It’s Complicated, Cuh: Millennials and School Segregation

Status quos can be insidious.  They subsist by creeping into our worlds often without our being aware, because they are just so damn usual.  Recently, I realized how they can manifest in the context of school segregation when I received a call from a friend a few weeks back.  She was planning to move to the area of Atlanta where my wife and I grew up, and wanted to know our opinions about the elementary school we attended.  We told her we loved the school and thought it was an exceptional place to learn both academically and socially. 

Our friend seemed a bit confused by our positive response.  She was under the impression the school had been on a downward spiral over the last few years because her real-estate agent recommended she look for houses in another part of town with “better schools”.  “Damn,” I thought, “my generation is falling into the same trap as those before us.”  Well intentioned (or not) White families move to areas where schools are viewed as “better” on some chosen measure – today, usually test scores – without either admitting or considering the role race plays in these decisions.  Such a lack of critical reflection has lasting effects on the racial demographics and experiences of students in our nation’s public schools. 

The Nexus of Race and “Good” Schooling

As a former high school teacher and now educational researcher, I am aware that public schools in the United States (US) are currently more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s.  Current demographics of DeKalb County Schools, where my wife and I went to school from grades 1-12, were reported as 55% Black, 26% White, 9% Latin(x), 6% Asian and 3% Two or More Races.  Even with this enrollment, students in the district are not distributed evenly. 

An educational blogger from 2013 showed schools in the northern potions of the district, including the now independent city of Dunwoody where my wife and I grew up, were overwhelmingly White.  The following schools were listed by the blogger as those that have “maintained” majority White enrollment (the fact that the author used the word “maintain” shows the way race plays a central role in these conversations without many admitting to it –  i.e., “maintain” is usually used to describe things that should be saved).

  • Austin (78%)
  • Oak Grove (72%)
  • Coralwood Diagnostic Center (72%)
  • Montgomery (67%)
  • Vanderlyn (63%)
  • The Museum School (CHARTER) (62%)
  • Fernbank (62%)
  • Kittredge (57%)
  • Briarlake (56%)

The following schools were described as having “more White students than other races,” while the White students made up less than 50% of the study body (tellingly, there was no language that the schools “maintained” racial diversity here…).

  • Dunwoody Elementary (48%)
  • Dunwoody High School (46%)
  • Ashford Park (46%)
  • Laurel Ridge (46%)
  • Hawthorne (42%)
  • Sagamore ES (42%)
  • Kingsley (40%)
  • Chesnut (40%)

My wife and I attended Kinglsey Elementary.  Our friend was looking for houses that were districted for Kingsley and/or Chesnut.  The real-estate agent recommended our friend look at houses around Austin or Vanderlyn. 

Was it a mere coincidence that these sets of schools have contrasting racial student populations?  Oftentimes when I speak with people (mostly White middle-class people) about issues such as this, they respond by asking what the test scores are at the schools under question.  They insist any decision to not send their child to a certain school is not about race, but achievement and looking for “the best” or a “good” school.  But, if we dig a bit deeper into the definitions of “good” or “best”, they cannot be removed from the racial makeup of schools.

A recent report from Amy Stuart Wells at Columbia University shows how racial-segregation in our contemporary school systems occurs within a housing-school nexus affected by “tangible” and “intangible” factors, the latter largely based on hearsay.  These factors influence the perceptions people have of specific schools, and are often perpetuated by racial insensitivities at best, and outright racial bigotry at worst.  Wells explains:

. . . parents’ perceptions of public schools in particular and the implicit race-related assumptions they make about the quality of those schools explain the so-called “intangible” factors of education – e.g. the reputation and status of a school.

She went on:

. . . policymakers and advocates who want to address racial inequality in American housing and schools must appreciate the iterative relationship between intangible and tangible factors in the housing-school nexus.  One begets the other in a cyclical process as neighborhood demographics change. This process eventually leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of “good” and “bad” schools that is strongly correlated with race.

The nexus between housing and schools creates perpetually inequitable outcomes for students in impoverished or otherwise marginalized communities, and this in turn, “provide[s] justifications for White families to purchase homes in predominantly White neighborhoods, continuing the vicious cycle of race, boundary lines and ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ communities and schools.” 

