In a recent This American Life episode, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses the perils of America’s segregated school system. She points out that there has been only one proven way to narrow the performance gap between African-American and white schoolchildren, and it has nothing to do with magnet schools, or Teach for America, or any of the newfangled efforts to right a wrong system. The only strategy that has shown demonstrable success in the last half century has been: desegregation.
Between 1971 and 1988, the gap between the standardized reading scores of black and white 13-year-olds dropped by more than half. “And these scores are not just the scores of the specific kids who got bussed into white schools,” notes host Ira Glass. “That is the overall score for the entire country. That’s all black children in America, halved in just 17 years.”
The reason is quite simple. “What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids,” Hannah-Jones remarks. “And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction.”
Court-ordered desegregation has not completely ended. Just this summer, a U.S. District Court ruled that a school district in Mississippi integrate its schools — 50 years after the filing of the first legal action. For the most part, however, this kind of legal intervention is a thing of the past, particularly after the Supreme Court decided in 1991 that desegregation was never intended to be permanent, thus letting school districts off the hook.
As a result, inequality has sharpened. In a 2005 Nation article, Harvard’s Gary Orfield told Jonathan Kozol that “the desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has receded to levels not seen in three decades.” According to a more recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the number of students attending highly impoverished schools with mostly black or Hispanic students doubled between 2000 and 2014. Moreover, across the nation “the typical black student is now in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39%, respectively),” the Civil Rights Project reported in 2012.
The failure here is not one of ideas or policies. We’ve known for half a century what works to end educational apartheid in the United States. The failure is political. Our elected representatives are not willing to take the necessary political risks to implement a program that works but encounters resistance among some (white) people.
When I travelled throughout Eastern Europe a couple years ago, I encountered nearly the same educational apartheid. Nearly half of all Roma children attend segregated schools in Hungary. In Slovakia, school districts are gerrymandered to keep Roma children separate, and where that’s been impossible, administrators separate out Roma by floor within schools. In Romania and Bulgaria, many Roma children don’t receive any education at all. I spoke with Roma activists who have tried to challenge these inequalities legally and politically. Some organizations relocate a handful of Roma children to better schools. Virtually everyone recognizes that government-directed desegregation is the only viable, long-term solution. Anti-Roma prejudice, however, is even more endemic in the region than racism in the United States (no one I talked to could even imagine a Roma president, for instance). Very few non-Roma politicians in Eastern Europe are willing to stand up for Roma and for what is right.
Not all integration works the same way as desegregation in pushing everyone to meet higher standards. The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, integrates the economies of three countries, but in a way that fails to lift the labor or environmental standards, not to mention the GDP, of Mexico to the level of Canada. As Donald Trump is also proving every day, one can unite people by appealing to their worst instincts rather than their best.
If the failure of integration were limited to the educational sphere, perhaps enough political will could be mustered to overcome fear, prejudice, and just plain inertia to reduce institutional racism. But what if not enough people believe any longer in bridging large gaps in wealth, performance, and achievement through collective action? Perhaps the entire enterprise of integration, a cornerstone of the progressive agenda, has simply collapsed.
The Seductions of Inequality
It’s intriguing that school integration reached its high point in the late 1980s and declined after a 1991 Supreme Court decision. The timing coincides with three other notable failures of integration: the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia in rapid succession. It was easy enough to blame communism for the failure of these multiethnic states to cohere after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the inability to maintain integrated states was only tangentially related to Marxism. Both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia existed as multinational states prior to communism, and much of what became the Soviet Union had been unified under the tsars.
The two primary causes of disintegration were nationalism (the assertion of a separate identity from the more encompassing multiethnic one) and resentment (that the resources of the state were unevenly divided among the subnational entities). Slovaks felt that they were getting a raw deal from the new democratic government in Prague; Slovenes and Croats felt that Serbs were disproportionately represented in the federal authorities and were unhappy with the flow of funds to underdeveloped regions to the south; Ukrainians, Georgians, and Armenians bristled at the way the Kremlin dictated policy. Anger at “their” economic and political policies dovetailed with the nationalist call to assert “our” control instead.
These suspicions of misdirected funds and the arrogance of the “imperial” metropole have reappeared in a new guise in the current Euroskepticism sweeping through Europe. In countries that once complained of Moscow, you now hear complaints about Brussels. And the anger at “lazy” Kosovars or Bosnians during the days of Yugoslavia has become anger at “lazy” Greeks.
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The European Union was once the greatest example of “harmonizing up.” The EU was committed to bringing its poorest members up to the level of the richest. Nor could the poorer countries take a shortcut by establishing lower environmental or labor regulations to attract polluting, sweatshop industries. Integration meant a step forward for everyone.
