Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has extensively studied the role of poverty in American public school achievement and more recently investigated the role of racial segregation, wrote last week about his recent experience  as a member of a panel of responders to an interview of Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Diane Rehm Show.  When asked about the significance of integrated public schools, Arne Duncan answered that for himself the experience of growing up in schools with children of other races and ethnicities benefited him personally by preparing him to work comfortably with all kinds of people.

Rothstein pegs Duncan’s answer as typical of the “diversity” argument used to justify racial integration in two well-known affirmative action cases, Bakke and Grutter.  Rothstein declares that last week Arne Duncan failed to demonstrate a grasp of the deeper problem in segregated education:  “When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods… the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Rothstein correctly challenges Duncan to recognize the damage of what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.”  Rothstein points out that Arne Duncan has been very willing to condition states’ winning  federal Title I competitive grants (through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers) on states’ agreeing to adopt Duncan’s favorite school reforms including the adoption of the Common Core Standards and the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.  Why not, suggests Rothstein, instead provide federal incentives for suburbs to change zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing?  Why not require states to insist that landlords in all school districts accept Section 8 housing vouchers as a condition for receiving competitive federal education grants?

Rothstein is, of course, challenging Secretary Duncan’s simplistic definition of racism as  a person-to-person matter reflecting our prejudices and biases and whether we have had personal opportunities that make us comfortable with people from different races and ethnicities.  A book of essays, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, published four years ago and edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield is among the best resources I know for clarifying issues of racism including a nuanced definition of racism that would perhaps expand Arne Duncan’s approach.

In the third essay, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” John Powell and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University define the layers of racism that pervade our society:  “Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural… dimension of racism.  As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the singular, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and actions.  ‘Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions’ are what we mean by ‘structures’….  Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we generally fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures…  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large, inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures.” (122-124)

Rothstein points to examples of the intersection of the many structures that perpetuate separate and unequal education in our society.  If the Secretary of Education were to recognize that housing policy and transportation policy converge with education policy to diminish opportunity, perhaps he could begin to take broader action.

In the conclusion to Twenty-First Century Color Lines, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA theorizes that today’s accountability-based school reform fails by ignoring structural racism and persistently blaming a range of individuals:  “The basic emphasis in recent decades has been on policies that simply ignore divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status and assume that the problem is nothing that relates to those facts….   So since the early 1980s, as poverty and civil rights policies have been reversed, there has been a tidal wave of requirements and test and accountability measures, insistently rooted in the belief that the principal causes of remaining inequality are laxness of teachers and of students and they they can be cured by more demands and harsh sanctions…. On the welfare side the emphasis has been to push very hard to force welfare moms to take any kind of a job….  At the same time the assumption that laxness by police, the courts and the penal system has been responsible for the growth of crimes has been responsible for the growth of crimes committed overwhelmingly by virtually unemployable young high school dropouts, has been responsible for a massive expansion of the policy of incarceration….  The facts that long-term welfare and high dropout rates tend to be issues primarily of families of color living in areas of concentrated poverty, and that crime is concentrated there as well, have been treated as merely incidental or as a sign that there is something wrong with black and Latino communities.” (300)

Orfield continues:  “In the last half century we have built a civilization unique in world history—a vast predominantly suburban society in which each little suburb has the right (and the incentives) to try to extract resources from the city and other communities and to screen out through zoning and housing policies not only poor people but anyone who does not have a relatively high income…. It is a society in which location in certain sectors of suburbia and certain high schools and colleges confers enormous advantages, but where those are rarely available to the growing Latino and African American populations.  The existing trends are toward a society strikingly divided and declining in dangerous ways…” (288)

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2 thoughts on “Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

  1. Pingback: Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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