How We Got Here

Numerous contextual, governmental, and political factors affect the daily experiences students have in public schools. An article I wrote with a friend and colleague describes the ways federal policies from the New Deal era created vastly different opportunities for White and Black citizens related to home ownership.  For instance, through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) loans, a vast majority of White families were lifted from poverty by home ownership.  Unfortunately, these loans were highly unlikely to be given to individuals living in areas deemed “high risk” for defaulting on loan payments.  Such a process, as Richard Rothstein describes in depth in his book The Color of Law, was known as redlining.  Moreover, New Deal programs such as “job insurance” provided laid-off workers cash to support them while they found new employment.  These loans, however, were off limits to workers in two industries: agricultural workers and domestic servants in private homes, both of which were overwhelmingly staffed by people of color, mainly African Americans. Such exclusionary policies affected and still effect the sort of experiences populations of color have in our country. Being that home addresses and school assignments are intimately connected, these policies also affected and effect our nation’s public schools.

Turning back to the Dekalb County District my friend is searching for a home and school in, we can see Stuart Wells’s report playing out in real time. Current demographics from the Office of Civil Rights Database show Kinglsey’s White student population, which my friend was steered away from by her realtor, has dipped to 33.5%; Chesnut to 34%.  What has to be realized is that these numbers did not merely appear out of thin air – there exists a history here that should not be ignored. 

Under court order, from 1972 to 1998 the school system in DeKalb County implemented a program known as “minority to majority” or “M-to-M” to speed up racial integration.  In practice, M-to-M meant Black students were bused from their homes early in the morning (I remember some of my peers telling me they were awake and on the school bus by 4:45am) to attend schools in majority White neighborhoods.  The elementary school my wife and I attended was a testament to the statistical success of M-to-M related to racial integration.  Each grade we attended at Kingsley (from 1992-1998) felt extremely racially and culturally diverse. 

In 1998, however, an attorney from our community threatened a lawsuit against DeKalb County Schools to put an end to M-to-M.  Based in part on this suit, and a push throughout the country to end court-ordered integration programs, M-to-M was ended.  

In its place, a new program labeled by opponents as the “son-of-M-to-M” was created during the 1999-2000 school year.  In this program, student admissions from overcrowded schools (which just-so-happened to be majority Black) would be paired with admissions to undercrowded schools (which were majority White).  So, on paper, it was supposed to be a “colorblind” reform; however, based on the local history of racial segregation related to the housing policies described above, race still played a central role in the program’s implementation.  The push to end court-ordered integration programs, along with new transfer rules related to the passing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal law in 2001, exacerbated racial segregation in P-12 public schools, leaving us where we are today.

Reconsidering Reform

But, we have to stop ourselves here.  The arguments described above against segregation come mainly from White perspectives.  As Malcolm Gladwell and others have explained, school integration has always been argued from the perspective of White folks “inviting” Black folks into their worlds.  But what about the perspectives of Black students, parents, and teachers?  Educational scholars Richard Milner and Tyrone Howard have shown Black communities were extremely well suited to educate their children, and did so with great success. 

Integration can also be detrimental to students of color entering majority White environments. Other studies have shown White teachers in racially integrated classrooms often overlook their students of color for recommendations into gifted programs, and are primed to believe Black males, even as early as preschool, will be behavior problems.  Based on these outcomes, some argue it isn’t integration that we need, but more Black teachers for Black students. 

Again, it’s more complicated than segregation=bad, integration=good.

Adding to the complexity are scholars such as Claude Steele who describe the importance of a concept known as critical mass.  When individuals from marginalized groups are surrounded by a majority of people from their group (i.e., segregated) it provides an emotional and psychological support system that impedes negative outcomes related to what is known as “identity threat” (also known as stereotype threat).  A great example of how identity threat can negatively affect someone who does not hold critical mass can be seen in the film 8 Mile.  In the scene, Eminem’s character, deemed a “genius” by the DJ, chokes in a rap battle when he looks into the crowd and sees a majority of faces of color looking back at him.  The stereotype of White people not being good rappers creates added anxiety that negatively affects his performance.  

