By David Kirkland (click here for the PDF)
Prior to this year and since 1954, the most optimistic of us clung to the belief that the tides of history were pulling the nation, if not the world, forward, breaking down the invisible boundaries that held in place systems of confinement—the gross concentration of vulnerability divided from the exclusive freedoms enjoyed by the privileged. As the edifice of segregation seemed to crumble, the tools used to shift its enormous tectonic social plates were the instruments of research evidence. Indeed, the attorneys who argued Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 used research tools to such grand persuasive effect that, after hearing the evidence from the now harrowing “doll test” conducted by social scientists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Chief Justice Warren (1954) was compelled to declare:
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
This system—the edifice of segregation, which, itself, is a bleak manifestation of the racial caste (Wilkerson, 2021)—was so deeply baked into the American reality that in the years following 1954 we would see segregation reimagined and reinforced. A full 60 years post-Brown, researchers from UCLA released a report titled “Brown at 60,” which left little doubt about the persistence of segregation in the US and the revelation of its shocking migration from the US South to the US North.
With the resurgence of segregation across the US post-Brown, social scientists and policymakers began to rely on research evidence to piece together a picture of the invisible consequences of the uneven distribution of education, property, capital, material, and so forth. Those of us charged with seeking equity would find ourselves seeking even more data and description to fully understand the patterns of inequity.
The mistake of this first wave of “integration” and the ensuing fragmentation of equity work(ers) was the struggle to locate the evidence outside the White gaze, for the very definition of integration that emerged from Brown was socially restrictive if not outright racially offensive, implying that a key intervention to problems afflicting Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) was access to White people, White spaces, or otherwise White things. During the first wave of integration—or during the desegregation era—we began to measure integration by the movement, whether voluntary or forced, of BIPOC bodies pressed into White spaces that either did not want or were not well designed to sustain them.
According to Judge Robert L. Carter (1988), famed civil rights advocate and one of the attorneys who helped to litigate Brown:
“Blacks clearly would have been in no worse position today, in terms of educational benefits in the public school arena, if we had concentrated on an equal facilities goal…What makes Brown historic, however, is the fallout effect. It transformed and radicalized race relations in this country, removing Blacks from the status of supplicants to full citizenship under the law, with entitlement by law to all the rights and privileges of all other citizens…We now know, of course, that the NAACP lawyers erred. The lawyers did not understand then how effective White power could be in preventing full implementation of the law; nor did they realize at the time that the basic barrier to full equality for Blacks was not racial segregation, a symptom, but White supremacy, the disease. (pp. 1094-1095)”
Carter would soberly conclude that the unfinished work of integration in US society would be about addressing the disease (White supremacy) beyond simply treating the symptom (segregation). And, addressing the disease, for Carter, was about finally advancing the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution—that all children, regardless of race, gender, language heritage, socioeconomic status, and so on, might inherit the provisions enshrined in the US Constitution.
As the data picture became clearer with the failures of desegregation policy/politics, it became equally apparent that integration as a one-way migration of particular bodies seeking unity only through the lens of the flesh divorced from the directionalities that define and represent enactments of power, privilege, and possibility was not only deeply flawed but also deeply racist. We could see this in data on school funding, suspensions, special education identification/placements, housing, jobs, incarceration, and even death—that the enactments and compass points to which power tugs were where the real struggle for an integration that lives closer to racial equity exists. That is, we could finally see that integration framed from a racial equity perspective could never simply be about sending Black and Brown children to school with White children but about a struggle for power—the power to move or remain still, to live on ones’ own terms, the freedom to choose and gain access to all the opportunities afforded the most privilege American bodies.
From this perspective—a racial equity perspective—integration is defined by power, not proximity. It is as much about measures of freedom as anything else, for the use of research evidence in relation to integration is not about how evidence might be used to help researchers assess how divided or united things appear but about social transformation—seismic shifts to the social status quo, or how values, experiences, hopes, dreams, and so forth of vulnerable people live and transact freely across social and physical space. In pondering this question, we must, then, position research evidence in ways that define integration beyond the suffocating limits of White supremacy because within those bleak borders, as Sonya Horsford (2019) reminds us, integration never happened.
