School segregation: A realist’s view 



To desegregate our schools, we must acknowledge that racism is a persistent social force that adapts to our efforts against it. 


As a nation, we often think of racial segregation in schools as an unjust form of social organization that we put behind us long ago, like aristocratic monarchies or the denial of women’s right to vote. The inequity of these arrangements is so obvious, it feels indisputable that we should never return to them. The truth, however, is that racial segregation has incrementally returned to U.S. schools over the last 30 years. Like a disease that was never fully cured, school segregation has come out of remission and returned in a form that is more pervasive and harder to treat. 

This relapse should not be surprising. The U.S. Justice Department actively desegregated public schools for only five years. Although the Supreme Court made its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, it was not until 1968 that the Green v. County School Board decision enabled federal enforcement of desegregation orders. That same year, Richard Nixon was elected president and soon ordered the Justice Department to reduce enforcement of desegregation rulings (Davies, 2007). As the cases already in the system ran their course, the momentum of the judicial desegregation movement dissipated. By 1980, desegregation of the schools had peaked.  

Like a disease that was never fully cured, school segregation has come out of remission and returned in a form that is more pervasive and harder to treat. 

This reduction in enforcement was followed by an organized effort by conservative activists to roll back desegregation gains in the courts. In 1992, the Supreme Court Freeman v. Pitts decision made it easier to get desegregation orders lifted, and since that time, more than half of the desegregation orders issued by federal courts have indeed been rescinded. In almost every case where such orders have been lifted, school districts have moved back in the direction of greater segregation (Reardon et al., 2012). As a result, 50 years after the Green decision, our schools are more racially segregated by some measures now than they were in 1968 (see Figure 1). 


The theory of change underlying court-mandated desegregation was that a generation of citizens educated in racially desegregated schools would normalize racial integration. The hope was that communities would achieve what the courts called “unitary status,” a condition in which racism would dissipate enough that communities could be trusted not to racially segregate their schools once court orders were no longer in place. Given the rapidity and consistency with which school districts have resegregated, we are forced to conclude that this was a false hope. 

School segregation today 

Today, school segregation is enforced not by laws that require racial separation in schools (de jure segregation) but, instead, is indirectly enforced through housing policies, school choice policies, and zoning policies (de facto segregation) that keep the percentage of White students in some schools artificially high. The 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Milliken v. Bradley struck down efforts to desegregate schools across district lines. In demographically diverse districts, segregation often involves creating schools with few or no White students, so as to maintain relatively high percentages of White students at the remaining schools (Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016). In other cases, we see secessionist movements where wealthy predominantly White neighborhoods break away from more diverse school systems and form their own school districts (Chang, 2017).  

This assemblage of public policies is so transparently segregationist that Richard Rothstein (2017) persuasively argues in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America that the de jure/de facto distinction is illusory. Public schools are still segregated today, he contends, because public policy has deliberately made them so. 

The new segregation also combines race and class segregation. Because of persistent patterns of race and class segregation in housing, as well as racial disparities in wealth accumulation, students of color and low-income students of all races are concentrated in the same schools. Wealthier households (in which White families are overrepresented) can afford to relocate to residential zones with more political clout, and once there, these families invest their political capital in securing advanced curriculum and other educational resources for their schools, but not for others. Voucher systems, open enrollment, and charter schools have all been offered as means of disrupting the influence of residential segregation on school enrollment; however, the evidence indicates such school choice plans either increase school segregation or leave it unaltered (Moreno, 2017; Potter & Quick, 2018; Whitehurst, 2017).  

Efforts to rezone schools to address racial segregation increasingly are met with objections that such efforts violate the principle of color-blind jurisprudence, objections delivered without the slightest sense of irony (Melnick, 2017). My own research on a resegregating school district documented parents’ distaste for the idea that their city would create an all-Black school where one had not been before. However, at the same time, those parents argued that the absence of a majority White school was prompting the White flight of other parents, which was fiscally compromising the school district and would eventually leave local schools 100% Black anyway (Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016). In this way, they reasoned that the partial resegregation of their district would benefit all the students by preserving the district’s fiscal solvency, despite exacerbating inequity between district schools. In this case, the White flight continued and the collective moral compromise yielded no benefit to anyone. Whether or not such policies have their intended effect, such rationales direct attention away from the possibility of building excellent schools for all children that would help keep all parents in the district. This kind of misdirection makes resistance to the intensifying segregation of U.S. schools more difficult. 

Racial segregation in schools today is unequivocally a national phenomenon. From 1970 to the early 1980s, federal desegregation orders focused mainly on the Southeastern states, resulting in the lowest levels of racial segregation in the country. However, while segregation is now on the rise again in the South, it is no longer concentrated in that region, having increased dramatically in major urban centers in the North, Midwest, and West. New York City, for example, currently has the most racially segregated schools in the United States (Chen, 2018).  

While segregation is now on the rise again in the South, it is no longer concentrated in that region. 