Relating stereotype threat to schools, high-performing marginalized students who enter classrooms that lack other students from their identity group can become “cued” that they do not belong in that certain class (or school in general).  This in turn can impede their performance as they have the added anxiety of not only performing well to represent themselves, but also based on feelings they have to represent their racial/ethnic/gendered/sexual group as a whole (in a recent interview on CBS Sunday Morning, actress Mindy Kaling discusses how this affected her as the only Indian woman writer on the show The Office).   

While critical mass can be beneficial to marginalized groups, these benefits can sometimes be hampered outside of environments that allow for such conditions. In her 2005 article, Tara Yosso explains many marginalized communities develop norms that are often not appreciated or transferred outside of their communities.  Because majority groups have the power to determine the norms of society that affect the definitions of rules for success (e.g., legally, socially, sexually, economically, etc.), the question becomes if individuals from marginalized groups are actually further marginalized if teachers and/or others do not supporting them in learning how to navigate within majority-normative systems. 

Such navigation has been called “code switching” and is as complicated as segregation.  On one hand, code switching does increase the probability that persons of color successfully navigate our White-dominated world to their benefit, but on the other hand, it suppresses their identities as people of color by once again allowing White perspectives to be normalized for success (here’s a great visual of code switching in action).  Moreover, because power in the US is often tied to socio-economic status, students who attend segregated schools in high-poverty areas can also be affected in ways even more detrimental to their health than outcomes related to stereotype threat. 

Growing up in areas where communities are ravaged by inequities related to government divestment of jobs and services can create elements of violence and instability that educational scholar Carol Lee described can affects student behavior in school, resulting in impeded academic performance. In other words, when students enter racially segregated schools in high-poverty environments, negative outcomes on their health, both physically and psychologically, can be exasperated, resulting in problematic outcomes related to academic achievement. These high-poverty neighborhoods can and should be understood in the historical context described above.  White families were provided far more federal support to be raised out of poverty, while Black families were the only ones to truly have to, as the adage goes, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Relating this back to DeKalb, it may be true that schools like Austin or Vanderlyn enroll students who perform better on tests, but parents have to go the next step and ask why that is. The history of communities across the nation shows us how race and class have always been intertwined in this country. Opportunities were provided for White communities that were off limits to communities of color. These discriminatory decisions still affect us today, with one outcome being populations of color relegated to impoverished urban contexts (although gentrification is changing this trajectory in favor of White families once again – a conversation that lies outside the scope of this essay!). These contexts have been shown to bring with them the sort of violence and instability Carol Lee describes as negatively affecting (emotionally and academically) families of students who live within them.

So, What Now?

To me, we have two choices in terms of increasing positive outcomes for groups who have been relegated to the margins within our public schools.  If we continue allowing the status quo of racial segregation, social norms have to shift to afford all groups the power and privilege to create their own definitions of and ways to obtain success, which is what Tara Yosso argues, without the need for code switching.  This doesn’t seem too likely.  Instead, another route is to continue to make people aware of the way school segregation occurs and try to keep middle-class families who hold specific types of social capital in racially diverse schools.  Moreover, integration should be understood from the perspectives of all those involved.

In terms of academic benefits, in a recent New York Times article, investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones shows that academic gaps between Black and Brown students and their White peers increases the longer each group attends racially segregated schools.  Taking students out of impoverished and racially homogenous schools and placing them in middle-class environments has a direct positive effect on students’ test scores.  Moreover, the connections these students make with the students and families from economically upwardly mobile groups can provide a support network for their future in terms of jobs and other opportunities.  As described in this report, White students also greatly benefit from learning new perspectives and have a lot to learn from their peers of color. 

My generation (born in 1986) is the first to come of age having both attended schools still implementing integration programs such as M-to-M and also attending schools after these programs were shuttered.  Because of M-to-M, the foundation of my school experience in Atlanta was multicultural, multiethnic, and racially diverse.  Such an experience provided me with a lens to understand the world in a more nuanced and critical way that I did not even appreciate until my mid-twenties.  If my friend takes the advice of her real-estate agent and chooses to buy a home in a neighborhood so her child can attend a “good” public school – my heart will break not only for her, but for my generation in general.

Jacob S. Bennett earned his PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Virginia, and is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University.