The two Virginians in the small brain trust that executed the national assault on school segregation in the early 1950s disagreed about where to start.
Spottswood Robinson III believed the first line of attack should be classrooms themselves. Oliver Hill preferred tackling segregated housing first.
As the nation weighs race relations at the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, the chicken-or-egg dilemma facing Robinson, Hill, Thurgood Marshall and their colleagues at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has an updated answer.
Despite well over half a century of on-and-off effort, the nation has not successfully integrated either its schools or its neighborhoods. Strategies going forward need to press for both.
Tactical differences aside, neither Robinson nor Hill doubted that a racially integrated society served democracy best. The accomplished Richmonders — Robinson would go on to serve as chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington and Hill would garner a Presidential Medal of Freedom — believed that all children and adults deserve equal access to the levers of power.
“I never believed Negro children had to go to school with white children in order to learn,” Hill said in the years after Brown v. Board of Education struck down state laws mandating segregated education. “But I fought for school integration because I believed that for the Negro to enjoy the full advantages of our culture, he needed to be associated with people who run that culture.”
For many, in the ensuing decades, integration has become a dated word, reflecting a quaintly noble, but impossible dream. In this season of re-examination, it is time to reject that defeatism and reclaim a goal that is not only desirable, but essential to a well-functioning democracy. School boards, city councils, lawyers and advocacy groups all need to focus their best efforts on spreading that gospel and dismantling barriers to integration.
There is no time to waste.
A report three years in the making, issued last fall, found that the average black child in the Richmond area attends a school where two out of every three students are low-income. In contrast, only one of four students is low income in schools attended by the typical white child. Meanwhile, nationally, 48 percent of Hispanic students and 30 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, compared with just 15 percent of whites and 4 percent of Asians, according to 2016 federal data.
This matters because, indisputably, lower school achievement tracks school poverty.
Numerous academic studies have concluded that the single most successful strategy for improving the school performance of low-income students is enrollment in a middle-class school. More advantaged students benefit as well from a racially and economically diverse setting. Yet, in all too many cases, housing patterns and school assignment zones governed by race and class dictate against integrated classrooms.
The advantages of middle-class schools are obvious: more motivated peers, more demanding and equipped parents, and, on balance, a superior teaching force. Individual classrooms and individual schools may provide poor children with quality learning. However, much as we might wish it to be otherwise, widespread academic success in impoverished settings is the exception, not the rule.
What can be done to reverse these trends? At first blush, it might seem, precious little. After the heyday of school desegregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a combination of court rulings and political resistance stymied progress on integration. The decline continues apace. But the grim prognosis such setbacks portend for the nation’s civic health should be reason enough to seek change.
“The basic truth is that we have tried for more than three decades to make schools of concentrated poverty work, and we have largely failed,” lamented James E. Ryan, president-elect of the University of Virginia, in his 2010 book, “Five Miles Away, a World Apart.”
Organizations such as the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, a network of more than three dozen civil rights groups and research centers, are unwilling to accept that failure. Combining the long-ago priorities of both Robinson and Hill, those groups look for answers to school segregation in both housing and education policy.
In neither case is it purely accidental that wealthy and middle-class families cluster together, exacerbating racial and class segregation in schools. Deliberate strategies contribute to the separation.
In housing, for instance, exclusionary zoning ordinances restricting apartment and townhouse construction can work to exclude children in lower income brackets from quality schools. Even minimum residential lot sizes can have that effect. Rules adopted in the name of aesthetic uniformity often perpetuate class segregation, noted Richard Kahlenberg, a Century Foundation senior fellow.
Meanwhile, school attendance zones can be — and often are — manipulated to funnel middle-to-upper-class children, often white, into the best schools. Most cities and counties, including those in the Richmond area, could do a better job of drawing attendance lines to create an income mix within individual schools. They can also experiment with school-choice policies promoting socio-economic diversity.
The opening in Richmond this fall of CodeRVA, a regional public high school focused on computer science and designed for student diversity, is one such promising step.
Even small steps toward racial and economic integration in schools are better than none. As Hill and Robinson came to understand more than a half century ago, in education, separate is not equal. Broadly speaking, it never will be. S
Margaret Edds is a retired journalist and author of “We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow.”
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