Further, even where federal desegregation orders have remained in force, racial segregation has quietly reappeared at the classroom level. After the civil rights era, schools in all parts of the country ramped up their advanced curricular options such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), talented and gifted (TAG), and honors programs, which have always been much more likely to enroll White students than students of color (Ford & Webb, 1994; Kohli, 2014; Mickelson, 2003; Wheelock, 1992). A 2013 Education Trust report found that the relative rate of White students taking AP courses was nearly twice that of Black students, and the relative rate of White students taking IB courses was nearly three times that of Black students. Disparities persisted even when controlling for standardized test scores (Theokas & Saaris, 2013). Although the rate of students of color taking AP tests has increased in recent years, the proportional pass rates have not (Tugend, 2017).  

The tendency of White citizens to hoard educational resources for themselves has proven more resilient than civil rights era desegregationists anticipated. Denied the instruments of explicit law and policy, the desire for White majority educational spaces has found other means of enactment. It has used residential housing patterns and school zoning policy. It has bent the courts to its defense. It has camouflaged itself with new rhetoric and new rationales. It has moved into the capillaries of our education system, segregating students at the classroom level through tracked curriculum. What it has not done is go away.  

Effects of segregation remain consistent 

Although the form of racial segregation has evolved, its odious effects have remained consistent. Black children in racially isolated schools perform less well on standardized tests, their graduation rates are lower, and college attendance is lower. Income levels and wealth accumulation across generations are lower for Black people who attend racially segregated schools, and lower health outcomes across a person’s life span are correlated with racially isolated schooling (Barshay, 2016). Careful research suggests that these effects are not the consequence of characteristics found within students or their families. Instead, they are strongly correlated with the greater per-pupil spending that come with enrollment in racially integrated or predominantly White schools (White, 2015). In other words, they are a consequence of the way resources follow White students.  

Other, more qualitative research has found that the negative consequences of racial segregation in schools go beyond what is measured on indexes like test scores and graduation rates. In a 10-year field study of a resegregating school district, my colleague and I (Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016) found that students read their racial isolation and relative lack of resources as an indicator of the community’s low regard for them. One student expressed a common sentiment: “I suppose they think we are bad kids, bad Black kids.”  

The good news is that students did not simply internalize these messages. Most rejected them, argued with them, organized protests, and attributed the resegregation of their schools to the racism of White members of their community. However, even within this spirit of resistance, we see a stark fact. Students attended school every day in an arrangement that communicated, at best, a malignant neglect for their well-being and, at worst, hostility and disgust. 

Further, our research found that these tacit curricular messages affect students of all races in the district. They raised questions about the integrity of the adults charged with educating them and cast into doubt the familiar story, often taught in schools, of steady progress toward racial justice. (Not surprisingly, we heard social studies teachers complain about how difficult it is to teach about the historic struggle for civil rights and school desegregation when students were living the return of segregation.) Perhaps most problematically, they normalize racial segregation for all students in these schools and make it easier to accept it in other parts of their lives. 

Research across a variety of disciplines is clear. The racial resegregation of our schools does not improve academic achievement for White students or any group of students (Gamoran & An, 2016; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2015) and yet it has negative effects on many students’ outcomes (Johnson, 2011; Kainz & Pan, 2014; Reardon, 2015; Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016). Further, even where significant desegregation of schools is achieved, this does not prevent racial segregation at the classroom level, which has demonstrably negative effects. Desegregation of schools has positive benefits for all students of all races (Amicus Brief Parents v. Seattle, 2007; Wells et al., 2016). The problem is, despite such evidence being widely available over the last three decades, it has not motivated substantive changes in education policy and practice.  

Racial realism: No easy fixes 

In our age of “data-driven” policy making, it is widely believed that education outcomes will be improved if policy is based on research that meets the highest standards of reliability and validity. It should therefore be disconcerting to see so much data on the negative consequences of racial segregation in schools consistently ignored. Despite widespread public agreement that racially segregated schooling is socially undesirable (Baffour, 2017), politicians and school district leaders continue to treat the subject of desegregation as a third rail (Wells et al., 2016). And White parents show no sign of altering their pattern of seeking what they think is best for their own children, even if doing so exacerbates racial inequality in their district (Hannah-Jones, 2016). 

Some social forces, to put it simply, are more powerful than data. Racism is one such force. It deflects attention from data. It distorts the questions we ask and the kind of data we collect. It suppresses conversations about the implications of the data we do have. This reality challenges a long-standing conceit of liberal policy making: that racism and racial inequality in schools is a problem that can be solved if we can confidently identify its underlying mechanisms. It is time to admit that something larger and more intractable than lack of information is at work where institutionalized racism is concerned.  

The fact that we are sending our children to racially resegregating schools means that anti-racist policy and practice must become mainstream. 

