Education has been long considered integral to the social health of most nation-states. Despite this regard for its importance, particularly with respect to the frequent promise of education as a “great equalizer,” schooling has often been used by dominant groups to engage larger systems of oppression. Indeed, the long and pervasive histories of school segregation that characterize many nations remain glaring proof of such inequities in educational justice.
In apartheid South Africa, school segregation was used as one government-directed means to perpetuate racial inequality. The Bantu Education Act of 1953, which gave the state control of all schools, was one of many legislative acts that sought to remove and restrict the lives of non-whites in every possible sphere of life. While schooling for black Africans dramatically expanded under apartheid, this seemingly paradoxical effect was driven by the survival need of the white Afrikaner regime to acculturate the majority black population to the ideological beliefs undergirding apartheid segregation, as well as to limited job horizons, in an effort to both protect white skilled labor from African competition and provide masses of unskilled labor for growing white industry. As Nelson Mandela recounted in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994), this form of education amounted to “intellectual ‘ basskap ’ (domination), a way of institutionalizing inferiority” (p. 145).
Aside from its ideological destructiveness, the segregated schooling imposed through Bantu Education was characterized by a highly inequitable distribution of resources leading to overcrowding, poor facilities, and low-grade teachers. The inequitable conditions institutionalized through Bantu Education would eventually backfire on the Afrikaner regime, as black youth entering their late teens and early twenties “rose up with a vehemence,” most notably during the Soweto student uprising of 1976 (Mandela 1994, p. 148).
Tracing the historical progression of school segregation in the United States provides another striking example of the way education becomes incorporated into a system of oppression. In 2002 Peter Irons verified that never has there been a year in U.S. history when even half the country’s black children attended schools where a majority of children was white. However, school segregation in the United States exists as but one part of a centuries-old, interconnected system of racial oppression. As Joe Feagin has documented, the white male founders who drafted the U.S. Constitution built into the country’s foundation mechanisms designed to maintain African American enslavement. Eight decades would pass before these enslavement mechanisms were removed. Following a short Reconstruction era in the South, during which time public educational opportunities were finally extended to newly freed black Americans (as well as poor whites), the southern white elite, predominantly former slaveholders returning to power, quickly imposed extreme racial segregation as a new form of domination.
In the post-Reconstruction era, African Americans in the North were not exempt from the effects of a broadening racial segregation. There the daily life of black Americans was impacted by an informal de facto segregation, which affected black children’s education as well.
Throughout the South, however, where the majority of African Americans lived, segregation became a deeply entrenched way of life, endorsed by law and culture. Legal segregation, called Jim Crow, was a totalitarian system of government-buttressed control that extended to virtually every facet of life. Under the system of legal segregation African Americans faced not only large-scale discrimination by whites in the economy but also met severe restrictions in access to education, housing, political participation, churches, health care, and public accommodations. Indeed, the hand of overt segregation was undergirded by the constant threat of white violence and extended to every corner of lived existence for African Americans, limiting even the cemeteries where one could be interred.
Nowhere was the existence of legal segregation more rampant than in U.S. school systems. With few exceptions, public and private educational institutions—from nursery schools to universities—were segregated in the South. Segregation in schools, as in other institutions, was legally protected, indeed required, by court decisions, climaxing most significantly in Plessy v. Ferguson. This 1896 Supreme Court decision upheld the legal mandate for segregated public accommodations and set the infamous “separate but equal” legal precedent. This separate-but-equal standard was a backhanded way to seemingly satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause while paving the way for segregated schooling that ended up being far from “equal” for African Americans.
In practice, southern state and local governments disregarded the education of black youth. As Paul Finkelman stressed, “the disparity in public expenditures guaranteed that blacks would have inferior educational facilities” (2004, p. 45). In 2004 Richard Kluger documented how such disparities operated during legal segregation, with the case of Clarendon County, South Carolina. In 1949 that county government paid $179 per white pupil, while spending only $43 per black pupil there. In this same year the county’s 2,375 white children went to twelve different schools, valued at $673,850 (an average value of $56,154 per building); the county’s 6,351 black students were dispersed over 61 schools, collectively valued at $194,575 (an average value of $3,190 per building). Many schools were dilapidated, lacking modern heating or indoor plumbing. The racial disparity in spending meant significantly larger class sizes for black students and poorer pay for black principals, supervisors, and teachers. These material inequities served to support the supremacist doctrine that whites intended to communicate through segregation’s practice: Whites and blacks are not simply different; whites are superior.
Significantly, black parents and activists have engaged in long struggles for adequate and desegregated schooling since the mid-nineteenth century. They frequently met extreme resistance and were largely legally stifled in their efforts until the period from 1930 to 1950, when successful court cases (most brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], founded in 1909) laid the legal foundation for what Finkelman referred to as “the watershed decision of the twentieth century” (2004, p. 35), Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As Feagin and Bernice McNair Barnett noted in 2004, the Supreme Court decision in Brown effectively dethroned the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of separate-but-equal that had defined the law, striking down segregation in schooling with the following declaration by the justices: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Brown was a landmark decision because it was interpreted by numerous judges as a mandate to dismantle state-created segregation in all major institutions, and recognized African Americans as first-class citizens. As T. Alexander Aleinikoff maintained, in Brown “Segregation in the public schools is condemned for producing second-class citizenship for African-Americans both because it imposed a stigma on them (as persons not fit to go to school with whites) and because it did not adequately prepare them to be effective citizens” (2002, p. 40).
