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An Era of Segregated Schools (And No I’m Not Talking About the 50s)

A few weeks ago I was volunteering in a third grade classroom that I go about three times a week. The students were starting a “biography project,” in which in small groups they picked a famous or important person, did research, and then wrote a biography on them. I was helping a group research Ruby Bridges by reading a picture book to them on her life and explaining the big words like “segregation.”

Midway through one of the third graders stopped to ask me a question: “Are there still Black-only schools?” I didn’t know how to respond. I made up a bad response about how because of the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education, it’s now illegal to not allow a child to go to a school because of the way they look. Even as I responded I knew I was lying to this girl. I was thinking about the schools that were made up of only white children and the schools that were made up of only children of color.

At the end of the project, they talked about how all children now have access to good schools because of Ruby Bridges’s bravery. I remembered how, when I was their age and was learning about segregation, I had the same thoughts. I’m not sure if I should have been more upfront with these kids about the reality of the education system. I felt complacent in what has been going on America for so long. I felt that by not telling them the whole truth, I was preventing future action as I was leading these children to think (like I did when I was younger) that the education system in America is fair. I think I need to talk about it, and should talk about it, because integration is the one reform America seems to have given up on.

I should have started by explaining redlining. Redlining started in the 1930s when the government-sponsored Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created maps of America, color-coding areas in red where there was large minority community. This was in order to decide which areas were worthy of mortgage lending. Although in the 1968 redlining was found to be illegal by the Fair Housing Act, it still has huge implications today. Not only does it still continue to happen, which is seen when qualified loan applicants are denied loans when they live in predominantly minority areas, but it also has big implications to a family’s socio-economic status. If a family was denied a mortgage in the 1930s it’s likely harder for them to have gained family wealth, making it harder for their children to gain wealth, making it harder for their grandchildren to become homeowners today.

So, how does this affect schooling today?  First, it gives people less incentive to move into redlined areas and school districts. People are always talking about moving into communities where there are good schools, and redlining has de-incentivized people to move into these areas. This creates areas where only minorities live because white families, who have remained unharmed from any implication of redlining, will not move into these areas. This has created what can now be seen as white neighborhoods vs. black neighborhoods, and where the schools are either made up of white children or children of color.

Redlining also decreased economic investment, so property taxes went down. The problem with this is that property tax is how public schools get the largest amount of funding. The decrease of property tax made school funding become and remain low, meaning that schools in redlined areas are always underfunded.

From this, it could look like economics has been the deciding factor on why there are “Black schools” and “White schools,” and that racism still does not play its part today. But that could not be further from the truth.

In a recent podcast, This American Life discusses the Normandy School District in Missouri, a school district that is failing. It is almost completely made up of Black students. The podcast tells the story of a girl name Mariah, a star student, who was unhappy with the school district. She tried to transfer to an almost completely white school district, but since she did not live in the district, she was told she would have to pay to go to the school, something that was not possible for her family. However, Mariah’s school lost accreditation, and according to Missouri law if your school is not accredited you’re allowed to go to a school outside your district, without having to pay the normal fee. Mariah quickly got excited to transfer into her new school, but the parents in the white district were not so happy. Much like in the case of Ruby Bridges, the parents in this new school district banned together to protest the “soiling of their school.” The parents thinly disguised their racism by saying they were afraid that new students would be violent and that the school’s test scores would be lowered.

This is a story that could have been told in the late 50s or early 60s. But we are telling today. Segregation is still alive.

I still question how I should have really responded to that third grader. I was conflicted because on one hand I knew that she was still trying to the grasp the idea of racism and segregation, but on the other hand I know I lied to her. It’s a lie that is so nice that we feed it to ourselves every day. A lie that has made us give up on true integration.  


Resources: This American Life, Huffington Post, Washington Post

Image Credit: Wikimedia (Norman Rockwell), Black Past

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