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Federal Q&A

School Desegregation Is Crucial at This Moment, Says One U.S. Senator

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 09, 2020 6 min read
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Systematic mistreatment of black people by law enforcement underscores the need to desegregate schools.

That’s the argument right now from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the foremost champions of school desegregation in Congress. Murphy’s legislation—the Strength in Diversity Act, which he introduced in 2019 along with Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and in previous years—would support local, voluntary efforts to increase diversity in schools.

Murphy has also highlighted the issue amid ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, and why he thinks that real progress demands more than voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting racial injustice.

On Monday, we discussed those and other issues in an interview with Murphy; some of his responses to our questions have been lightly edited for clarity.

Many people might not see a clear link between the current activism in response to how the police treat black people and the movement to desegregate schools. Can you explain why people should connect them?

At the foundation of the crisis we’re in today is an inability of white people to understand the lives of people of color. It’s largely inconceivable for most white people to think about fearing for your life when you have an interaction with law enforcement. That’s something that likely never happens to a white person in their entire life. The best way to grow empathy and understanding is to have exposure to those whose lives are different from you, who are of a different race or a different religion or a different income bracket.

We live separate lives. We are more racially and economically segregated than ever before in many parts of the country. And unless we start living with each other and sharing experiences, then I don’t know that any laws that we pass can be truly effective in changing attitudes.

For instance, the number of segregated schools in this country has doubled in the last 15 years. [A federal watchdog’s 2016 report on racial and economic isolation in schools included this finding.] When a white kid grows up without a single black friend, it becomes really hard for them to care about changing the laws around criminal justice system, or policing practices, if they’ve never heard the firsthand perspective of a young black person and how they intersect with the criminal justice system and law enforcement.

There’s a concern you and others have expressed that many people say they support Black Lives Matter and racial equity, only to turn around and resist the formal adoption of substantive and relevant policy changes, such as integrating schools, in their own communities. If that’s such a significant problem, are federal or other mandates the primary solution? How can you make such efforts voluntary but also popular?

The first step is making people realize that to be an ally of these protests, it means stepping out of your comfort zone. What’s important at the outset is to create an expectation that if you are a white ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, that likely will involve supporting some change that impacts your life, not just one that impacts the lives of people of color. That’s why I’ve tried to raise this issue early on, to make sure that people coming to these protests realize the issues that are coming.

When you’re talking about changes to housing policy or education policy ... that is much better enacted at the local level. My state, which is a pretty progressive state, could take a leadership role and enact real, fundamental, systemic reforms, at the state and local levels. If that were to happen, you wouldn’t need intervention from the federal government.

Some in the school choice movement believes that giving black families more agency over where their children go to school, rather than focusing on a broader policy of desegregation, is what will help empower those families in their communities. What’s your response to that argument?

I think empowering parents is a part of this solution. But if you just give parents in Bridgeport the choice of where to go to school in Bridgeport [a high-poverty city in Connecticut], you’re not solving the problem. The schools in Bridgeport are so underfunded because of our broken school finance system, and so burdened by the trauma that exists in Bridgeport but not in neighboring Fairfield [an affluent suburb], that school choice is insufficient.

If you’re talking about a school choice system where kids in Bridgeport might be able to go to a neighboring school system, that might work. But that involves a massive change to the way that schools are run and financed. ...

Until you fix the economic ceiling that exists in communities of color, you are never going to be able to fix our educational system. As long as poor people are clustered together in small neighborhoods, the education system can only be a partial remedy.

One of the discussions that’s come up in the last week-plus is whether police should be in schools. What’s your position on that? How concerned are you that a police presence in schools can ultimately be detrimental to students of color and black students in particular?

Police should not be in schools. It is very tempting to put police officers inside schools. But it ends up speeding up the school-to-prison pipeline. It ends up with typical school misbehaviors being criminalized. And it creates an atmosphere inside the school that makes kids feel often that they are in a courthouse rather than a learning environment.

There are some instances where you might need police officers in close proximity to a school. But there is no reason for police officers to be inside schools. I think this is an experiment that has largely failed.

Police officers are generally in the schools with large black and Hispanic populations. And so it’s not a coincidence that you have kids being expelled and suspended, that students of color are being expelled and suspended for behaviors that a white kid would just get detention for.

What did you make of the disagreement between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last year in the Democratic debate over busing and integration? [Biden defended his opposition to certain busing policies in the 1970s, and Sen. Harris of California criticized him for it.] Do you think that was a helpful way to highlight issues addressed in your Strength in Diversity Act?

I don’t remember all the details of that exchange. ... The first step is to make sure the resources exist so that states and municipalities that want to participate in school desegregation plans can do so. The one in Connecticut works, but there aren’t enough slots. [Earlier this year, officials agreed to add 1,000 seats to a magnet school program in the Hartford, Conn., area, as part of the long-running Sheff v. O’Neill court case over racially isolated schools. However, even with this expansion, demand outstrips the number of seats in the program.]

It’s not the total solution. I don’t prefer mandatory federal intervention here. I think our first job is to try to create a movement that’s focused on local and state reforms, so that conversations about economically and racially integrating our schools happens first at the local level.

Photo: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murphy is one of the foremost champions for school desegregation in Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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