Educational institutions, whether K-12 or college-level, are remarkably stratified–that is, super, duper segregated– along the lines of race, ethnicity, and class. While historically, segregation, particularly in schools, has been smothered in racist tenor, it is a bit harder these days to describe segregation, and public opinion on it, in a singular way. Most schools still have some de jure form of segregation, which contrasts with de facto state and local-driven policies which characterized much of the 1960’s and every industrialized period in the U.S. prior to that. Sean Reardon, of Stanford University, argues that Brown V. Board, the ‘landmark’ case which swept away government-sanctioned segregationist laws and practices, actually did very little to reverse the trend of segregation (at least in that immediate, fractious time period). While the court case was most definitely symbolically relevant, Reardon holds that meaningful de-segregation reductions did not occur until well into the 1970s, around the time of the Supreme Court’s other, largely-forgotten segregation case (Green v. Board… seriously), over a solid decade after Brown v. Board took place.
And 60 years after Brown, the level of exposure which minorities–particular Blacks–have to Whites, a key measure in understanding the scope of de-segregation, remains little changed. Researchers analyzing school segregation often rely on what’s called the Dissimilarity Index to understand assimilation frequencies. The Dissimilarity Index calculates the proportion of a particular race which would need to switch schools to create a pattern of school enrollment where each school had the same proportions of students. In 1968, the Dissimilarity Index for Blacks/Whites was 0.80. For reasons ranging from redlining (a real estate tactic aimed at segregating communities), White flight (which tends to contribute to between-district segregation) and school-of-choice programs, segregation has remained a trusty staple throughout most U.S. schools districts. Though the reasons for being pro-integration should be clear, let’s have you bite anyway: school desegregation has routinely been shown to be advantageous for Blacks, in the form of improved earnings and increased likelihood of obtaining well-paid, white-collar jobs, and completely unharmful to Whites, conflicting with the rallying cries and doomsday projections of pro-segregationists.
So how do we square these realities and advance the discussion? In general, there seems to be an over-emphasis on school resources in discussions of racially homogenous schools, and this is partly because the variation is school funding between higher income and lower income school districts is actually not so wide. As Reardon explains,
Segregation today is not as strongly linked to school resource inequality (in terms of financial resources). If segregation in the pre-Green era operated primarily through its effects on the inequality of school funding, it may be less consequential in the modern era of smaller funding disparities.
Is it perhaps time to turn away from segregation as a racialized pattern and instead move the topic in the direction of modern socialization theory? It’s hard to ignore the very-much voluntary racial and ethnic polarization that we see on campuses in 2017–where students literally congeal into swaths of homogeneity as if operating with different ionic charges. Of course, you see your fair share of inter-racial smatterings, but the networking and socialization that most of us see on campuses is far from intersectional. There is little empirical research on the racial and ethnic preferences of college students when it comes to who they want to hang out with, hook up with, or study with, but as someone who has visited universities and colleges around the U.S., the racial distancing between students, whether in classrooms, in campus cafeterias, at football games, or out on the quad, is obvious. No doubt some minority students gravitate toward “their own” because of feelings of not belonging to other social groups, which can transform into micro-aggression if these feelings derive from a sense of identity discrimination. But a large, not insignificant, number of students–even when ignoring social, economic and educational differences–tend to link with people sharing the same skin tone. So is it the case that college students have been habituated into these patterns and are naturally clustered into groups of people that look like them, or are these continuations of a deliberate, insidious pattern of races between parceled away from one another?
Segregation naturally carries with it a sort of historical and existential weight, fused at both ends. Most of us can likely appreciate that most of our life experiences, social or not, benefit from at least an occasional break in what we see, hear, and feel, although technology and social media have slowly entrenched us in very rigid sensory patterns. The more we become indifferent to the utility of life’s variation, the more siloed off we may become from anything different, perhaps irreparably.
(Photo courtesy of College of DuPage)
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