separate and unequal

America Is Sacrificing Black Education for a False Meritocracy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor Bill de Blasio address a 12th grade English class at Boys and Girls High School in the Brooklyn. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In the weeks before her election on November 27, Cindy Hyde-Smith looked vulnerable. Not enough, perhaps, to scuttle her chances at winning: She was a white Republican, after all, running for U.S. Senate against a black Democrat in Mississippi, with the country’s least-elastic electorate all but guaranteeing a 60-40 split in her favor. But the knocks against her were damning, and there seemed to be new ones every week. She joked about public hangings and suppressing unfavorable votes in a state where white supremacists once made a pastime of lynching black people to deter them from voting. She wore a Confederate soldier’s hat and described it on Facebook as “Mississippi history at its best!” And in arguably the most flagrant example of her ties to the state’s racist history, local reporters found she had attended an all-white “segregation academy” as a teenager — and sent her daughter to one years later.

The last two were framed as especially scandalous. They seemed deeper-rooted, more fundamental to Hyde-Smith’s character than the racist tongue-slips that had preceded them. The Jackson Free Press story about her schooling was circulated breathlessly on social media, sparking a national discussion about racism and so-called “seg” academies — private schools that cropped up across the South during the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate white children whose parents wanted to avoid integration. But it also generated talk cautioning outsiders against casting segregation as uniquely southern. Some observers pointed to purportedly liberal New York City as having some of the most segregated schools in the country.

As if on cue, a group of Manhattan parents gathered on Monday to oppose integration. Facing a proposal from New York mayor Bill de Blasio that would expand the admissions process for the city’s coveted specialized public high schools — thereby securing more spots for black and Hispanic students at institutions that are currently dominated by Asian and white children — they made impassioned arguments for why it was a bad idea. One white parent disparaged it as a dangerous “social experiment.” Another claimed it would be unfair to the new black and Hispanic students, who would find themselves floundering and underprepared. Asian parents and their advocates saw the schools’ current admissions policy — which relies on a single, high-stakes standardized-test score — as a rare color-blind means of upward mobility in a city where Asians face high poverty rates but thrive academically.

But the single-mindedness of these warring interests belies a larger, more fundamental point. Every American wants their child to have a quality education, but few seem invested in a quality education for all children. In a country where the school districts with the most students of color receive 15 percent less money per child in state and local funding than the whitest, it is an unavoidable conclusion that advantage is distributed, and hoarded, according to race. During the civil-rights movement, integration was framed as the remedy to such inequality. More than half a century later, its promise remains unrealized. Americans from New York to Mississippi internalized the idea that some kids deserve good schools and some do not. Even those who admit that segregation undercuts American platitudes about liberty and justice balk at solutions that require them to sacrifice their own children’s advantages.

We are left with a system that looks strikingly like it did in the 1960s. In some parts of the country, school segregation today is as stark as it was after Jim Crow, only now it is maintained under the auspices of a false meritocracy rather than the Black Codes. As then, black children find themselves at or near the bottom of most educational indicators. And as demographics change and the country grows more Latino and Asian and less white, it is becoming equally clear that America’s decades-old promises to deliver justice to black students will almost certainly go unfulfilled.

New York City is an edifying case study. It did not require Jim Crow laws to achieve separate schools for black and white children, but did so through strategic city planning and housing segregation. As a result, the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which found segregated schools to be inherently unequal, did not upend New York’s racial caste system as it did Mississippi’s. But even though segregation was not enshrined in their laws, local officials still recognized they had a problem. The city’s Board of Education released a statement committing itself to “[preventing] the further development of such schools” and “[integrating] the existing ones as quickly as practicable.” “[Public] education in a racially homogenous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of goals of democratic education,” it said, adding that this was true whether segregation occurred “by law or by fact.” But white opposition guaranteed that fact went unaltered. White flight over the following decades and open resistance to solutions like busing made integration politically untenable, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has reported.

Meanwhile, federal judges sided frequently with anti-integration efforts across the country, including recently, as in Supreme Court cases like 2007’s Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The case ended in a “split decision,” with five justices finding a Seattle school district’s use of race when assigning students to certain public schools unconstitutional. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote famously in the court’s opinion. But swing vote Anthony Kennedy also maintained, along with the four dissenting justices, that promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation was in a school system’s compelling interest.

This dubious approach — touting the benefits of “diversity” while neutering the means required to achieve integration — has done little to solve the actual problem. According to a 2014 study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, schools in the American Northeast grew more segregated after federal desegregation orders took hold in the late 1960s, with 51.4 percent of black students attending schools that were less than 10 percent white in 2011 compared to 42.7 percent in 1968. Other regions — like the West and the South — have resegregated more recently, after sporadically successful integration efforts were abandoned wholesale in the 1980s and early 1990s. The South has still managed to become the least-segregated region for black students, but midwestern and northern states like Illinois and New York more than make up for it. New York state schools are the most segregated overall, with 64 percent of black students attending facilities that are less than 10 percent white. In New York City, black and Latino children constitute nearly 70 percent of the student population. Half of the city’s schools are more than 90 percent black and Latino, with students often isolated in facilities marked by low test scores, inexperienced teachers, and disproportionately poor student bodies.

