Law & Courts

U.S. Schools Lapsing Into ‘Resegregation,’ Orfield Warns

By Caroline Hendrie — April 16, 1997 4 min read

Warning that America is backsliding toward separate and unequal public education, a new study reports that Latino and African-American students are becoming increasingly isolated in inferior schools.

Researchers at Harvard University and at Indiana University Bloomington contend that the historic progress made by blacks toward integration is slowly eroding. More dramatic, they report, is the rising segregation of the nation’s soaring Hispanic population.

“One of the great questions of the next generation is whether we ghettoize our Latino population or whether we open the doors of opportunity to them,” said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard and an author of the report. “If we shut them out--and we can see evidence that we are in the employment, income, and school data--then we are facing a social catastrophe.”

Between 1970 and 1994, the average proportion of whites at a school attended by the typical Hispanic youngster dropped from 43.8 percent to 30.6 percent, the report says.

During the same period, black students saw the average percentage of whites at their schools inch up from 32 percent to 33.9 percent, but that was down from 36.2 percent in 1980.

Based in part on these findings, the study’s authors conclude that America’s schools are resegregating at the fastest rate since the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That ruling established that the separate schools for blacks and whites that were then the norm in Southern and border states were inherently unequal.

“In American race relations, the bridge from the 20th century may be leading back into the 19th century,” the report says. “There is no evidence that separate but equal today works any more than it did a century ago.”

Conclusions Questioned

The report does not address the question of how much of the growing segregation may be explained by the overall drop in the number of white schoolchildren over the past generation and the rise in Hispanics and blacks. From 1968 to 1994, the study says, white school enrollment fell by 9 percent while the number of Hispanic students exploded by 178 percent and the ranks of black schoolchildren expanded by 14 percent.

In an interview, Mr. Orfield said the declining exposure to white students among blacks and Hispanics was due to “a mix of demography and policy.” But he said the effects of demographic changes on segregation could not be precisely determined, a contention challenged by a fellow desegregation expert.

“I disagree strongly that you can’t separate that out,” said David J. Armor, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who often testifies on behalf of school districts seeking release from court desegregation orders.

Mr. Armor, a research professor at the university’s Institute of Public Policy, also said Mr. Orfield and his colleagues had overstated the trend toward resegregation.

“I don’t think these numbers in any way justify a statement that the whole thing is coming unraveled and that we’re going back to segregated schools,” Mr. Armor said.

Future Seen as Troubling

But Mr. Orfield said there was “a clear trend” toward resegregation that only promised to worsen as school desegregation cases continue to wind down in the courts.

The report warns that the trend is particularly worrisome in the 17 Southern and border states whose schools were formerly segregated by law.

“The transformation of this huge region, with more than one-third of the states, from an area of complete educational apartheid to the least segregated area in the U.S. was a historic accomplishment,” the report states. “That accomplishment is being lost.”

Other themes of the report include evidence that blacks and Hispanics in the suburbs are becoming increasingly isolated; that students from those groups are far more likely than whites to attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty; and that the Northeast remains the nation’s most segregated region.

The findings mirror those of a report that Mr. Orfield wrote for the National School Boards Association in late 1993. (“Desegregation Study Spurs Debate Over Equity Remedies,” Jan. 12, 1994.)

They also echo the views of Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown V. Board of Education, a 1996 book Mr. Orfield co-wrote with Susan E. Eaton. Ms. Eaton helps run the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, a research effort founded by Mr. Orfield five years ago.

The latest report calls on the Clinton administration to assume a far more aggressive role in guarding against resegregation.

“You just don’t have any policy being pursued by this administration,” Mr. Orfield said. “Although you have some very good people, as desegregation dissolves around us there needs to be a vision and a strategy.”

For More Information:

Copies of “Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools” are available for $10 each (by check or money order payable to Harvard University) from the Civil Rights Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 6 Appian Way, Room 444, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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