This is not a new observation. Early 20th-century social theorist W.E.B. DuBois was skeptical that racial integration of schools would benefit Black students because White racism was so resistant to change. The founder of critical race theory, Derrick Bell (1993), argued that racism is a permanent feature of U.S. society and that the belief that racism could be fixed undermined the efficacy of civil rights legislation and jurisprudence. He called this view racial realism. The history of school desegregation supports Bell’s analysis. Allowing school districts to have desegregation orders lifted once community racism was sufficiently eliminated enabled the contemporary resurgence of school segregation. In Silent Covenants (2004), Bell argued that the Brown v. Board of Education decision disserved Black children by morally legitimating a school system that had not addressed underlying structural inequalities. Again, the persistence of segregation in the form of curricular tracking supports Bell’s racial realism.  

More recently, we have seen the emergence of Afro-pessimist and anti-Blackness scholarship that concludes Western human rights discourse will always exclude Black people (e.g., Sexton, 2008; Sharpe, 2016) because in Western policy and cultural practice, Blackness has historically provided the outer boundary for what counts as human. Contemporary best-selling authors such as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (2012), and Ta-Nehesi Coates, author of Between the World and Me (2015), have written about the shape-changing persistence of institutionalized racism and what it means to live in a world where racism is pervasive and permanent. Education scholar Michael Dumas (2016) has argued that anti-Blackness theory can help educators more effectively respond to the pervasive cultural disregard for the well-being of Black children expressed in trends like the increased segregation of schools.  

This scholarship, along with the bare fact that public schools are racially resegregating, points to the necessity of moving beyond the hope that we will discover some insight or clever policy that will somehow fix institutionalized racism in our schools. Such optimism, the evidence suggests, is a self-indulgent delusion that preserves a vision of a future that comforts us while providing justification for shuffling students of color from one form of institutionalized racism to another.  

The power of pessimism: A more responsible form of engagement 

For many educators committed to promoting racial justice, this is a difficult critique to hear. The reflexive response is often, “But we have to have hope. Otherwise we will just give up.” Pessimism about the prospect of eliminating racism in our society, however, is not fatalism. It is not giving up on this struggle. It is a different, arguably more realistic, form of engagement. This realism requires us to think of racism not as something static that can be addressed with a policy or program, so that we can get on with the real business of education. Instead, it requires us to think of racism as a permanent protean social force that adapts to our interventions. This means that dealing with the mutating forms of racism will always be an integral part of the business of education. 

This view has practical implications. At a policy level, it means that the question of what constitutes an adequate amount of effort in the struggle against racism in schools becomes obsolete. There is no adequate way to guarantee “equality of opportunity” after which we can let competition and the consequences of personal effort run their course. The only viable indicator of success in the struggle against a constantly evolving racism in schools is to provide equal academic outcomes and levels of well-being to all students. No other standard will do. 

Realism about the permanence of racism does not mean we should surrender to segregationist forces. The benefits of desegregation are well documented and, as such, desegregation policies merit our continuing commitment. Adopting a realistic view, however, means that we cannot look at desegregation as an end in and of itself. No matter what schooling arrangement we implement, the evidence shows that racism will adapt and find ways to assault children. Desegregation is at best an imperfect way to provide more equitable access to educational resources. A full commitment to the well-being of children of color will require more than building-level changes.  

No matter what schooling arrangement we implement, the evidence shows that racism will adapt and find ways to assault children. 

This leads us to perhaps the most important educational implication of racial realism — the need to improve the anti-racist education of teachers and administrators. If educational policy and institutions are unable to protect students from systemic racist violence like segregated schooling, then part of the job of teachers is to recognize this failing and to work in solidarity with students and parents against the grain of institutional racism. This will require more than implicit bias workshops. Teachers need to be informed about the history of racism in schools and the various creative forms that resistance to racism has taken. Teachers need to be prepared not simply to work for schools, but also to subvert and divert policies when the institutions in which they work are systemically doing harm to children. Teachers need to be educated in a manner that encourages openness to the possibility that their own actions perpetuate racial inequalities in schools, despite their good intentions. Accrediting standards for teacher education need to include such priorities in their evaluations of both programs and students. 

Similarly, administrators need to be educated to respect, support, and engage in anti-racist advocacy within school systems. We need legal protections for whistle-blowers and codified support for internal critics of district and state policy. This contradicts the contemporary trend toward centralized control over curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher behavior and may even seem to risk encouraging insubordination. But when our educational system itself is morally and politically incontinent, compliance is not an adequate conception of professionalism.  

Anti-racist professional development and activism are already practiced in many places, to be sure. Unfortunately, these practices remain largely on the margins of our education system. The fact that we are sending our children to racially resegregating schools means that anti-racist policy and practice must become mainstream. Anything less constitutes a failure to face the persistent reality of racism in our schools.  


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Citation: Rosiek, J. (2019). School segregation: A realist’s view. Phi Delta Kappan, 100  (5), 8-13. 

JERRY ROSIEK is a professor in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Oregon, Eugene. He is the author, with Kathy Kinslow, of Resegregation as Curriculum: The Meaning of the New Racial Segregation in U.S. Public Schools (Routledge, 2016). 


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