Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

With More Diversity Comes Greater Segregation: An American Paradox

By Shraddha HarshvardhanPublished January 1, 2017

The need for diversity in our children's classrooms and why we have not yet achieved it.

Jim Crow laws legalized and enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960's; however, as it turns out, America's school system is more segregated today than it was 50 years ago, at the end of  the Jim Crow era. With this in mind, it is important that we question why we value diversity in schools and how we have reached this point.

Racial integration in schools and classrooms creates a rich academic experience. Researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, UCLA, and other institutions examined the impact of racial diversity on small group discussions, ultimately discovering that when a racial minority presents dissenting perspectives, they lead to broader thinking and consideration than when a White person delivers them. Confirming such results is a multi-institutional study demonstrating that classrooms with the greatest racial and ethnic diversity consisted of students that best engaged in active thinking processes and showed the most and growth in intellectual motivation and academic skills.

What is more, America's job market is becoming more and more diverse. According to researchers at Northwestern's Kellogg School, employers tend to hire employees who mirror them, and the only way to ensure race is not seen as a characteristic making someone "the other," is to treat diversity as a norm from the very start; otherwise, the business world remains diverse but segregated, just like our school system.
As for companies and organizations, usually concentrated in metropolitan areas, who have already strived to incorporate racial diversity through specific policies, they value employees who are comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and clients from a range of backgrounds. Consequently, it does no good for a student to learn in a homogenous environment, only to be dumbfounded when they enter a firm that expects them to interact with others in a way they are not yet used to.

However, why we truly need to advocate for racially integrated schools is so that underrepresented racial minorities are not left behind. U.S. News finds that students perform worse in schools with large Black populations, and the Los Angeles Times reports that students in predominantly Hispanic schools also fall behind, with first-generation Hispanic students having the additional language barrier that Blacks do not face. Before the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Blacks and Whites went to separate schools. Schools being funded locally, received severely fewer facilities and resources in predominantly minority lower-income areas. To this date, they have not been able to recover, lacking the funding and teachers that suburban, primarily White high schools, receive. It therefore comes to no surprise that minorities often struggle to keep up in College and are disadvantaged when they enter the job market.

It is impossible to examine school segregation without looking at residential segregation, a problem in present-day America that the Brooking Institute confirms by suggesting more than half of Blacks would have to relocate to achieve perfect residential integration. There is a common misconception that neighborhoods are segregated because of individual differences and preferences, yet residential segregation occurred via policies and practices like redlining, in which the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration in the 20th century denied financing to Blacks looking for housing. Some school segregation can be prevented with adjustments in school attendance or controlling school choice. However, for most, travelling long distances to school is simply infeasible.

New York City just recently introduced a plan to decrease segregation in its public schools. Under this plan, the city will establish a School Diversity Advisory Group to review ongoing integration work, phase out a middle school ranking system that favors families with resources to strategize, and move towards online applications to level the playing field for applicants. While recent plans like this attempt to address segregation in schools, they fail to address the root cause of residential segregation, and have been unable to achieve any drastic improvements.

The Supreme Court, to this date, holds that schools with one race or virtually one race within a district are "not, in and of itself, the mark of a system that still practices segregation by law." In this case, we must ignore what the constitution deems as fair, and work towards integration in schools. Going forward, we need to ensure that policy makers address housing segregation, as it is a root cause of school segregation, and ultimately our route to ensuring equal opportunity for all students in America.