Segregated and Satisfied in the Southland?

Southern California is one of the world's most diverse, urbanized communities with people from every part of the globe, no racial majority, and a sense that it is way ahead of the rest of the country. Certainly it is in terms of a diversity of cultures, languages, music and cuisines, as well as the way its population foreshadows the transformation that is taking place now in the rest of the country.

In political terms, Southern California provided a large, progressive victory for the election of Barack Obama as president, and its first Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. Many places in Southern California pay homage to the region's Mexican origins. People tend to be proud and satisfied about the region's diversity and tend to think it is working out.

But there is a very different story. California is backwards in terms of racial and ethnic justice. The truth is that the civil rights revolution in the South never really arrived in Southern California, home to what is by far the nation's largest population of Latinos, the second largest Asian population and the West's largest population of African Americans. The South was forced to desegregate its schools and became the most integrated region of the country (in terms of schools) for more than a third of a century. But in Los Angeles, they changed the state constitution to block a desegregation plan. Southern California has subsequently done very little since the desegregation of Los Angeles was halted by that state proposition more than three decades ago. L.A. became the first major city in the nation to abandon mandatory desegregation after little more than a year of a limited order. Many nearby communities took no action as racial change and resegregation occurred.

The region has voted for four major anti-civil rights changes to the state constitution, one of which (forbidding fair housing enforcement) was overturned by the Warren Court in the l960s. However, those banning affirmative action, drastically limiting the state constitution's rights to desegregation, and prohibiting affirmative action in hiring and employment have been allowed to stand and limit rights enjoyed in the large majority of U.S. states.

About the time that the Latino population of the state was beginning to explode in the late l970s, a state tax limit, Proposition 13, began to dramatically cut support for what had been a leading state system of well-supported public schools. Since then, California's school system has deteriorated markedly. Between the l970s and the present, California has changed from a state where the average Latino student was enrolled in a substantially integrated school with a white majority to the most segregated state for Latino students, who are dramatically isolated from a rapidly declining but politically powerful white minority. African American students, though now accounting for only one-twelfth of the region's enrollment, are also highly segregated from whites and Asians (who perform better in schools than whites, on average, and are the most integrated population). Black students rarely attend all-black schools, favored by some desegregation critics, but more often enroll in largely Latino neighborhood schools where they are a declining minority in schools doubly disadvantaged by racial and socioeconomic isolation.

People can say sitting next to a white or Asian child makes no difference, but being in a middle-class school -- where most of the students head to college, experienced and expert teachers offer many college credit AP courses, your friends are fluent native English speakers, and colleges and employers seek out their well-prepared students -- actually makes a decisive difference in the educational and life opportunities afforded to students.

There is almost no public discussion of segregation in Southern California though the differences in schools and neighborhoods one or two freeway exits apart are often shocking. If one compares the outcomes in the "dropout factory" schools, where the major product is dropouts or students totally unprepared for college, with the kind of opportunities that exist in schools serving affluent communities, it seems they could be serving different countries. The fact that California's level of public funding for schools has become one of the worst in the U.S. makes the private resources more affluent communities can give their schools all the more important.

Two common reactions to the issue of school segregation typically blunt honest dialogue about its ongoing impact. The first is that desegregation was tried and it failed. It was actually tried far less in Southern California than in many other parts of the country that many Californians would consider less sophisticated. Further, there is increasingly compelling evidence that where desegregation was implemented seriously it succeeded in changing the lives of many students. (Though it certainly did not eliminate the entire achievement gap, much of which remains rooted in very unequal opportunity in the years before kindergarten -- and in homes and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty). The national achievement gap was at its low point in the period when desegregation was at its high point, though of course no one claims that desegregation was the only cause.

The other criticism involves the issue of white flight. Certainly there was white flight when desegregation plans were implemented, but it was often a temporary acceleration in a housing trend that dated back all the way to the emergence of post-war white suburbia. Ending desegregation or never having any desegregation plan (which is true of a great many Southern California communities) did not stop the decline in the percentage of whites in the schools, which is primarily linked to differential birth rates, age structures, spreading residential segregation, and both U.S. and international migration patterns. Experience in the U.S. South shows that desegregation was most stable and long-lasting in areas where it included both the city and the suburbs, exactly the suggestion to the Los Angeles court that precipitated the successful campaign to restrict desegregation rights in California's constitution. White flight has since accelerated in many communities with no desegregation plans, including large segments of what were the whitest communities in the region in the 1970s and 1980s. When racial change goes neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, first the white middle class exits, and then middle class families of any race often stop moving in. Tracking closely with housing patterns, school resegregation in these communities also accelerates.