But this process butted up against a much more powerful force moving in the opposite direction: globalization. At first glance, globalization would seem to be the greatest of all integration projects. The increased flow of trade around the world means that Mongolians are more likely to watch Korean soap operas, Germans more likely to listen to Brazilian pop music, Americans more likely to enjoy authentic Moroccan food. But this cultural intermixing is superficial. For more often than not, globalization results in the dominance of market leaders (Hollywood films, Chinese textiles). Moreover, for the most part, globalization pushes countries to compete with one another by gutting regulations and standards in a race to the bottom.
The EU doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the deference it pays to the financial sector, the pressures of free-trade agreements, and the demands of sovereignty, the EU has begun to tolerate much greater gaps in wealth than it would have done in the past. Strict budgetary constraints now make it more difficult for individual governments to pour money into job retraining programs or infrastructure development that could mitigate income inequality. Integration has become a step forward for some, stagnation for many more.
Another striking example of this declining commitment to integration can be found in the campaign against “multiculturalism” in Europe. At the top, leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron have declared that “multiculturalism” has failed because large numbers of new immigrants have not acculturated into the dominant society. In Foreign Affairs, Kenan Malik has penned a couple essays on how “multiculturalism” has departed from liberal principles of individual civil liberties — and treating everyone as equal citizens — in favor of collective rights that emphasize difference rather than commonality. And right-wing populist groups have denounced the “multicultural” policies that have turned France or Germany or the Netherlands into pluralist societies that no longer resemble the imagined homogenous countries of old.
In all these cases, the critics have bundled together all the things they don’t like about the changing demographics of their societies and slapped the label “multiculturalism” on it. Thus, multiculturalists are to be blamed for the persistence of honor killings, female circumcision, terrorism by Islamic extremists, rioting in “no-go” zones, and the like. However, this explanation fails to take into account that such deplorable behaviors take place in countries like France, which require assimilation into a dominant civic culture, and the UK, which has generally favored a more laissez-faire, patchwork approach.
Ultimately, the issue has nothing to do with a clash of cultures, any more than the difference in test scores between whites and blacks in the United States can be attributed to cultural (read: racial) differences. When people have access to the same resources, they perform at the same level. In Europe, when people have access to the same education, housing, and jobs, they similarly perform at the same level (i.e., as responsible citizens). Sure, there are outliers, just as there are plenty of middle-class, non-immigrant French or Germans who commit crimes or behave abominably. But when Denmark makes a big show of cutting social benefits to immigrants by 45 percent, it reveals the erosion of the belief that integration at the level of resources can eliminate disparity in results.
The backlash against the current wave of refugees coming from Syria can’t be understood outside of this context of disappointment with efforts to integrate immigrants who arrived in the past. The same holds true in the United States, where fears of Syrian terrorists hiding among the refugees intersects with rhetoric about Mexico “not sending their best” and the necessity of Americans to speak English all the time.
The EU’s motto is “united in diversity.” The EU is bold in insisting that unity doesn’t depend on assimilation and forced homogenization, and that diversity, meanwhile, does not necessarily lead to fragmentation. That is the ideal of integration. And it no longer seems to command the same respect that it once did. Inequality has become an accepted state of affairs among an increasing number of people who either benefit from the status quo or hope to do so some day.
The Powerlessness of Ideas Alone
Washington think tanks expend enormous energy — and resources — in coming up with ideas that will solve the problems of the day. But as the case of desegregation of schools demonstrates — in the United States, in Eastern Europe — the problem is not a lack of ideas. We know what works. We simply lack the political will.
Nor does political will appear magically when the right person in the right place suddenly, through some mysterious process, has a conversion experience. That rarely happens. Political will usually appears as a result of pressure from the outside that changes minds on the inside. Lyndon Johnson was by no means the likeliest candidate to usher through civil rights legislation. He was a thoroughgoing racist who opposed civil rights for two decades. But he was also an astute politician who bent to the winds of change. The civil rights movement’s achievements were the offspring of collective pressure and political opportunism.
We face other realms of policy where we know what works but can’t muster the political will to make the necessary change. Cutting carbon emissions and switching to renewables is the obvious way to avoid burning the planet to a crisp. Ending the embargo on Cuba will help pull the island out of its economic doldrums and accelerate political reforms. As with desegregation, however, significant obstacles loom in both cases, whether it’s major corporations that profit from fossil fuels or a right-wing Congress committed to fossilized ideologies. Overcoming those obstacles requires political will that in turn requires social movements.
But those social movements also need a unifying belief. Building a fair and equal multiethnic society requires a belief that disparate communities can be brought together for a common goal without one community absorbing the other or both communities tearing each other apart. From desegregation to the European Union to societies that welcome and cherish immigrants, a belief in the power of integration is essential. Yet in today’s fragmenting world, many people are losing faith.