This concentration of disadvantage is exacerbated by the veritable refugee crisis of fleeing families it has sparked. A recent study found that black parents in New York City were the group most likely to send their children to kindergartens outside their neighborhoods, at a rate of 59 percent. Citywide, those who stuck with their local schools were usually the wealthiest — often white and Asian parents satisfied with their circumstances — or the poorest, who had little choice and were mostly black or Latino. The flight of white families was most dramatic in gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn with still-significant black or Latino populations. But the impetus was the same. Parents with the means to find better options than their local schools took advantage and ran, often further concentrating poverty in those they left behind.

A handful of crown jewels have emerged as the prize for those striving to secure the best education for their own kids. New York City’s specialized public high schools, which include high-performing institutions like Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School, reside on the opposite end of the desirability spectrum from the schools being abandoned. The benefits for black students attending these specialized schools have been demonstrated. They include an on-time graduation rate of 96.1 percent, compared to 68.1 percent for black students citywide. Yet just 10 percent of offers to attend these schools go to black or Hispanic students each year. Fifty-two percent, conversely, went to Asian students in 2018, who make up just 16 percent of the city’s students but 62 percent of those at its specialized high schools.

This asymmetry is driven almost entirely by Asian admits’ performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. It is the only metric used to determine admission to these schools, and as a result, is a point of singular focus for those who can spend an outsize share of their time studying for it. Asians have done that, and reaped the benefits. “[Asians in New York] believe — and have ­proved — that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it,” writes Wesley Yang in New York. “All throughout Flushing, as well as in Bayside, one can find ‘cram schools,’ or storefront academies, that drill students in test preparation after school, on weekends, and during summer break.”

The success of the children who pass through these cram schools is not entirely the result of economic privilege — though test prep does cost money. Asians have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York City, at 24.1 percent in 2016. As a corollary, Yang casts the SHSAT as “something like pure meritocracy” — “no formula to encourage ‘diversity’ or any nebulous concept of ‘well-­roundedness’ or ‘character’” is taken into account. But the devil is in the details. Asian poverty, though more widespread, is shallower than black or Latino poverty — marked by higher rates of employment, lower rates of arrest and incarceration, and more two-parent households, suggesting day-to-day concerns around financial, food, and housing security are less likely to be foisted upon children. A 2016 survey of incoming freshmen at Stuyvesant High School found that Asian admits were the most likely to start studying for the SHSAT more than one year before taking it, as well as to take test-preparation classes and have parents pressure them to attend Stuyvesant. Black and Latino students, on the other hand, were the least likely to face parent pressure, and the most likely to pursue Stuyvesant of their own volition. “I was never encouraged by an adult to go somewhere such as Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech,” said Brianna Marquez, a high-school junior in Manhattan, at a forum on Monday discussing the barriers black and Hispanic students face to improved educational opportunities. “Instead, we were told to just transfer to a regular public high school. I didn’t know what were the ‘good schools.’”

Mayor de Blasio’s proposed solution to this gap is multipronged. He has already made public test-prep programs more widely available, which has not made a meaningful difference for integration so far. He is also in the process of expanding the number of spots reserved for low-income students — which has had the converse effect racially, increasing the share of low-income white and Asian students while black and Latino numbers stagnate. But the third proposal is the most controversial, and will require a change in state law. De Blasio is seeking to scrap the SHSAT altogether and instead offer admission to the highest-performing 7 percent of students at every middle school in the city. In a system with an overwhelming black and Latino majority, this would likely increase their representation significantly. And this is not sitting well with some white and Asian parents. At least 30 cheered each other on and booed New York City Department of Education deputy chancellor Josh Wallack on December 3, when the proposal was discussed before a crowd of 300. “You people are proposing a grand experiment on our children,” NYU professor Alan Siegel told Wallack, according to Chalkbeat — while deigning to consider whether segregating them in the first place was equally so.

According to Politico, in 1971, when the Hecht-Calandra Act passed through the New York legislature and enshrined into law the use of the SHSAT as the sole admissions criteria for New York City’s specialized public high schools, a New York Times reporter remarked on how white New Yorkers felt about the system. “Some parents — particularly, but not exclusively, white parents — … view [the specialized schools] as a last resort (some say ‘refuge’), the alternative to sending their children to private schools, if they could afford them.” Today, white families enjoy an equally broad range of educational opportunities. Their children are vastly overrepresented in the city’s nonpublic schools, including Jewish, Catholic, and secular private schools. By virtue of their relative wealth and residential segregation, they have access to many of the city’s better neighborhood schools at all levels. And, despite being outnumbered by Asians at New York City’s specialized high schools, they enjoy respectable representation therein.

