School Segregation in the US: An Open Secret

Illustration by @nebilaphoto

Under capitalism, science is used as a weapon against the working class, to rationalize production and intensify exploitation, rather than as a tool to meet the needs of the whole of society. Therefore, the bourgeoisie does not educate all people equally, but restricts the distribution of knowledge to a relatively small number of trained scientists and intellectual spokesmen. Meanwhile, the vast masses of working people are educated only up to the minimum level required for unskilled or semi-skilled labor. This unequal education begins in the K-12 school system, which fails to universally impart even the basic instruments of reading, writing, math, etc. This tradition of different education for different classes is continued in the division between various forms and levels of higher education, e.g., the trade school versus the big research university. 

-From the program of the MDSO

In the fall of 2019, high school students throughout New York City organized weekly walkouts to protest segregation in the city’s public school system, having experienced first-hand an open secret that politicians have long ignored: that the right to an equal and quality education has been denied to oppressed nationalities in America. These protests took off in two schools in particular: NYC iSchool and Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School, which share the same building but in which students have completely different learning experiences. The former is highly selective with a student body that is 41% white and 40% low-income; the latter has an open admissions policy and is 4% white and 80% low-income. Students at the two schools take no classes together, rarely meet, and even have separate entrances and staircases within the building. This paints a striking picture of the segregation that has become especially acute in the “progressive” Democrat-run cities over the last 60 years. 

The cowardice of the Democrats in addressing school segregation has a long history, dating back to the drafting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While pushing for federally-mandated desegregation in Southern schools, Northern senators resisted the mandate in their own districts by drawing a distinction between “de jure” segregation in the South and “de facto” segregation in the North, attributing the latter to “natural” racial separation. Of course, this separation was not natural at all, but a result of state policies like mortgage redlining, public-housing segregation, and the re-drawing of school district lines, all deliberately drafted to subjugate national minorities. Under pressure from white anti-busing demonstrations in cities like New York and Boston, liberal politicians limited federal power to integrate “racially imbalanced” schools, blocking progress in their own cities while still claiming moral superiority over their Southern political counterparts: a familiar act for the “friendly” face of the bourgeois state.

Joe Biden himself, the senile alleged rapist currently at the head of the Democrats’ failing imperialist project, became a prominent opponent of busing when he entered the Delaware Senate in 1973. Though he initially ran on a platform of implementing busing under the Civil Rights Act, he pivoted to support legislation that limited federal busing mandates, under pressure from his white constituents –– a fact for which he was excoriated by Kamala Harris in one of 2019’s primary debates, less than a year before she endorsed him as the Democratic candidate for president. Biden tries to portray himself as a long-time champion of civil rights, but his own words from 1975 prove otherwise: “To ‘desegregate’ is different than to ‘integrate.’ . . . I am philosophically opposed to quota systems. They insure mediocrity.” And again in 1977: “Unless we do something about [the ‘non-orderly’ integration of schools], my children are going to grow up in a jungle, the jungle being a racial jungle with tensions having built so high that it is going to explode at some point.” The Democrats’ clumsy attempts to portray themselves as the “enlightened” party of progress and diversity and the Republicans as the party of racism boil down to not much more than hypocrisy. Both parties serve to uphold the existing political order, which today in the US includes national oppression and racial segregation.

While Southern schools have mostly integrated following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, schools in blue Northern cities are often even more segregated than they were in the years after Brown v. Board of Education. Another court case, Milliken v. Bradley (1974), further codified the legal existence of de facto school segregation in Detroit by declaring that the almost exclusively white suburban schools could not be legally forced to take students from the predominantly Black urban center because segregation had not happened there “maliciously”––never mind that Black families were blocked from moving into the suburbs by racist redlining policies. Denver, a city with a 60-year lineage of Democratic mayors, was forced to adopt busing in 1973 as a result of Keyes v. School District No. 1. When the court order was lifted in 1995 and replaced by a school choice system, public schools quickly re-segregated; in 2019, more than half of the city’s public schools were as segregated as they were in the 1960s. In Boston, where court-ordered busing from 1974-1988 resulted in riots and eventually white flight from the city into adjacent suburbs, two-thirds of public school students today attend segregated schools, with wide discrepancies in resources and quality. 80% of students in the high-income and predominantly white area of downtown Boston attend high-quality schools compared with 5% of students in Mattapan, a predominantly Black neighborhood. In addition to attending largely underfunded, understaffed schools that lack necessary resources, Black and Latino students across the US face harsh punishment from teachers and brutality from school “safety” officers.

