What do you think when you hear the word “apartheid”?
For most folks, it evokes images of Nelson Mandela’s fight to integrate South Africa in the face of extreme racial segregation and brutal violence. Maybe it’s a word you associate with the past.
But segregation hasn’t gone away. Here we are in 2014, engaged in another struggle for racial equality. This time it’s more covert and just as sinister.
And the Supreme Court’s recent 6-2 ruling that upheld restrictions on affirmative action at the University of Michigan brings to light important questions for the future of diversity in American education.
Since 1990, state governments have dismantled integration laws spurred by the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The effects are clear in cities such as Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where resegregation has created “apartheid schools.”
These schools are public institutions with white populations of 1 percent or less. ProPublica found that the percentage of African-American students who attend apartheid schools has more than doubled from 25 percent to 53 percent since 1973.
As a student about to graduate from college and become a teacher in the increasingly segregated city of Chicago, I find this statistic shocking, especially in the context of America’s demographic reality. In 1970, over 80 percent of public school students were white. Now, only about half are white. While America’s schools became more segregated again, its children became far more diverse.
How is it possible that the Civil Rights movement’s significant achievements could be reversed in just a single generation?
The simple answer: legal precedents. The 1973 Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez laid the groundwork for apartheid schools. The court ruled that equal education isn’t a constitutionally protected right.
This ruling gave states the power to quarantine “low performance” through gerrymandering. Apparently, sequestering groups of poor children of color is their version of isolating “low performance.” A 2012 study by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis examined the effects of these rulings, finding that these districts’ white populations declined after they were freed from court orders.
And academic performance suffers when schools become less diverse. The UCLA Civil Rights Group found that integrated schools exhibit “higher performance on test scores, greater future earnings and improved health outcomes.” Interaction between different racial groups contributes to social development as well, especially in a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse.
Integrated schools prepare all students to participate in an integrated society. In segregated schools, racial isolation contributes to economic isolation, ultimately taking a toll on student performance. The Stanford researchers discovered that family income plays a significantly larger role in student achievement today than it did in the 1970s. Achievement gaps for a given level of income have increased up to 60 percent compared to the 1970s.
Students at apartheid schools must overcome more barriers than their counterparts in more integrated schools. “Separate but equal” never works. Isolating communities based on race forces them into different economic and social positions. U.S. educational inequality can’t be solved without integrated schools.
What’s next? By upholding Michigan’s affirmative action ban, the Supreme Court sent the wrong message to school districts nationwide. Here’s the real story: This type of legislation in higher education coupled with the resegregation of K-12 public school students will only lead to further division.
Jonathan Kozol, an education reform activist and author, is one of the leading critics of school resegregation.”It goes far beyond the question of academic concerns — it goes to the question of whether we are going to be one society or two,” he said in an interview with Salon.
His words foreshadow a divided dystopia eerily similar to America 60 years ago. The tapestry of American diversity is beginning to unravel. Segregation has never been a driver of equality, and until judges, lawmakers, and school systems acknowledge the value of integration, educational inequality will never be resolved.