Are We Seeing Light at the End of the Re-Segregation Tunnel?

Are we seeing light at the end of the resegregation tunnel? The work of Nikole Hannah-Jones, Chana Joffe-Walt, Alana Semuels, and the scholars who help inform their journalism provides hope, as does the first episodes of David Simon's and Paul Haggis's new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero.

The genius of This American Life, for instance, is similar to that of Simon and Haggis, and together their work may contribute to a critical mass of Americans rethinking our benign neglect attitude toward segregation. Like HBO, NPR portrays individuals in a way that makes children's and parents' emotions and voices come alive.

As we study a wave of carefully-honed analyses of integration's potential to improve schools and our entire lives, we should pay special attention to the beginning of The Problem We All Live With Part Two. High School freshman Kiana Jackson "is a kid who frequently scans the room for a more exciting option than what is right in front of her," Joffe-Walt reports. So, "of course," this is how Kiana reacted when she saw a bunch of white kids who she knew for sure did not go to her school:

And we're like, there's no white kids in our school. And then like, I'm a really social person. So I see these kids and I was like, OK, they do not go here. What are they doing here? I want to find out.

Similarly, the Atlantic Magazine's Alana Semuels, in The City That Believed in Desegregation, adds to the work of Sarah Garland, who documented what went right with integration in Louisville, Kentucky. At first, white resistance was intense, but as Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reminds us, "Many of the residents' fears failed to materialize, and after a few years the protests ceased." He describes the driver of success, "people are amazed to discover that people from another race or ethnic group are actually pretty similar to them."

Orfield further explains why Louisville was right to stay the course, "One of the reasons white people leave central cities is because schools become segregated before neighborhoods do. ... White families stop buying in certain areas where the schools become all poor and non-white."

On the other hand, Failure Factories, by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner, and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times, documents the tragedy of resegregation in Pinellas County, Fl. Fitzpatrick, Gartner, and LaForgia explain that desegregation efforts "were working -- black students were posting steady gains on standardized tests," but "many parents bridled at the tools of integration." They "complained about the inconvenience and the high cost of busing and special programs."

The team of reporters "spent a year reviewing tens of thousands of pages of district documents, analyzing millions of computer records and interviewing parents of more than 100 current and former students." They document the Pinellas record:

First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black.

Then they broke promises of more money and resources.

Then -- as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse -- the board stood by and did nothing.

In other words, the rollback of successful integration programs from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., to Ferguson, Mo., to Pinellas County shows that we have not transcended the fear and the racism that prompted the horrific scenes in HBO's account (based on the work of Lisa Belkin) of the fight over housing segregation in Yonkers, N.Y.

These extremes of successes and failures -- as inspiring and as disgusting as they are -- only make up a small part of the story of resegregation today. The increased sorting of the poorest children of color into the most brutal schools is in large part the unintended result of choice-driven school reform, which put resegregation on steroids.

I must be clear in distinguishing between the motives of output-driven, competition-driven reformers, and the overt racism and self-interest that explains other attacks on integration. Reformers sought to help poor children of color who were stuck in dysfunctional schools. If anything, they adopted the accountability-driven model of school improvement because the resistance to desegregation seemed so implacable.

I think reformers were wrong, and if they had not been in such a hurry and had they thought through their model of school improvement, they would have realized that it was doomed from the start. In their rush to reject old-fashioned liberalism, progressivism, and incrementalism, they dismissed the damage that will always be done by segregation as they placed their bets on a new market-driven gamble.

One reason why reformers saw an increase in segregation as a necessary evil is that their model required schools where everybody, students and educators, were "on the same page." The only way that the solution for generational poverty could be found within the four walls of the classroom, it was assumed, was to create education monocultures where teachers and families all bought into the same test, sort, reward, and punish model. Reform thus accelerated the "Big Sort," where choice allowed everyone to segregate themselves according to their own preferences.

In my experience, school reform created such intense concentrations of kids from generational poverty who had endured so much trauma that it was inevitable that an unconscionable number of kids would be robbed of an education, but that was not the intent of reformers. So, I'm hoping that new scholarship, journalism, and drama will drive home the inherent inhumanity of segregation. I hope we will reject the resegregation of Pinellas County and St. Louis County because it is just common decency to do so. I hope we will also understand that re-segegation in the name of choice and competition is also awful, and we all will reject it.