Resegregation: Where Do We Go from Here?

Late in August, 2002, North Carolina researcher Jack Boger stood before a gathering of colleagues and described the “perfect storm” gathering above southern schools – a convergence of racial resegregation, high-stakes testing, and inadequate funding that was poised to blast away the hard-won gains in educational equality made after the region was forced to abandon its system of separate and decidedly unequal schools.

A generation of schoolchildren later, the wreckage that storm produced lies bare for all to see, chronicled in painful detail in articles such as this week’s Newsweek cover story: “School Segregation in America is as Bad Today as it Was in the 1960s.”

Newsweek singled out Charlotte, North Carolina as a dramatic example of resegregation’s ills, documenting the gaps between the system’s wealthy, predominantly white schools and its low-income, predominantly black and brown schools. Stark inequalities in teacher experience, staff stability, advanced classes, and extracurricular offerings all underscored the persisting truth that separate will never be equal.

Not, of course, that we here in Charlotte didn’t already know. The story has unfolded right beneath our eyes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, pushed by the energy of the civil rights movement, the pressure of federal policy, and a growing understanding of the value of racial integration, residents of Charlotte and other communities took steps to desegregate their schools and other areas of public life. Charlotte’s busing program, which narrowed achievement gaps and produced the most desegregated major school system in the nation, became a point of civic pride.

At the same time, however, other actions undercut these efforts. Urban renewal, highway construction, the closing of historically black schools, and the War on Drugs tore at the fabric of African American communities. Even as civic leaders worked to desegregate their schools, they enacted policies that channeled investment away from the center city neighborhoods where most African Americans lived and toward far-flung, predominantly white suburbs, creating new patterns of residential inequality.

As the century approached its close, more challenges arose. The election of Ronald Reagan opened an era in which political and cultural priorities shifted from the community-building work of the civil rights movement to a celebration of competitive individualism. The harsh rhetoric associated with the War on Drugs, and with the federal push to abandon social welfare programs, revitalized longstanding racial stereotypes. Alarming accounts of the supposed failings of American schools, along with a new obsession with standardized test scores, heightened parent anxiety about securing the “best” school for their children.

In 2003, when a Reagan-appointed judge forced Charlotte to end its desegregation plan, the school board adopted a “choice” plan instead. I well remember how parents scrambled to take advantage of that “choice” to get their children into what were expected to become the “better” schools – the schools in “better” neighborhoods, with “better” test scores and, most important, with “better” ratios between middle class and low-income students. A poverty rate of 40 percent, which generally (although not always) translated to a white majority, was seen as the maximum acceptable.

Fifteen years later, the inequalities those decisions helped create lie bare for all to see.

This narrative of decline can lead to resignation, the tone that Alexander Nazaryan adopted near the end of his Newsweek expose. “Integration is difficult work, the work of generations,” he wrote. “It may not be especially gratifying to those who must undertake it. Segregation, on the other hand, feels natural enough.”

But there is also room for hope, and fuel for determination. The story of the Charlotteans from all backgrounds who rolled up their sleeves and worked to build the nation’s most integrated schools testifies to the power of cooperative effort. While their efforts had flaws – flaws that offer lessons on how to do better in the future – they mustered the courage to confront a formidable status quo, and built a system than was better and fairer than the one that went before, better and fairer than the one we have now.

I first felt the power of this story twelve years ago, when my son, Parker, reached kindergarten age. Our middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood was assigned to Shamrock Gardens Elementary, a high-poverty, high-minority school with high teacher turnover and some of the lowest performance levels in the entire state. Four years earlier, when the “choice” plan debuted, fewer than one in five of the families assigned to Shamrock had chosen to go there.

But I was working on a history of West Charlotte High School, a top-flight historically black school that became a nationally celebrated model of effective integration. Writing West Charlotte’s history meant listening to graduate after graduate, black and white, talk about how much attending an integrated West Charlotte had meant to them, and about the role that desegregated schools had played in making our city a better place.

As my husband and I watched the gains of integration crumble before our eyes, we decided we would not be part of its demise. When the time came to choose a school for Parker, we placed him at Shamrock, and rolled up our own sleeves.

That decision launched us on a remarkable adventure. A decade of hard work by students, parents, staff, administrators, community members and district leaders turned Shamrock into a vibrant school that now offers a marvelous education to a racially and economically diverse group of students. “Gratifying” does not even began to describe what that experience has meant to us.

This is an important moment. The popularity of city living has created – for the present – a balance that makes it possible to take meaningful steps to reintegrate the high-poverty, racially isolated schools that populate the centers of so many cities (how to maintain that balance is, of course, an important question in itself). But in a time of legal and political constraints, when reversing resegregation depends in large part on families’ willingness to undertake the very real challenges of true integration, we need to keep the stories of past accomplishments before us, to create a culture of possibility strong enough to overcome the pressure to make the “safe” choice of decamping to the suburbs, to private institutions, or to the highly segregated realm of charter schools.

Knowing how school desegregation came apart tells us a great deal about where we are today, as communities and as a nation. Knowing how it was built tells us where we can go. As we confront the challenges of our own day, we must keep both stories before us.