Similarly, the use of research evidence to address segregation from a racial equity perspective requires a redefinition of segregation based on an understanding of society as undergirded by invisible boundaries that will forever forsake the movement of certain bodies, anchored to a history that once saw some of those bodies fettered to chains (Bell, 1992). From a racial equity perspective, segregation marks less the separation of people than the binding of opportunity to the upper limits of our prejudice, where the grand dream of freedom and the promise of full citizenship for the historically vulnerable are intentionally cast afar.
For example, we know that the census data that emerges once every ten years can only provide a common count of people, where they might be stationed in the country, and so on. But, it can never fully offer an assessment of what it might mean for people to fully experience their citizenship, to be free without aspirations to be like others or to be close to them or necessarily equal to them (as if this should ever be a goal—one wonders if they should desire to be equal to us!). Another way to use research evidence to address segregation, then, would be to examine the extent to which we can all be free and live lives collectively within the promises of the American Dream, sovereign and untethered from hierarchal comparisons that center Whiteness as the goal (cf. Fanon, 1952).
Indeed, our struggles to end state-sanctioned segregation evoke tragic memories, memories that conjure things like crosses burning and four little girls buried beneath the rubble of a neighborhood church after it had been bombed. It evokes memories of countless other incidents such as the six Ku Klux Klansmen who, in Birmingham, Alabama in 1957, castrated a Black man after taunting him for “thinki[ing] nigger kids should go to school with [White] kids” (see “Massive Resistance,” https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/massive-resistance.html). It rekindles the scenes and mirages of White supremacist racial terror, where in places like Mansfield, Texas, the local citizens’ council organized White residents armed with guns and other weapons to block Black children from entering school. The mobs hung an effigy of a Black person with signs attached to each pant leg that read: “This Negro tried to enter a White school. This would be a terrible way to die” and “Stay Away, Niggers” (see “A History of Racial Injustice,” https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/aug/30).
Now, this is the evidence, or at least one side of it, which helps us to understand how the same courts that decided Plessy v. Ferguson were the same to decide Brown, who only a year after that landmark decision, with the Brown II decision, would walk back their own professed commitment to equal rights and calls for immediate, federally-enforced desegregation. Using research evidence from a racial equity position can help provide tremendous insight into how exclusion from one part of society can mean exclusion from other parts. It can help us see how freedom exists in direct contrast to segregation because segregation places boundaries on bodies, fencing them behind the empirical walls of racial confinement—which, after looking at volumes of evidence on racial disparity (from education to housing), I have called the same old Jim Crow.
Using research evidence from a racial equity position can give us a stark picture of the internment that segregation implies, the concentration of vulnerability against the gross and mischievous hoarding of privilege. The data patterns in cities such as New York are clear. For example, while White and more economically advantaged students thrive in the city’s least diverse schools, Black, Brown, and less economically advantaged students suffer there (Kirkland & Sanzone, 2017). These students—the most vulnerable students in our school systems—are more likely to be forced out of school, labeled with disabilities, remediated, and failed. They are also less likely to graduate, gain access to a rigorous curriculum, or have the common compassion needed to foster a healthy learning experience (Kirkland & Sanzone, 2017). By contrast, gaps in achievement by both race and socioeconomic status begin to disappear in New York City’s most diverse schools. In the city’s most diverse schools, disparities in education across attendance, graduation, test scores, suspensions, and so on shrink significantly (Kirkland & Sanzone, 2017). Another key aspect of the segregation/integration dichotomy is the impacts on attitudes of Whites and Blacks. In addition to data showing how educational disparities shrink in more diverse schools, there is strong evidence that racial integration significantly diminishes racial prejudice, increases trust, and helps to repair and heal (Fossett & Kiecolt, 1989; Rothwell, 2012; Sharp & Joslyn, 2008; Wagner, Christ, Pettigrew, Stellmacher, & Wolf, 2006).