The reaction to Brown by the southern white elite and public ran from general hostility to massive resistance, and few schools were actually desegregated for more than a decade. One of the primary reasons for the failure was the weakness of the 1955 companion case, Brown v. Board of Education (Brown II), which vaguely stipulated that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” White leaders, including President Dwight Eisenhower, failed to back the Court’s decrees with federal authority. Additionally, some state governments passed laws in an attempt to “bypass” the decrees, for example, by issuing grants or tax credits to white families to send their children to segregated private schools, where Brown ’s reach did not extend. Not until the late 1960s did the Supreme Court and other federal courts finally force meaningful school desegregation in the South.
Studies examining African American academic achievement document the substantial benefits of desegregated schooling for children of color. Reviewing desegregation’s impact, in 2004 Janet Ward Schofield and Leslie R. M. Hausmann found desegregation positively impacted high school graduation rates and black academic achievement. The impact extends beyond primary and secondary schooling, such that African Americans attending integrated schools are more likely to attend college, entertain higher occupational aspirations, gain access to beneficial networks, and acquire better jobs. It is important to note, however, that such positive outcomes are less influenced by the actual racial heterogeneity of desegregated schools than they are by the typically better educational infrastructure that exists in such schools, for example, in terms of resources. In other words, the great crisis of segregated education has not been that children of color cannot be well educated aside other children of color, but rather that segregated educational institutions have been and most often continue to be, as Brown reminds, “inherently unequal.”
A number of scholars and civil rights advocates have argued for the importance of integrated education, particularly as a way to reduce racial isolation. Participating in diverse educational communities, all students become better prepared to live, learn, work, and participate democratically in an increasingly multiracial world. Additionally, school desegregation creates opportunities to break down stereotypes as students associate with those unlike themselves. Individuals who attended desegregated schools are more likely to live and work in integrated settings, weakening overall racial isolation.
Despite significant progress, by the late 1970s many white liberals began backtracking in their commitment to desegregate U.S. schools. By the 1980s, such backtracking was widespread, primarily as a result of new conservative presidential administrations and courts. Through the 1990s courts allowed many school systems to abandon desegregation plans. Notably, Supreme Court decisions in Board of Education v. Dowell (1991), Freeman v. Pitts (1992), and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) proved damaging to long-term desegregation, ending federal segregation orders before lasting success could be demonstrated in the interest of returning schools to local white control. In 2004, Lia B. Epperson identified the fault of this local-rights approach, arguing that “It is a standard that treats whites and blacks as if they were similarly situated and ignores the history of segregation and its vestiges.… This very form of local control allowed segregation to flourish in the era before Brown, and has done so again in the decade since these decisions” (2004, p. 140).
As Jonathan Kozol attested in 2005, retreat in desegregation has allowed for the persistence of already segregated schools, as well as the rapidly growing resegregation of schools that had been integrated. The Harvard Civil Rights Project reported in 2003 that three-fourths of black and Latino students attended predominantly minority schools, and more than 2 million attended “apartheid schools” where 99 to 100 percent of students were not white. As during legal segregation, racial disparities in per-pupil spending remain extreme.
Even within schools integrated at the facility level, a type of “second-generation segregation” is often imposed through the racially correlated allocation of educational opportunities. For instance, many scholars argue that ability tracking (a practice instituted soon after the Brown decision) has led to the emergence of what economist William Darity Jr. refers to as “segregated curriculums.” Beginning as early as elementary school, tracking frequently creates an internal racial segregation, as students of color are disproportionately assigned to lower academic tracks and are relatively absent from accelerated tracks (e.g., “gifted” or honors programs). In 2002 Terence Fitzgerald additionally uncovered categorical labeling practices whereby African American students were disproportionately assigned to special education and/or behavioral disordered categories, as well as more frequently expelled or placed in alternative school settings. The effects of such racially stratified practices have far reaching consequences, initiating a discriminatory cycle of restricted educational opportunities for students of color that leads to inferior learning opportunities, diminished school achievement, oppositional responses, and exacerbated racial disparities in school.
As the increasing prevalence of resegregation and second-generation segregation displays, and as Feagin and Barnett urge, efforts to end racial segregation require “constant renewal, for established arrangements of centuries have a strong social inertia” (2004, p. 1104). Beyond the U.S. and South African legacies, school segregation targeting ethnic or cultural minorities has been documented in many other nations, including England, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bosnia, and Croatia. Only with continued resistance to the de facto segregation of schools around the globe, acknowledgement of the benefits of integrated education for all, and renewed commitment to actions that will ensure more equitable, integrated societies, can the promise of education be fulfilled.
SEE ALSO Education; Resegregation of Schools; Tracking in Schools
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Jennifer C. Mueller
Joe R. Feagin