What do we really mean when we talk about school “segregation” in 2020?
Six decades after Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation by race in public schools unconstitutional, the word retains a punch that can shake a political campaign or turn a school board chamber into a battleground.
But is everybody speaking the same language?
This isn’t some theoretical question. As a government policy editor, I worry about whether “segregation” is being used as simplistic shorthand by politicians, activists, and—yes—journalists who each mean something different when they invoke it in debates over race and equity in education.
Is it a historical marker, summoning painful—but distant—images of the Civil Rights Era?
A descriptor for baked-in forces of inequality that still fracture schools and communities by race and class?
A weapon for advocates who risk backlash even as they summon its rhetorical power?
Or is it all that and more: a term that’s problematic yet unavoidable in confronting conditions and divisions the nation faces more than half a century after Brown?
Messaging matters—get it wrong, and you can end up short-circuiting the search for solutions, or see a policy discussion collapse into a shouting match. And in weighing the word segregation, I bring a lifetime of assumptions and connotations to an always fraught conversation.
I’m a white male whose social and political consciousness first stirred in middle school in the late 1960s—a time, like today, riven by issues of race and class. Still, segregation remained an abstraction to me growing up a decade after Brown in a suburb with few classmates of races other than my own. My children attended what we saw as academically strong, racially mixed city and suburban schools, which our family accessed by way of school choice and magnet options, or where we chose to live.
That’s all at play when I edit or read stories involving tension over school redistricting, funding inequity, the skewed composition of gifted and talented classes. The racial and economic imbalances in a particular school or community may be harmful, unfair, bad policy—but are they segregation? If not, why not, and what’s the right term? Is avoiding the word advisable, or disingenuous?
I put those questions to local officials, student activists, and scholars of race and education. None shied from the term segregation. But they warn that its use, when shorn of context, can be misleading and incomplete. And the context itself may be enough to set off a powerful reaction.
Opel Jones, a member of the county council in Howard County, Md., faced angry residents last year over a council resolution he co-sponsored that explicitly referenced the post-slavery period and segregation in supporting a student assignment plan aimed at closing “achievement gaps by racial and socioeconomic factors.”
51% of teachers report seeing no “racial isolation, imbalance, or ‘segregation’ ” in their school.
The resolution’s sponsors saw its language as crucial to understanding how a diverse, liberal-leaning community ended up with racial and income divisions. Jones made the connection explicit: “Because of slavery, because of Jim Crow, because of [residential] ‘red-lining’—that was the historical context we wanted to give on the resolution.”
Opponents weren’t having it. But Councilwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby, another co-sponsor of the resolution, made no apologies for the history lesson.
“If you try to sugarcoat and coddle ... there’s a lack of engagement,” she said. “We had people say, ‘We’re self-segregating now.’ The outcome is the same.” She added: “It’s important to just be honest. If something is happening, just be straight about it.”
There’s even disagreement among educators about the existence of segregation in their own schools, as well as confusion about the term itself.
The EdWeek Research Center last fall queried a national sample of 1,100 teachers about which scenarios could be called “segregation.” A bare majority (51 percent) saw no “racial isolation, imbalance, or ‘segregation’ ” in their school; 44 percent saw none in their home district.
But in an even more stark finding, 16 percent refused to label as segregated “a district where the law requires black and white students to attend separate schools”—the very scenario ruled unconstitutional in Brown.
Why this disconnect? In part, it’s a matter of perception.
For some researchers, the term can be almost clinical, tagging a school, district, or community as segregated on the basis of racial or socioeconomic benchmarks. But its emotional charge goes back to the racist era of forced, “de jure” segregation—and that means it can land like a personal accusation, igniting denial and defensiveness.
That doesn’t put the term off limits. But, like all potentially incendiary language, it must be used with precision.
“I don’t think the word ‘segregated’ is any more loaded than the word ‘racist,’” said Ibram X. Kendi, the executive director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. “And just like with the term racist, it is absolutely critical for us to have a very clear definition of the terms.”
In Kendi’s framing, “segregation is distinct from separation—it’s involuntary, and it leads to inequity.” Others may have different definitions—and that’s part of the problem. “What’s happening is that at the same time we’re arguing about issues, we’re arguing about the definition of terms.”
Erica Frankenberg, co-founder and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State College of Education, said “people try to suggest we shouldn’t call what we have today ‘segregation’ because it’s no longer legal, or ‘de jure.’”
But she said there are “the remains of policies that still result in students going to schools that look very different based on their race. ... We know that these things don’t just magically happen.”
These arguments can be pointed, even confrontational—but also transformative.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda, Michelle Burris, a senior policy associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, saw that nation wrestle with its history of genocide. And in Germany, she said, “they recognize their past—they talk about the Holocaust.” For Americans, segregation “may be a divisive term, but it is the reality we’re seeing now. I don’t really see a better way to talk about it.”
I’m struck by how these issues resonate with the generation of students still grappling with segregation’s legacy.
Leanne Nunes, 17, is executive high school director of IntegrateNYC, a student group seeking “real integration for the 320,000 [New York City] high school students currently sitting in segregated schools.” They focus on everything from resources and enrollment policies to student justice and the need for a more-inclusive faculty.
As a young black woman from an immigrant family in the Bronx, Nunes is keenly aware of the power imbalance she faces in confronting those in charge. She owns the provocative nature of the word segregation. “I try to use it sparingly. I want it to retain the impact it has,” she said.
But she refuses to shun the term just because of its volatility. “I expect pushback—that’s a sign that you’re doing something that has a potential to make a lot of change,” Nunes said. “Because if you think people would be upset about you telling the truth, it’s something they need to hear.”
As an editor of policy coverage, I’m sobered by a term that’s emotional, empirical, or political depending on who’s using it and how. Segregation remains a powerful label, and it needs to be used, but its shape-shifting nature demands care and context from those of us who do so. That’s something I’m sure to face in my work going forward, aware that misuse of the word can only feed confusion and hurt efforts to eliminate the social and economic inequity our schools face.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as What Do We Mean by ‘Segregation’?