In 2012, in her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, Condoleezza Rice talked about what life was like for her growing up in Birmingham, Alabama before and during desegregation. In it, she paints a very different picture from what is usually presented when you look into the history books. Condoleezza paints the picture of her life before desegregation as a middle class dream — complete with ballet class, music lessons, and charm school. She talks about a tight-knit Black community that was determined to make sure their children were well educated and prepared for a world that would be hostile towards them.
What’s often glanced over in history books is that many Black people opposed desegregation of schools. While most people’s view of the pro-segregationist is that of the White people we see in pictures, holding signs that say “Keep N—–s Out Of [Insert School Here],” there were many Black neighborhoods that weren’t eager to send their children off to school somewhere else.
A major downside to school integration is that it meant many schools in Black neighborhoods would be shut down. It seemed as if the majority of children being forced to move from one school to another were the Black students. In Tulsa, Oklahoma more Black students were being sent to predominantly White schools than White students were being sent to predominantly Black schools. This led to Carver Middle School being shut down for a year. As recently as 1997, well-performing but predominantly Black schools like Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky were in danger of being shut down because they didn’t have enough White students — due to geographic location — for the school to be considered properly integrated.
The experience of segregation wasn’t exactly the same from state to state after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and other laws desegregating public facilities, housing, private businesses, and more. In Los Angeles, California (as well as in many other Western and Northern states across the US) people of color — who were now free to live in any neighborhood they wanted — still preferred to live in neighborhoods largely populated by their own race, ethnicity or culture. Many Black people moved to the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, which, during the 60s and 70s, became the hub for African-Americans in the area.
This kind of segregation, known as de facto segregation, wasn’t illegal, but it meant that the schools in the Crenshaw district (and many others like it) had predominantly African-American students because the students living in those districts were predominantly African-American. It became the norm for school districts with this particular problem to employ busing as a means to desegregate these schools. Children in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles were bused out to the San Fernando Valley, at the time a majority-White area that was also a one hour bus trip each way for the children.
In 1981, the US Supreme Court halted the mandatory busing system stating that it was unconstitutional to enforce busing when the segregation in schools was unintentional — meaning it was based on where people chose to live, de facto segregation rather than de jure segregation.
In an article last year for Slate, Jamelle Bouie wrote that “school segregation doesn’t happen by accident; it flows inexorably from housing segregation.” In the article, he talks about the recent influx of school re-segregation and points out that, while the average student of color is more likely to attend a more diverse school, the average White student is still more likely to attend a school that is overwhelmingly White. So while integration has exposed more kids of color to White people, the majority of White children have very little exposure to children of color.
He also points out that the minority of Black children who are in schools that are majority-Black are usually in poverty-stricken areas, and the schools are understaffed and lacking resources. He posits that tackling poverty in these areas with an eye toward racism (i.e. preventing gentrification) could help improve the schools in these areas more than cumbersome integration.
In general, desegregation isn’t a bad thing, but the brunt of the discomfort of it shouldn’t be placed on people of color. When schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods are still not getting the resources they need, shutting them down isn’t a proper solution. Likewise, busing children of color to schools that are an hour away cuts into time that could be spent sleeping or studying.
While separate-but-equal schools isn’t a solution to the problem, forced integration often seems to only be inconveniencing children of color, specifically black children. This is the case currently in New Jersey where students in Newark recently held a sit-in to boycott being enrolled in schools that would be hard for many Black and Latino students to get to.
Attempts to bring more students of color to schools out of their own neighborhoods seems to cause a chain of events that include the closing the schools that are near them and White flights from the neighborhoods where they’re bused to — at least when there aren’t charter schools or private schools White people can enroll their children in.
It seems that a better solution would be to bring the needed resources to school in neighborhoods of color so that there isn’t a breaking up of the community and the support systems already in place. As long as de jure segregation has ended — and in some places it’s true that it basically never did end — the focus by courts and lawmakers should be on ensuring fair access to resources.