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Beyond the Common Battleground

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