But resistance from Asian parents and advocacy groups stems more from their exclusion from the decision-making process on an issue that has been the subject of acute focus and academic preparation in their communities for so long, according to reports. “As much as we understand and applaud the mayor’s efforts to diversify the specialized high schools, there is tremendous anger among parents around the lack of engagement prior to the announcement,” Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, told the New York Times. Neither cohort — with few exceptions — challenged the fundamental wisdom of how the current system works. By no coincidence, it has served both of their communities well, allowing their children soaring success even as others languished in subpar conditions. They have justified this system by saying it is based on merit — giving the highest-quality education only to those who have earned the right to it. As is likely the case with many American parents, racial equity is secondary to their own children’s access to opportunity.

This is an old story that has always favored those with capital. White Americans, in particular, have rarely been interested in meritocracy beyond its rhetorical usefulness. They have maintained competitive advantages in education across history by excluding, denying, and degrading black people under Jim Crow and its northern equivalents. They have used their social and political dominance to concentrate resources in their own neighborhood, specialized, or private schools, then worked to maintain perpetual majorities therein by restricting admission to those who meet a combination of criteria that they choose — including skin color, grades, connections, and ephemeral “culture fit” criteria. When these advantages seemed on the verge of crumbling, they have moved the goalposts, or jumped ship. They have violently opposed integration in southern cities like Little Rock and busing in northern ones like Boston. They fled Cupertino, California, earlier this century when an influx of Asian residents made its schools too brutally competitive for their children to cope. They eased requirements in their schools — “including [adding] no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a ‘right to squeak’ initiative that made it easier to participate in [a highly-competitive] music program,” according to the New York Times — when the same happened in Windsor, New Jersey, a few years ago.

New York City provides more school options for white children than either of these places. But resistance to Mayor de Blasio’s current integration proposals seems more preoccupied with maintaining this kind of access — and, for white parents, hoarding what’s left of its spoils amid intractable Asian dominance — than determining if the metrics used to decide who gets a good education are actually just. Such a system, rooted so firmly in racial inequality, only stands to grow more contentious with time, as demographics change. The largely biracial America that birthed Cindy Hyde-Smith’s segregation academy is no more. In 1960, there were fewer than 1.7 million Asians living in the United States — less than 0.9 percent of the population. Today, there are more than 20 million, constituting roughly six times their 1960 population share. The same education system that has beaten black children into the ground for decades has, by and large, served as a vital means of upward mobility for Asian children.

But it remains that this system is incompatible with justice. Integrating schools is not something Americans can achieve in a pretend meritocracy. Segregation ensures that white advantage and black disadvantage concentrate and perpetuate themselves. Key questions must be answered to gauge the feasibility of changing this decades-old reality, many of them more straightforward than so many moving parts might suggest. First, was not a massive, unique, and self-replicating series of atrocities committed against black Americans, for which this nation owes significant restitution — beyond merely reducing barriers to access to some of its institutions? Second, has the resulting disadvantage not been perpetuated, mostly uninterrupted, by an education system that, in many places, remains as segregated now as it was in the immediate aftermath of Jim Crow? Third, did the U.S. Supreme Court not determine that school segregation must end so that racial inequality could as well? Are Americans committed to taking drastic measures so this can come to fruition for black people, regardless of how demographic change reshapes the citizenry? And lastly, is the country willing to sacrifice entrenched white advantage, and discard the idea that the only children who deserve a high-quality education are those who live in the right place, get good grades, and perform well on standardized tests?

The answer to the latter two questions seems to be a resounding “no.” But that Americans have treated so few of these questions with the seriousness they warrant mocks any national pretenses toward justice and equality. The very fact that this country has schools so bad that, in New York City, a sterling public education is concentrated in a handful of highly selective institutions to which precious few are granted entry, is a farce, and should haunt every corner of this country. That the children worst positioned to reap their benefits are the descendants of the same black families to whom the city vowed justice after Brown v. Board of Education only compounds the tragedy surrounding them. That vow and the concept on which it was based — that “education in a racially homogenous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of goals of democratic education” — have been stubbornly ignored. New York’s segregated schools have become as much a national stain as the Mississippi segregation academies for which Hyde-Smith was shamed in November. Yet because they remain so desirable, and rich with opportunity for those who attend them, their basic premise goes largely unquestioned. As is the guiding principle that sustains them — that in America, a good education is something to be hoarded rather than guaranteed to all children.

America Is Trading Black Education for Fake Meritocracy