New York City is ground zero of educational inequality: it has both the largest and the most segregated public school system in America, with a corresponding disparity of resources and educational quality. As of 2017, 80% of freshmen entering CUNY community colleges require remediation in writing, reading, or math, and Black and Latino students are twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes as white students. The city’s specialized high schools, which are considered the best in the system, are strikingly segregated: Stuyvesant High School offered just seven of 895 available seats to Black students in 2019. Failed presidential candidate Bill De Blasio has not been able to institute basic measures like ending the SHSAT, the sole basis of admission to eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools. This admissions practice has codified segregation by limiting quality public education mostly to families who can afford expensive test prep programs. Beyond failed attempts to eliminate the SHSAT at these eight schools, no substantial changes have even been proposed to integrate the city’s other deeply segregated public schools. Both De Blasio and the current head of the NYC Department of Education, Richard Carranza, oppose busing as a means to integrate schools—in 2018, the mayor claimed that busing “poisoned the well” in Boston and “[doesn’t help] achieve that other central goal, which is improving schools for all our children.” 

This is the practical result of decades of Democratic municipal leadership: blatant racial segregation and the systemic negligence of schools serving oppressed nationalities. The persistence of racial segregation in American schools for decades after it was ruled unconstitutional shows that educational inequality cannot be reduced to the individual actions of especially incompetent or racist politicians, or even to legal policy—it is an invariant feature of capitalism. From the 1960s to the present, bourgeois politicians have sought to partially incorporate demands for integration to pacify the masses while maintaining the fundamental separation of the working class—and particularly of oppressed nationalities and national minorities—from knowledge. Northern Democrats in the Civil Rights era had to maintain their political legitimacy on both sides of the debate by ordering integration in the South while limiting its scope in their own districts. Today, Democrats similarly wax sentimental about “equal opportunities for all” while dragging their feet on even the most pallid reforms. When pressed on the hypocrisy of their half-measures towards integration, they can only make vague remarks about “division,” exploiting reactionary anti-integration demonstrations to account for their own inaction. De Blasio’s paltry justification for his failure to pursue concrete steps towards integration conceals a crucial fact: the bourgeoisie does not need to and never will educate everyone equally. The division of mental and manual labor and the separation of the working class—composed largely in the US of national minorities—from knowledge are essential characteristics of capitalism

With last spring’s sudden pivot to online classes due to COVID-19, the differences between what are effectively two separate school systems in the blue cities have only widened, and conditions for working-class students will continue to worsen in the fall. While the bourgeoisie pays for private tutors from their summer homes, the children of working parents, who have neither the time nor the money to supplement their learning, fall even more behind. Under Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education, public schools may be forced to choose between unsafe reopening and decreased funding. On the one hand, the state would knowingly be sending children to their deaths. On the other, it would be gutting funding to schools already hanging on by a budgetary thread. We know who will suffer most from these policies: working families, who will have no choice but to send their kids back to school, and who have already been disproportionately impacted by the virus. In any case, school budget cuts are already a reality (NYC recently slashed $182 million from the Department of Education’s budget) and will become even more severe as the current economic crisis deepens. These cuts will only exacerbate the rampant inequality in our educational system. After the last financial crisis, for every 10 percent of spending that schools cut, graduation rates fell by 2.6%. Schools in wealthy districts were able to recoup losses through fundraising, while high-poverty schools serving mostly Black and Latino students bore the brunt of state negligence. 

College students must not let the struggle for the democratic right to education be fought by high school students alone. We must unite and struggle alongside one another, both for desegregated public high schools and for free tuition and open admissions in public colleges. These two struggles are inextricably linked—the segregation of the city’s high schools is reproduced in the class and racial hierarchy between the CUNY system’s community colleges and four-year institutions, which was exacerbated by the imposing of tuition in 1976 and the end of open admissions in the 1990s. All students must join together in demanding that the right to an education be extended to each and every one of us. In this struggle, we must not only fight for immediate improvements around this demand, but also build the student movement in the line of socialist revolution. Only in a society without exploitation and oppression—a society without classes—can true equality of education be realized.