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North Carolina’s growing racial divide: The need for championing policies of integration over desegregation

In the last century, North Carolina was known as a southern state struggling to emerge from the devastation of the civil war and reconstruction. Cotton and tobacco fields gave way to expanding housing or solar arrays and abandoned textile mills transformed into vibrant technopoles. From the Charlotte-Concord-Kannapolis statistical area to the Triad and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina rebranded itself as an intellectual leader in technology, finance, and institutions of higher education.

To sustain this growth, a fully engaged educational pipeline from all sectors of the state is necessary to slake the growing thirst for personnel at these high-tech industries and businesses. These businesses thrive on creativity and diversity, elements reflected in the cultural diaspora of North Carolina as well as the disruptive demographics of the entire nation.

Despite great strides in economic progress, the long shadow of Jim-Crow era discrimination and race continues to cast a pallor on our state.

This racial divide may be readily found in our congressional districts, our cities, our neighborhoods, and in our local public schools.

The schools in Wake County were once lauded as a bastion of ethnic diversity due to carefully crafted, conscientious policies around integration. Yet today, many of North Carolina’s public schools, including those in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically segregated. This tiered system of education already has had devastating downstream effects for our state.

Minority (non-white) students are left out of opportunities to engage in lucrative STEM careers and opportunities to fuel collaboration, ideas, and innovation to sustain North Carolina’s new economic sectors. A quality education for all students is imperative for the future economic success of our state. However, vital steps taken by education officials and policymakers to ensure equal access have unfortunately fallen short.

This failure is due to two major ideological misinterpretations in addressing the issue of racial segregation in our schools and crafting policy to solve it. First is a definitional issue between the terms desegregation and integration. Life-long educator and advocate Dr. Dudley Flood has described desegregation as a process, historically fueled by litigation, which brings children of different races together. Whereas integration is built from a communal mindset where all students, regardless of skin color have equal status and opportunity for a quality education. He argues that this “dual system” within schools facilitates this dichotomy, which has been evidenced for decades with disproportionate African-American representation in school discipline and remedial programs.

Student assignment plans often reflect the neighborhood school model of sourcing schools close to where students live. In North Carolina (as much of the nation), white students attend schools in rural and suburban communities apart from their city-dwelling minority peers. Without modifying the larger architecture of American housing patterns, it is evident school district boundaries will continue to replicate residential demographic patterns into schools. A voluntary change in mindset toward integration versus compulsory programs of desegregation is a fundamental component of a policy that will foster systemic and long-term success in shifting demographics of schools across North Carolina.

The second issue regards erroneously conflating race and economics. Data suggests that there are correlations between race and income, where African Americans in North Carolina possess less wealth than their white counterparts, and the black-white disparity in North Carolina is larger than the rest of the nation. Yet race matters most when it comes to a school’s demographic composition.

According a 2016 Century report by Wells, Fox, and Cordova-Cobo, students benefit from racial and ethnic diversity in schools to “better prepare students for a global society by reducing racial stereotypes and fostering cross-racial understanding” (p. 32). Yet, the authors indicated that integration strategies solely based on income dominate the integration policy landscape.

Issues of racial policies for desegregation or integration for local school districts remain controversial and litigious, escalating to the United States Supreme Court, where a split decision upheld that polices should remain voluntary unless a school district was found to be in direct violation of the law. The United States Department of Education and the United States Justice Department have taken steps to ensure race remains as a focal point and element of importance in student sorting, issuing a joint report in 2011 for Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools.

The new diversity plans instituted in Wake County to combat segregation based upon income-based assignments have mixed and untenable results. A commissioned Duke University study was unable to conclude that the diversity plan was responsible for closing the achievement gap and increasing student diversity. In addition, the number of students who are living in poverty is growing rapidly. Wake has 12 schools where a minimum of 70 percent of students are receiving free and reduced-price lunch. Eight years ago, there were none.

In addition, evaluation of desegregation and integration strategies remains problematic, examining short-term measures versus long-term outcomes to evaluate efficacy.  A small boost in test scores is admirable, but according to a 2001 report by Wells, the longer term effects on students’ attitudes when attending an integrated school on their “social and civic engagement, inter-group relations, emotional well-being, and life course trajectories” (p. 12) is unequivocally more important for students’ long-term success in college and career.

Creating policies and programs that promote the importance of integration to ensure a quality education to all students may facilitate a new era of understanding, cooperation, and monetary prosperity for our state. Otherwise, without the political will to champion policies of integration, the brave economic and bold social progress in North Carolina from the past half century will be for naught.

Rebecca Hite

Rebecca Hite is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. A Kenan Fellow, she was a teacher in North Carolina for 14 years. In 2015-16, she was a fellow in the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP).