Fifty years ago today, James Meredith made his way across the University of Mississippi campus through mobs of enraged whites threatening to burn him alive. His offense? Daring to enroll at the historically white institution. Although almost a decade had passed since the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation, public universities across the deep south remained all white. Then-governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett was determined to keep the status quo, but he wasn't counting on Meredith, a 29-year-old black Air Force veteran, who was just as determined to seize his Constitutional rights and enroll at Ole Miss. He was repeatedly rejected until a court order forced the school to admit him. On October 1, 1962, Meredith entered the campus, accompanied by U.S. Marshals. Before that day was over, it would take hundreds of marshals and an entire Army Combat Battalion to repel the violent mob of segregationists who rioted to block his enrollment.
In his memoir, A Mission from God, Meredith recounts the thousands of death threats pouring in from across the country with gruesomedetails of how he was to die. About the day of his enrollment Meredith writes, "Rocks start flying in my direction, the screaming intensifies, and the crowd surges closer...." But Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss and despite daily harassment, he graduated in 1963 with a bachelor's degree in political science.
Sadly, the integration that Meredith and so many others risked their lives for still does not exist in schools in the United States. Recent reports by the U.S. Department of Education and UCLA's Civil Rights Project describe alarming segregation levels for both Latina/o and black students nationally, with most attending schools that are majority non-white and almost 40% of both groups attending schools that are more than 90% non-white. Most experience "double segregation" -- attending schools that are segregated by race and class. While most white children, even poor white children, don't attend high-poverty schools, most black and brown children, even middle-class ones, do. And high-poverty schools almost always lag behind in measures of resources and success -- they have less experienced and qualified teachers, more decrepit buildings, less access to technology and advanced curricula, and few or outdated textbooks.
Beyond this lies a more obscured truth: Even "desegregated," schools are typically not truly integrated. Manifesting what social scientists call "second-generation segregation," these schools are resegregated internally through ability grouping or tracking. In the post-Brown v. Board of Ed era, tracking has become what UNC sociologist Karolyn Tyson describes in her book Integration Interrupted as a "legally permissible way to separate students by race." And tracking matters.
Decades of research has found vast differences in the quality of education in high and low tracks and shows that poor and minority students are placed disproportionately in the bottom groups or lower tracks. Racial disparities in tracking exist in at least in three ways: Predominantly minority schools have fewer high track classes; racially mixed schools have lots of second-generation segregation, with blacks and Latinos underrepresented in high tracks and overrepresented in low and vocational tracks; and "high track" classes at poor schools are likely to be less rigorous and have less-qualified teacher than those same classes at non-poor schools.
Such findings have led the non-partisan National Research Council to call for the end of tracking in high schools. All of these patterns reinforce the widely reported racial achievement gaps.
Is this the desegregation Meredith fought for?
Some might say that such ability grouping is educationally beneficial -- necessary to address the needs of students with different skill levels. This belief stems in part from the widespread assumption today that track placements reflect real differences in ability. High-track classes, so the thinking goes, are for the best and smartest children. Mounting evidence tells us that even bright children of color are often not enrolled in these higher tracks. In just one study from research in North Carolina, sociologist Roslyn Mickelson found that 72% of white students scoring in the top 10% on the California Achievement Test were placed in top tracks while only 19% of top-scoring blacks were.
Some would argue that while there are some unfortunate consequences of tracking for racial equity, the benefits of homogenous grouping to all (teachers and students) outweigh the costs. The benefits of being in a high-track class to those placed there, however, comes not from the grouping of those with "like" ability but from the enhanced curriculum, special resources and supports in high-track classes. Everyone, regardless of prior achievement, benefits from the placement. And it is hard to find anyone who advocates enrolling in low-track classes because of the educational benefits of grouping those with lesser skills.
Debates abound today among educators and the civil rights community about what to do about racial inequality in education: The courts have largely abandoned deliberate desegregation efforts, white families continue to largely avoid schools with more than nominal minority representation, and obtaining legal remedies for racially discriminatory practices within desegregated schools remains very difficult. Shockingly, some have argued for abandoning the struggle for integration and instead fighting for equal if separate schools.
A small but growing number of courageous teachers, principles and superintendents have begun to move away from tracking, pushing toward providing high-quality, challenging curriculum, with supports, for all children. In some places "detracking" schools, in others just eliminating the low tracks, these educators are clearly acting in the tradition of Meredith and others who pushed for all students to have access to the best education our country has to offer. However, even when successful these efforts face multiple challenges and they remain to few and far between.
On a day that commemorates such a significant moment in the civil rights movement, In an era when manylike to point to the nations first black president as evidence that we live in a post-racial society, what will it take for us as society to once again live up to Meredith's legacy and stand up for the dream of truly integrated schools?
Amanda Lewis is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Emory University and a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project. John Diamond is an Associate Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education
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