School Segregation in Modern America: New York’s Separate and Unequal Schools

New York Mayer Bill de Blasio high-fiving schoolchildren in the Amber Charter School, Manhattan.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visits the Amber Charter School in Manhattan

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists education as a right for all. New York City, a liberal stronghold, presents an outdated public schooling system whose institutionalized, racist factors permit racial and socio-economic separation within schools. Schools draw from areas around them and are funded based upon the taxes they collect, and when examining wealthy and poorer neighborhoods, this tends to heavily contribute to discrepancies in education. These factors end up creating a poverty trap, which therefore leads to a human rights issue regarding education. Segregated schools, regardless of being intentional or not, will always create unequal learning situations. In such a wealthy nation and city, the state of some underfunded public schools in New York can be atrocious. Children deserve a right to education and a right to pursue achievement, and the prevention of this due to inadequate funding directly harms their chances of future accomplishment. In a nation that presents itself as a champion of human rights, the achievement gap regarding education stands to contradict this.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separating schools by race was unconstitutional. And yet, while ‘separate, but equal’, (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) had supposedly lost its place over 50 years ago, the United States remains to this day a country that promotes human rights around the globe while inadequately addressing segregation and racism at home.

While Brown v. Board of Education was about inequities within the public-school system, it laid the groundwork for national desegregation laws, and its importance is shown in the subsequent promotion of progressive values within the United States. School segregation, however, was never truly eradicated and in some of America’s most diverse and progressive cities it remains, de facto if not de jure, as strong as ever.

According to a study by ProPublica, in 1988, 2,762 schools had a student body of which white students comprised 1% or less. By 2011, this was the case in 6,727 schools. At the same time, an increasing number of schools are also now seeing a reducing number of students of color, proving that schools are still strongly separated along racial lines – and in some surprising places. The typical partisanship present in the United State would lead one to expect that this would be the case in ‘the South,’ a region that demonstrated much more violent and overt examples of segregation in the 20th century. However, this is not the case. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the South is in fact the least segregated region of the United States, and New York City has the most segregated school system in the country. Just 4 percent of white students across the city attend schools where black children are the largest group, data shows.

The root of the problem lies in the fact that New York never made sufficient integration efforts. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted by American lawmakers from the North targeting outright displays of segregation that had been occurring in the south. Even in 1964, prominent civil rights activists such as Malcolm X had begun drawing criticism to this hypocrisy of the North, observing that, ‘you don’t have to go as far down as Mississippi to see segregated school systems, we have it right here in New York City’. White liberals, who had been pointing fingers at the explicit acts of racism down in the south, had been ignorant to their own injustices. So, while the Act tackled segregation in the public forums, such as the disallowing of children of color into white-only schools, it did little to prevent less visible aggressions in housing and employment which, unchecked, resulted in the establishment of racially and economically imbalanced neighborhoods. While schools cannot turn away students on the basis of race, they are allowed to draw from their local population, even if there is a ‘natural racial imbalance’. The result was the establishment of tightly segregated neighborhoods and schools.

In New York City, America’s largest school system, Black and Latino students are almost six times as likely to end up in high poverty, beginning with an education in under-performing schools – schools with less experienced teachers, fewer resources, and without the fundraising and advocacy power of wealthy white parents. Access to classroom computers, enrichment and college-prep courses cause discrepancies in learning and advancement when compared to students who attend public schools in the top rankings, such as Eleanor Roosevelt High School or Stuyvesant High School. These two schools, like many other wealthy public schools in New York, have access to much more funding; funding that goes towards their education. Unsurprisingly, these two schools both have a black student population below 7%, and a Hispanic student population below 10%.

This is all the more troubling when it is considered that integration has in fact been proven to raise results in schools. When New York City engaged in ‘bussing’ programs, in which children were transported across school district lines to promote diversity, school performance improved for all students. Despite this, during the 1990s, desegregation efforts became easier to fight in court, and bussing began to be phased out. The prevailing narrative was that desegregation placed too high a cost on students for a cause no longer entirely necessary, whether that was bussing student’s long distances, or white parents and students believing that they had been negatively affected by affirmative action policies.

School districts in the South have made more of an effort to reintegrate schools by complicating the way in which districts are constructed and students are admitted, resulting in more diversity in schools. Northern cities, long thought to be more progressive than the South, have done little to amend their broken system. In New York City, a stew of issues have worsened the situation; gerrymandering, housing and employment inequalities and more. New York City incorporates multiple policies that draw from institutionalized racism, perhaps the most popular being the drawing of school district lines. School districts in New York are drawn in ways that incorporate the wealthier neighborhoods into their own districts, and less well-off neighborhoods into others. The consequences of this yield detriments to not only diversity program in New York, but to universal human rights. Denying access for children of color into public schools, whether overt in segregation or a result of institutionalized injustices, restricts a human right to education. The United States has long displayed a dedication to human rights both domestically and abroad, yet still school segregation persists. A dedication to human rights must present an emphasis on education, and school separation, whether intentional or not, directly inhibits this.

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