Spotlights

Schools again separate and unequal

Photo of Dana Thompson Dorsey

Dana Thompson Dorsey

Fifty years ago, the March on Washington ushered in an era of civil rights that included efforts to desegregate public schools across the country.

Today, the nation's schools are more segregated than they were in the late 1960s, according to research by Dana Thompson Dorsey, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Education. Thompson Dorsey researches and teaches about education law and policy issues with an emphasis on race-based educational policies.

Thompson Dorsey, in an article in the September 2013 edition of the journal Education and Urban Society, described federal statistics that show that across the United States approximately 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend schools in which at least half of the student body belongs to a racial minority group. Approximately 15 percent of black and Latino students attend schools that are at least 99 percent minority.

Thompson Dorsey says U.S. courts have turned their backs on social science research that demonstrate harm done to children who attend deteriorating, under-funded and academically inferior schools which, in turn, results in the students in those schools feeling inferior. She says that courts and policymakers should take into account such findings in working to reverse trends that have led to a resegregation of schools.

Thompson Dorsey answers some questions about her findings:


Why is it important that schools are racially integrated?

There have been myriad studies conducted over the years, as far back as the 1960s, that have shown when students of different races and ethnicities, particularly black and white students, are in the same classrooms they all thrive academically and socially. Regression analyses conducted on student achievement levels have shown the more time black and white students spend together in elementary schools the higher the students' standardized test scores are in middle and high school, and the higher their track placements are in secondary school. Other studies have shown that students attending desegregated schools have better working relationships within diverse workplaces and exhibit fewer signs of prejudice.

How did schools become more segregated in recent years?

There have been many things that have played a part. One major reason is residential segregation, where people choose to live. People choose to live in neighborhoods with other people from similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. That brings about segregation in our schools.

But there also has been a breakdown in enforcement of desegregation. There were desegregation orders that the Office of Civil Rights handed down in the '60s and '70s that forced desegregation. But in many school districts those desegregation orders have been lifted, in the North and in the South. Once those desegregation orders were lifted, the courts no longer cared if the schools resegregated. So that's where we are today, to a point where schools are resegregated and there are more than 40 percent of black and Latino students in schools that are 90 to 100 percent racial minorities.

What needs to be done to reverse the resegregation of our schools?

Somehow we lost track of the intent of Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court determined that segregated black students felt inferior. They were stigmatized by being treated differently because of their race and placed in different schools that were also inferior. There were a lot of sociological and psychological tests that acknowledged black students feeling of inferiority, which led to the Brown decision - segregated schools are inherently unequal.

Well, we find that today. I can give you examples in North Carolina where I did research and black students feel inferior in their racially segregated schools. But today it doesn't seem to matter.

When school districts under desegregation orders go through what are called "unitary" status hearings to have the orders lifted, courts don't seem to care about the social science research that show how students feel - not just black students feeling inferior, but also white students feeling superior to their black and Latino counterparts because they are treated differently.

We need to consider how these children, by being educated in different, separate and then sometimes inferior settings, feel about themselves. We need to consider whether we want minority children to feel like they can achieve success and become strong, global citizens who are going to be world leaders. Or, are we going to allow these children to feel like they're not worth such great expectations?