Southern Schools Once The Most Integrated In U.S. Says Researcher

Oct 2, 2017

Erica Frankenburg
Credit Penn State University

On their 60th anniversary return to Central High School last week, the  Little Rock Nine — the nine students who desegregated Central in 1957 — called for continued efforts toward integration in education.

Arkansas Public Media spoke with professor Erica Frankenberg of Penn State University about her study on the re-segregation of the South.

Has there been a period in American history when Southern schools were more integrated than Northern schools, and if so, why?

Yes, that is the case. And in fact, for a long period of our recent history, from about 1970 until a few years ago, at least, when we look for black and white students, black and white students were exposed to more students of another race than any other region of the country. Which is a point I often like to make when I speak to Northern audiences in particular.

I think it’s really instructive to see, in fact, that the South did have laws mandating segregation prior to 1954 and struggled for about the first 10 to 15 years after the Brown decision [Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the Supreme Court ruled school segregation impermissible] to comply with that. They [the South] quickly went to being the most integrated region in the country because of three factors.

First we had the federal courts, and while it took a while for the federal courts to understand exactly what Brown meant, in terms of what school districts were required to do, there was oversight in virtually most of our largest school districts and certainly those that had a substantial black population at that time. So you had courts requiring school districts to do more in terms of integrating students.

Second, which really helped the federal compliance, you had had federal laws in the 1960s, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA, it’s now been re-authorized as ESSA [not to be confused with another education acronym, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind], and that was the first really big, massive infusion of federal money into education. But it was contingent on whether school districts were in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which required districts to not be racially discriminating. And so that infusion of money, I think it was like $5 billion, was an incredible amount of money that was particularly needed in Southern districts, and so the office of Civil Rights and what is now the Department of Health, but formerly was the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, monitored whether school districts were in compliance, and they established guidelines that paralleled federal courts understanding of what was required. So that carrot and stick helped to dramatically shift desegregation in the South.

But the third thing that I wanted to really highlight, which maybe isn’t as obvious a point, is the structure of school districts in the South. In many areas of the South, but certainly not everywhere, we had county-wide school districts. And so that has had a surprisingly long-lasting effect in that you had both black students and also white students often contained within the same school district, which gives you very different opportunities for constructing school desegregation than if they are walled off into separate school districts.

Some generations of Americans were educated in relatively integrated public schools. When was that, and why didn’t it stick?

You know, actually, I think I am the example of the generation that experienced the most integrated schools. I grew up in Alabama. I was in elementary school during the late 1980’s when there was sort of the maximum interracial exposure for black and white students in the South and really across the county. We’ve been declining really since the late 1980’s.

And so there were students across the South who had fairly substantial exposure across black and white lines. Since then we have been declining, in particular I would see a couple of different trends. First, we see Supreme Court decisions beginning in the early 1990’s that dramatically relaxed what school districts were required to do, in terms of being compliant with school desegregation orders, and so a lot of districts have come out from under the court orders, and there’s been research showing that leads to re-segregation.

Two, we see a dramatic growth of school choice. School choice can be used in ways to both further or work against school integration and certainly the rise of, for example, charters schools in places, including in the South, has spurred an increase in segregation. And then, you know, I think we just more generally have gotten to a point where we think we have solved the problems of race and segregation, and so there is not as much attention. And, in fact, we’re now in a climate where a decade ago, the Supreme Court eliminated some of the most popular voluntary ways in which school districts could try to integrate schools. And so, taken together, both legal, certainly in terms of policy, but also this political understanding have all combined to create a re-segregation that’s been going on now for almost 30 years.

In your report, you say that some communities have voluntarily pursued integration in spite of these regional trends. How have they successfully done that?

One of the examples I like to highlight is Louisville, Kentucky. They have used the different neighborhood data from the census to design this multi-factor system, so they take into account both the racial composition and the economic composition of the small neighborhoods you live in using census data, and they assign everyone a diversity code. So if you live in more disadvantaged ones you’re a one, if you live in the most advantaged ones based again on SES you’re a three.They’re trying to get a mixture of one, two, and three kids from every school.

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to get a mix of race, but what happens, because, again, we have high residential segregation in many communities that it also helps to create racially and economically diverse schools. So there are some districts that are using some really creative ways of trying to figure out what will be effective in their local community given what we know from research and also local conditions as well.

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