Voices in Education

Why We Still Struggle to Integrate Our Schools
Last year I was talking to my friend’s biracial daughter. She had recently learned about Ruby Bridges in her elementary school and was excited to share with me the bravery of a girl her age. She said she was happy segregation was over so she wouldn’t have to go through what Ruby went through.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany: her school was likely just as segregated as it would have been five decades ago. On a whim I asked if there were any Asian students in her class. “No.” Latino? “No.” Native American? “No.” White? She was positive there was at least one white student in her class. Her mother insisted this student was half black and half white, like her.

Despite our collective wish to imagine segregation as a problem of the past, unspeakable numbers of students in the United States spend their days in classrooms in which everyone looks alike. In those schools where the students are predominantly black or Latino, the rates of failure are also unspeakable.

Recently, This American Life devoted two episodes to examining school segregation called “The Problem We All Live With”. In the podcast, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that integration is the only intervention that has proven successful at interrupting the persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color—not because sitting next to white students makes black and Latino students smarter, but because sitting next to white students gives black and Latino students access to the resources, quality teachers, and academic diversity present in those schools. Unfortunately, it is often the case that increased numbers of black and brown students send even the most progressive white families flying in search of “better” schools.

The answer seems clear: if we want students of color to do well in school, we must reject “separate but equal” and recommit ourselves to integration—a project we abandoned all too quickly. But integration without intention is unlikely to be successful. -Integration won’t “stick” without contending with our own conscious and unconscious fears, biases, and prejudices about whose kids are deserving of quality schools. Even in schools where some semblance of integration has been achieved, racial prejudices often flourish in ways that are disheartening at best and detrimental at worst. So long as the narrative of integration is one in which “those kids”—the black and Latino ones—are seen as ruinous to “our schools”—the middle class, white ones—inequality will persist.

About the Author: Shayla Reese Griffin is the diversity and school culture consultant for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and director of Creating Culturally Proficient Communities, a five-year initiative to improve racial and economic justice in Ypsilanti Community Schools. She is the author of Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School (Harvard Education Press, 2015). She resides in Detroit, MI.