Thus, in addition to giving us ammunition to make a broad case against segregation, the use of research evidence from a racial equity perspective gives us a glimpse at how the bondage of a people once enslaved could be redesigned, reimagined, and reinforced either through mass confinement inside a system or through mass exclusion outside it—what Michelle Alexander (2010) calls the New Jim Crow. The use of research evidence from a racial equity perspective also helps us understand how the struggle to integrate schools and housing is consistent with social impact strategies that use data to elevate lives, for schools are not the only spaces given bars. In relation to the persistence of Jim Crow—new and old—racial barriers have been erected everywhere in US society: around dreams and water fountains, from the times people gathered to practice their faiths to the times they gathered to break bread.
Indeed, credible cases have been made to suggest that we should abandon our push to integrate schools and society, that integration is essentially a “racial bribe” that leaves in place systems of White supremacy. This position situates segregation outside the evidence and bakes integration firmly into the logic of White supremacy. However, this current moment in the struggle for racial justice requires nuance, where a call for reparations must coexist with a push for real integration. A deep and compelling look at the research evidence from a racial equity perspective should convince anyone serious about advancing racial justice that integration is worth the fight, that segregation must always be resisted, that White supremacy resists integration, and that integration cannot exist where White supremacy persists.
The fight for integration isn’t to diminish the work of those fighting to fairly fund our schools and our neighborhoods. That work is important too. From a racial equity perspective, the goals of integration are not in opposition to the idea that all communities should have schools that work for all our children. It does not equate the idea that equity in education is synonymous with sending Black and Brown kids to White schools as a legitimate educational intervention. Or, that Black flight into White communities is a definition of success. Such misuses of evidence are, themselves, racist acts.
However, an anti-racist use of research evidence that clearly shows that underneath each issue involving segregation is a more fundamental set of economic conditions, political arrangements, and power relations that transforms everyday citizens into casualties of an increasingly intense war on the vulnerable allows us to address segregation within a much larger struggle—part of an ongoing fight for freedom that takes place in our schools and our neighborhoods, in our workplaces and in our worship spaces, in our hospitals and even in our homes. And, as we use research evidence to begin to see more clearly those who have been maligned as human beings, we can also use research evidence to help heal the wounds such evils have wrought. ▀
David Kirkland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor of English and Urban Education at NYU Steinhardt and the Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)
Brown v. Board of Education II, 349 US 294 (1955)
Carter, R.L. (1988). The NAACP’s Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education. Michigan Law Review, 86 (6), 1083-1095. Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mlr/vol86/iss6/3
Douglass Horsford, S. (2019). Whose school integration? Voices in Urban Education, 49 (1), 21-25.
Equal Justice Initiative. (2018). Massive Resistance. Segregation in America (Report), https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/massive-resistance.html.
Equal Justice Initiative. (2021). A History of Racial Injustice, https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/aug/30
Fanon, F. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Fossett, M. A., & Kiecolt, K. J. (1989). The relative size of minority populations and white racial attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 70(4), 820.
Kirkland, D. E., & Sanzone, J. L. (2017). Separate and unequal: A comparison of student outcomes in New York City’s most and least diverse schools. New York: Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, New York University.
Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., Ee, J., & Kuscera, J. (2014). Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future. Los Angeles: Civil rights project/Proyecto derechos civiles.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537. 1895.
Rothwell, J. T. (2012). The effects of racial segregation on trust and volunteering in US cities. Urban Studies, 49(10), 2109-2136.
Sharp, E. B., & Joslyn, M. R. (2008). Culture, segregation, and tolerance in urban America. Social Science Quarterly, 89(3), 573-591.
Wagner, U., Christ, O., Pettigrew, T. F., Stellmacher, J., & Wolf, C. (2006). Prejudice and minority proportion: Contact instead of threat effects. Social psychology quarterly, 69(4), 380-390.
Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The origins of our discontents. New York: Random House.