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"Socioeconomic School Integration,"

by Thomas J. Henderson November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Richard Kahlenberg suggests that the economic integration of our public schools – or, more specifically, their transformation into “majority middle-class” schools – is both the necessary and achievable response to our society’s inability, and unwillingness, to achieve racial the desegregation of its schools and its housing patterns. Social science research demonstrates that economic integration is desirable and could yield substantial educational benefits. However, the notion that America’s congenital malady of racial discrimination can be cured by focusing instead on income is ill-conceived, at best, and troubling. The proposition that economic integration is widely accepted and, therefore, substantially more feasible than racial integration is contradicted by our national experience.

The economic integration of schools can be helpful for many of the reasons listed in Kahlenberg’s article. However, essentially all of the benefits that are predicted to flow from the integration of middle-class and poor students will be realized only if middle class and poorer students are afforded the same educational programs and resources within the school, i.e., receive the same challenging instruction, in the same “meaty curriculum,” with the same teachers and the same genuine expectations that all students can achieve and progress at high levels. Unfortunately, research documents that this is not how schools are organized. Even within mixed income schools (and almost all schools have some income heterogeneity), poorer students (together with most African American and Latino students) are placed in separate lower-level, non-academic classes, with instruction and expectations based on negative stereotypical assumptions. Thus, creating school populations that are economically integrated alone will not solve the problem Kahlenberg recognizes: “that the separation of poor and middle-class children is the fountainhead of a host of related inequalities of educational opportunity.”

Similarly, the proposition that we can solve our seemingly intractable problems of racial segregation and inequality by attempting to change the subject from race to class is at least naive. Fulfilling the unrealized promise of Brown v. Board of Education will not be furthered by submerging, or attempting to deflect, public attention away from, race.

Although it is possible that there is relatively less support for desegregation now than 30 years ago, current support should not be underestimated, nor the capacity for increased support in response to appropriate and determined efforts. As to the very real problem of an unsympathetic judiciary, we must recall that, except in the face of the most egregious forms of discrimination or resistance, courts rarely have been generous in affording remedies for racial discrimination. Resort to the courts should not be abandoned simply because they may be relatively unsympathetic. If that course had been followed in the past, Brown would never have been decided. Instead, both the courts and the public need to be further informed as to the inequities and larger effects of segregation and of needed remedial efforts.

As to the courts, concerted effort to define more fully and demonstrate the inequalities Brown held were inherent in segregation is one available avenue. The “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson was premised on the profoundly disingenuous assumption that racial segregation in America carried with it no harm. When Brown overruled Plessy, the premise was reversed – the harms associated with segregation were not only assumed, but recognized as “inherent.” Thus, implementing Brown required no further examination and identification of the particular injuries and inequalities associated with segregation and discrimination. At this point, fuller analysis and persuasive illustration of the manner in which the organization and delivery of public education discriminates against racial minorities, and the role of government in maintaining and re-creating segregation and inequality, can serve to reorient and more fully define unlawful conditions and the remedies needed to achieve racial equality.

Race-conscious measures remain available as remedies for discrimination. Demonstrating the relationships between existing inequalities and governmental policies and actions – past and present – will distinguish the harms associated with various forms of governmental discrimination and segregation from the curious category of “general societal discrimination” that the Supreme Court has held to be beyond the reach of the courts. Further social science and public policy research and other evidence revealing the harms associated with racial segregation and inequality must be developed, articulated and presented to educators, policy makers and the courts.

As to public and political support for efforts to secure real racial equality, both have come only as the hard-won result of concerted efforts to inform the public and the political process and appeal to the enduring principles of equality to which the nation aspires. Our society is all-too-inclined to amnesia regarding the ugly and uncomfortable truth of slavery and of the calculated discrimination pervading all aspects of society that followed in its wake and persists into the present. This, together with the formal legal, if often superficial, equality that has been established leads Americans to the assumption that racial discrimination and its effects have been eliminated. The needed response is not to abandon express efforts to eliminate racial segregation and discrimination by focusing instead on class. Progress is made only through determined efforts to expose discrimination and promote understanding of its effects, and to insist that our society and government – including in the selection of judges – act to address them.

Also, the suggestion that class-based integration enjoys wide support and is therefore achievable is belied by current conditions and experience. Kahlenberg holds up as his model “one type of successful school that Americans have been able to replicate time and time again ... those in which a majority of the students are middle-class.” Ironically, those majority middle-class schools are largely the product of economic as well as racial segregation in housing patterns that has created isolated middle-class suburban districts or middle-class enclaves within cities. Schools are a powerful factor in housing choice, and middle-class families have gone to great lengths and substantial expense to isolate themselves in relatively homogeneous middle-class communities removed from schools with a significant presence of poorer students.

In addition, demographically, race and class are nearly impossible to separate. Indeed, this is a major premise of Kahlenberg’s proposal: “Because much of the nation’s concentration of poverty is the result of racial discrimination in housing, any plan to reduce economic isolation will produce, as a positive byproduct, a fair measure of racial integration.” It is simply unrealistic to presume that integrating poor children into middle class schools will be perceived as anything different than integrating by race. When HUD’s “Moving to Opportunity” program proposed to move a modest number of individual residents of predominately African American Baltimore public housing into individual market-rate units across the suburbs, the outcry led otherwise liberal members of Congress to shut the program down.

Moreover, because residential racial segregation is related to economic segregation, present barriers to racial desegregation apply as well to economic integration. Where large numbers of poor and minority students are isolated in urban school districts, and middle-class and white students are isolated in suburban districts, even the redistribution of students with different incomes to different schools within their respective districts will not achieve appreciable economic or racial integration. Both school district boundaries and the distances from which these communities are removed from each other represent formidable barriers to integration.

In the end, housing segregation and the organization and financing of public education are nearly insurmountable obstacles to racially and economically integrated schools. Real efforts are needed to desegregate our nation’s housing, led by the federal and state governments that are so extensively involved in housing and lending markets. As well, characteristics of good schools, such as those in Kahlenberg’s list and the economic and racial integration he advocates, should guide a reexamination and restructuring of public education. Too often, the structure and delivery of public education serve unfairly to stratify children, isolating poor and minority students from their middle-class and white peers, and apportioning grossly unequal resources, curricula, instruction and expectations. Separate and unequal has been unconstitutional at least since Plessy and has always been unjust. Public education should be redesigned to promote the equitable and effective development of all children, consistent with our mutual interest and democratic values. Research, policy initiatives and advocacy should be directed to developing and executing structural reforms to achieve truly democratic forms of public education.

Thomas J. Henderson is Deputy Director, with the Environmental Justice Project, all of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1450 G St. NW, #400, Washington, DC 20005, 202/662-8330.
The case, In the Matter of Louisiana Energy Services, LP (Claiborne Enrichment Center): Docket No. 70-3070, has been argued before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The NRC has not yet made a final decision whether to accept the Environmental Impact Statement and issue a permit.


Thomas J. Henderson (thenders@lawyerscomm.or), a PRRAC Board member, is Chief Counsel/Senior Deputy Direct of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.


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