School segregation occurs when minority or subordinated groups of individuals are separated from majority or dominant groups in formal schooling institutions. The segregation may occur between schools (interschool segregation) or within schools (intraschool segregation). A historically salient example of interschool segregation in the United States occurred during the period of Jim Crow (early 20th century) with the state-sanctioned formation of “colored” schools and “white” schools. Intraschool segregation occurs within a single schooling facility when students from subordinated or dominant groups are “tracked” or steered into particular classes based on their group membership, typically derived from ascribed characteristics such as gender, race, or class status, not interest or aptitude. Historically, the benefits and drawbacks of school segregation have been vigorously debated; the conclusions of such debates tend to reflect cultural belief systems, particularly beliefs regarding the dynamics of race, ethnicity, and gender and their relationship to social inequality in contemporary society.
Relationship of School Segregation to Inequality
Social theorists and researchers have long examined the relationship between formal education and social inequality. With the movement from agrarian economies to industrialized economies dominated by bureaucratic organizational structures, the role of formal education as a credentialing system steadily gained importance. Although education and upward social mobility are highly correlated in more industrialized societies, research consistently shows that schooling institutions in such economies tend to reproduce and maintain existing social inequalities. That is, although upward mobility is possible, most students improve their social standing little, if at all, as a result of their schooling experiences. The reproduction and maintenance of social inequalities is most evident in societies where historically subordinated groups are prevented from participating in formal schooling institutions or are subjected to inferior schooling opportunities as a result of segregation. Given the powerful relationship between schools and inequality, a historical examination of the political, economic, and social dynamics that resulted in de jure (mandated by law) and de facto (in reality or fact) school segregation is necessary to understand contemporary inequalities.
De Jure School Segregation
In many instances, formal schooling institutions have been forcefully segregated along race and gender lines for a variety of cultural reasons that are then substantiated when sanctioned by the state. A brief examination of U.S. schooling history that focuses on the causes and effects of interschool segregation along racial and gender lines reveals how political, economic, and social forces can converge to produce persistent social inequality.
In the United States, “colored” students were legally prohibited from attending “white-only” schools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of prejudicial cultural beliefs regarding the social roles and rights of “colored” citizens and freed slaves. In 1896, the Supreme Court sided with the state of Louisiana, which had ruled that Homer Plessy, a legally identified “colored” man, could not ride in a train car reserved for “whites” only. This landmark ruling ushered in the Jim Crow era, which manifested itself most visibly in the construction of “separate but equal” public facilities, most notably schools. From the beginning, these segregated schools were racially distinct but never equal. “Colored” schools received far fewer resources than their “white” counterparts, and because schools serviced specific neighborhoods, a by-product of most students walking to school, their construction helped propel and maintain the racialized neighborhood segregation already underway in many urban, suburban, and rural communities.
The doctrine of “separate but equal” persisted until 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Brown I) that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” In 1955, the Supreme Court determined in Brown II that desegregation should occur with “all deliberate speed,” although critics argue that this follow-up to Brown I failed to delineate how and when such desegregation should take place. Facing opposition from a number of southern political leaders, President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 publicly demonstrated his support of the Brown decision by ordering the National Guard to escort nine black students attending a predominantly white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, several Supreme Court cases clarified what Brown II did not, identifying the means by which desegregation might take place (Green v. New Kent County, 1968; Alexander v. Holmes County, 1969; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, 1971; Keyes v. Denver, 1973).
However, beginning in 1968 with Green v. County School Board of New Kent County and in 1974 with Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court’s decisions have, in effect, resulted in undermining the goals of Brown. Although the intent of the Green decision was to end school segregation “root and branch,” elements of the ruling were used in subsequent Supreme Court decisions that effectively exempted districts from complying with Brown. Essentially, Green outlined the criteria by which schools could determine their success or failure in achieving desegregation. Using these guidelines, subsequent Supreme Court decisions determined that a number of districts had achieved desegregation “to the extent practicable,” therefore allowing them to declare “unitary” status and reclaim local control. As a result, schools that experienced only marginal desegregation in the Northeast, Midwest, and West have remained racially and ethnically segregated, and schools in the South, the only region that had significantly desegregated in the 1960s and 1970s, have slowly resegregated.
At one time or another, girls and women in nearly all cultures with formal schooling institutions were prevented from attaining a formal education. Cultural beliefs regarding the familial and occupational roles of women in society, which were then sanctioned by state policies and laws limiting girls’ and women’s access to schooling, fundamentally shaped their educational opportunities.
Historically, even when educational opportunities for men and women to attend college reached near parity, as they did in the early 1900s in the United States, rarely were men and women attending the same institutions. That changed in 1972 with passage of Title IX, an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title IX strictly prohibited elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools receiving federal funds from denying students admittance into a program or participation in an activity solely on the basis of their sex. As a result, a number of male-only colleges and universities began to admit women in the 1960s and 1970s. Although much analysis of Title IX’s influence has focused on sexual harassment rights and athletic opportunities for girls and women, it also impacted gender desegregation of colleges and universities by fundamentally altering and improving the educational experiences of girls and women in the United States.
De Facto School Segregation
Many of the cultural beliefs and laws that resulted in de jure segregation contributed significantly to de facto segregation, which has persisted long after laws and policies supporting segregation were overturned. Urban researchers have systematically revealed the social processes resulting in residential racial, ethnic, and class segregation in many industrialized countries. Tracing local histories, they describe how the disappearance of manufacturing in many communities resulted in a loss of jobs and local tax revenue, leaving pockets of concentrated poverty. Additionally, such regional poverty took on a racialized dimension when subordinated groups, including citizens who represented racial minorities or recent immigrants, were more likely than citizens comprising the racial majority to live in these areas due to their limited resources and the discrimination often faced from realtors, landlords, and bankers. Because schools service neighborhoods, the likelihood that school populations would reflect the reality of these impoverished racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods increased. Educational researchers emphasize that segregation by race or ethnicity almost always involves issues of concentrated poverty and linguistic segregation as well, issues that contribute to the creation and maintenance of social inequalities. For example, according to findings from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, at the end of the 20th century, only 5 percent of U.S. students attending segregated white-dominated schools experienced concentrated poverty, whereas 80 percent of students attending segregated Latino/a- or African American-dominated schools were living in impoverished neighborhoods.
Furthermore, even in schools that successfully attract racially diverse student bodies, evidence of segregation along gender, racial, and ethnic lines frequently exists in the “tracks” or set of classes to which students are assigned by teachers and administrators. These differences are most evident in secondary schools, where, in most countries, students select or are steered toward a course of study to prepare them for employment, trade school, or college. Research consistently reveals that members of subordinated groups are more likely than members of the dominant group to be segregated into tracks preparing them for employment in the low- or middle-wage sector. Although de facto gender segregation is diminishing in many fields, it still exists in a number of schooling programs, most notably nursing, engineering, and early education.
- American Association of University Women. 1998. “Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls.” Retrieved March 26, 2017 (http://www.ncgs.org/Pdfs/Resources/Separated-By-Sex-A-Critical-Look-at-Single-Sex-Education-for-Girls.pdf).
- Brint, Steven. 2006. Schools and Societies. 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford Social Sciences.
- Cohen, Elizabeth G. 2000. “Equitable Classrooms in a Changing Society.” Pp. 265-83 in Handbook of the Sociology of Education, edited by M. T. Hallihan. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Kozol, Jonathan. 2005. The Shame of the Nation. New York: Crown.
- Oakes, Jeannie. 2005. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Orfield, Gary and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.
- Orfield, Gary and Chungmei Lee. 2006. Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Civil Rights Project.
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