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The gains and pains of desegregation

Segregation is creeping into schools across the United States and reversing gains made by the African-American population since the end of Jim Crow.

That’s according to Rucker Johnson, an associate professor in public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

He presented “The Grandchildren of Brown: The Long Legacy of School Desegregation” during an event in Charlotte on November 12th. His research takes an in-depth look at student impacts around the country since desegregation. He analyzed data that covered 9,156 people (4,618 of whom were African American), 645 school districts, 448 counties, and 39 states.

Johnson found that desegregation eventually led to a wide variety of improved outcomes for African Americans. Tracking students’ data into their adulthoods, Johnson found positive trends including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of being incarcerated. In schools, desegregation eventually brought down class sizes, increased per-pupil spending for African Americans, and improved their educational success. These positive trends have contributed to a narrowing of the achievement gap by about 50 percent without hurting outcomes for white students, according to Johnson. But that’s where the good news stops. 

“We have dropped the ball on continuing that progress,” Johnson said.

That’s because in the 1990s and early 2000s, as districts were released from desegregation court orders, schools began tipping back in the direction of imbalance. And for African Americans, the likelihood of graduation– which had been on a sharp upward trend —  flattened out dramatically, he said.

Johnson shared data showing big increases in the number of schools with racial imbalance between 2001 and 2013 in Charlotte, for example. And he stressed that it’s a trend happening across the country. However, while segregation in the Jim Crow era was solidly tied to racial prejudice, today it’s deeply influenced by socioeconomic status. And Charlotte is the number one most economically unbalanced of the 10 most populous counties in North Carolina, Johnson said.

“The most important threat to equal educational opportunity today is class,” he said. 

Johnson said his data shows that resegregation isn’t natural or inevitable. 

“Segregation is not the weather. This didn’t just happen by itself. This is not an uncontrollable force. This is something that was occurring because of policy either action or sometimes policy inaction,” he said, adding: “This community cares, so there is a way forward.” 

Johnson also explained that desegregation alone can’t be given all the credit. It worked in concert with other interventions, like court-ordered school finance reform as well as Head Start Pre-K, both of which contributed to the upward tick in positive outcomes for African-American students. And the benefits of all these policies reverberated through the generations that followed that first group of students to attend integrated schools.

“What if I told you that we discovered keys that unlock childrens’ potential?” Johnson asked. “Would we not want to make that policy prescription as widely available as any vaccination against childhood disease?”

Turns out we did discover some of those keys, once, Johnson said. And now we’ve lost them. 

See Johnson’s full talk below. The event was sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as the Levine Museum of the New South.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.