Even if desegregation was a good idea, another argument goes, it is too late, since there are simply not enough whites to go around. Obviously it would have been much better if we had been serious about this issue during the civil rights era. If one thinks about making all the schools of Southern California majority white, it is obviously impossible at a time when the entire region has only one-fourth white students. More than a third of the students, however, are white and Asian, and many more are middle class. While all schools cannot become diverse by race, ethnicity and class, a great many could. There are means by which much more could be done through choice mechanisms, such as regional magnet schools. It would be considered absurd to say that because we can cure only a half or a third of patients of a serious disease, we should do nothing.

Segregation is an educational and social disease. Sometimes its impacts are ameliorated for a while in some places, but the broad relationship is clear and strong. Isolation by poverty, language and ethnicity threatens the future opportunities and mobility of students and communities excluded from competitive schools, and increasingly threatens the future of a society where young people are not learning how to live and work effectively across the deep lines of race and class in our region.

Critics say we should just put the money into equalizing the schools where they are and insist that they achieve. That has been California and the nation's basic policy for more than four decades. That is what Headstart, Title I, No Child Left Behind, and a variety of California reforms have tried to do. California adopted the full set of standards and accountability reforms pioneered in the South in the l970s, and then market-based reforms like charter schools in the l990s. We test teachers and students intensely and punish or exclude those who fall behind. Schools are threatened and sanctioned.

These efforts have failed, primarily because they do not equalize the factors that are most strongly related to student learning -- the peer groups of well-prepared and motivated students backed by communities with power to shape school opportunities, and the expert and experienced teachers who very strongly prefer to work with those students in those communities. We must, of course, try everything possible to make our highly stratified schools more equal, especially in terms of excellent teachers, but we also must think very hard about the failures of the past four decades, when virtually no effort has been made to give poor, nonwhite students access to good middle class schools. Integrationists favor a full range of strategies to help the many schools that will remain doubly and triply (race, poverty and language) segregated under any policy scenario at this point in our demographic transformation. But we're foolish not to try to accomplish something that works much better where it is possible.

Effective desegregation is only possible under some circumstances and it will not cure all the inequalities rooted in many aspects of life in our region, but it is reckless to think that we really know how to create and operate "separate but equal" schools on a large scale. That has never been done in the 115 years since Plessy v. Ferguson. The trend in the post-civil rights era has been to point to the rare "break the mold" schools with segregated enrollments and high scores and to ignore how odd it is that we celebrate the one school that succeeds in those terms, as if it shows that the 100 that do not will somehow be transformed. Obviously we should praise and support those unusual schools and their leaders but also recognize that the mold of segregation is a very strong and harsh one that is rarely broken.

Wherever we can, we should produce stably integrated schools in stably integrated communities. This will require serious collaboration between school and housing officials, the enforcement of fair housing law, and the strong commitment of local governments. Right now that means, for example, looking at the hundreds of racially changing suburbs in Southern California, creating schools diverse by race and class in gentrifying urban communities, and reviving and strengthening the magnet schools and integrated dual-language programs in our central cities. It means looking at the impact of our subsidized housing programs on the segregation and resegregation of communities and schools. It means trying to avoid the ghettoization and barrio creation processes, those that transformed many city neighborhoods from middle class to impoverished communities in a decade or less through the resegregation of housing and neighborhood schools. Communities that remain attractive to all and that offer all students the opportunity to prepare both for a good college and for the society in which they will live and work will have great advantages compared to those that do not. In Southern California, clearly those who learn how to operate fluently across social divisions will have a skill invaluable to individuals and essential for communities in the region's future.

I urge readers to set aside their assumptions and presuppositions as they read the stark statistics in a new report issued by the Civil Rights Project called "Divided We Fail: Segregated and Unequal Schools in the Southland," by two young scholars, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and John Kucsera. These statistics show the scale and the hard realities of the racial transformation and resegregation across Southern California. They show the relationship between those trends and opportunity for students. They show that we are isolating and giving inferior education to the groups that will dominate our region's future.

In race relations, people tend to ignore many signs of inequality as long as possible, until a crisis or a social movement or large community failure makes it explosively apparent. Often it is too late by then for a good solution. People then ask, "Why didn't anyone tell us?" These reports are telling you now.

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The preceding blog comes directly from the foreword of "Divided We Fail: Segregated and Unequal Schools in the Southland," which Gary Orfield contributed to. The report is a product of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.