By Erin Einhorn and Nigel Chiwaya
Aug. 31, 2020
This article is Part 2 of the “American dream while Black,” a series about the obstacles Black people face in achieving equity. Part 1 showed how homeownership is the prime driver of the wealth gap between Blacks and whites.
The death of George Floyd this spring turned Minneapolis into a symbol of America’s racial divide — a place where, as in many American cities, people of color feel sidelined, disrespected and cut off from opportunities.
But Minneapolis hasn’t always had that reputation.
In the last decades of the 20th century, the Twin Cities were seen as a model of racial and economic integration, celebrated as a place where state laws and local initiatives created some of the most far-reaching school and neighborhood integration programs in the nation.
Those efforts didn’t stamp out racism, said Helen Bassett, 70, a Black school board member in the suburban Robbinsdale Area school district near Minneapolis. But they gave people a way to better understand one another, “to relate to them on the basis of human decency.”
Today, however, the programs are mostly gone.
Like many U.S. cities that dismantled school integration programs in the wake of federal court decisions and shifting local politics, the Twin Cities have largely walked away from their once-touted initiatives, replacing them with a school choice system that was supposed to integrate schools by letting parents choose where to send their children, but has largely exacerbated segregation.
Bus routes that once transported students to intentionally integrated schools have stopped running. Magnet schools that once drew students from different neighborhoods have closed. And in the absence of those efforts, Black and white students have become increasingly isolated.
In the 1993-94 school year, less than one percent of Black students in the Minneapolis region attended highly segregated public schools — where 90 percent or more of the student body was not white, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Almost three decades later, in 2018, a quarter of the region’s Black students were attending such schools.
NBC News found a similar rise in school racial segregation in 74 of the 100 most populous metro areas in the United States. Across the country, nearly 40 percent of Black students were in highly segregated schools in 2018, up from 33 percent in 1993. And in places like Minneapolis; Charlotte, North Carolina; Milwaukee; and Tampa Bay, Florida, the increases were even sharper.
The consequences of that resegregation have been painful, said Rucker Johnson, an economist and public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“We must think of racism as an infectious disease and silence leaves the disease untreated,” said Johnson, the author of “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.”
When communities resegregated schools, he said, they halted progress in bridging academic and economic gaps that had long existed between Blacks and whites. Johnson’s book documents his research following thousands of students from the heyday of school integration in the 1970s and ʼ80s. He found that when Black students attended integrated schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, they went further in high school and college, essentially eliminating differences in educational attainment between Black and white students. They earned higher wages compared to Black students who attended segregated schools, had more stable marriages, were more likely to avoid the criminal justice system and experienced health benefits later in life on par with being seven years younger.
“We see a pretty transformative impact,” said Johnson, who is African American and grew up in Minneapolis, where his mother was the superintendent of schools from 1997 to 2003. When schools began to resegregate, Black and Latino students increasingly landed in schools with fewer resources and less experienced teachers. That’s led to lower graduation rates, lower rates of college attendance and ultimately lower wages compared with their white peers.
White students who attend predominantly white schools, meanwhile, are more likely to bring racial biases into adulthood, Johnson said, meaning that when cities like Minneapolis resegregated their schools they set themselves up for a future of housing and employment discrimination, racial bias in classrooms, unequal treatment for patients in hospitals, and — ultimately — incidents like the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died with his neck under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
“When law enforcement assumes guilt over innocence, when educators perpetuate a culture of low expectations and when health care is not preventative and accessible care,” Johnson said, “the consequences are tragic and destroy our opportunities.”
The U.S. Supreme Court abolished school segregation in its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The Civil Rights Act a decade later made the ruling more enforceable. And by the 1970s, lawsuits filed on behalf of Black students had begun to desegregate schools.
In Charlotte, an ambitious effort to use busing to racially balance schools in Mecklenburg County was unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. The ruling paved the way for court-ordered busing programs around the country and turned the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district into a national model for school integration for 25 years.
Soon, hundreds of school districts were under court orders that redrew enrollment boundaries or put students on buses to take them to integrated schools.
As a result, the percent of Black students in highly segregated schools across the country was cut in half from 1968 to 1988, according to a 2019 report.
“It wasn’t perfect,” said Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University and one of the report’s authors. Many technically integrated schools steered white students to advanced classes that excluded Black students. Others subjected Black students to racist discipline policies that made it harder for them to succeed. Private schools sprang up, particularly in the South, to serve white students whose parents wanted segregated schools.
In the North, as the suburbs expanded, some areas, like Boston and Detroit, saw integration efforts thwarted by a 1974 Supreme Court ruling that barred judges from forcing suburbs to participate. That meant white families could avoid integration by moving to the suburbs, which many did.
Despite those challenges, Frankenberg said, it was a start. “We brought kids and teachers of different races together in the same building, which particularly in the South had not been done before, and the significance of that undertaking alone cannot be understated.”
“But then,” Frankenberg added, “we took our foot off the gas pedal for desegregation.”
A Supreme Court ruling in 1991 gave judges broad leeway to end integration programs if they believed a district had already complied in good faith. And, one by one, desegregation court orders began to fall.
A white parent’s lawsuit toppled Charlotte’s integration program in 1999 despite objections from the district, which tried to defend it. Today, Charlotte has the most segregated schools in North Carolina, as well as significant achievement gaps between Black and white students.
While Black students represented just under a third of all students enrolled in public schools in the Charlotte metro area in 2018, an NBC News analysis found that a typical Black student attended a school that was disproportionately Black. This is a sharp change from 1988, when the average Black student attended a school that mirrored the demographics of the metro area.
Other rollbacks had a similar impact. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, two integrated high schools created by a 1979 desegregation order were replaced by smaller, more segregated schools in 2000 when that order was thrown out. Since 1993, the percent of Black students in highly segregated Tuscaloosa-area schools has grown from 39 percent to 53 percent.
In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, over the same time period, the percent of Black students in highly segregated schools has tripled. Kenosha, Wisc., the latest city to land in the national spotlight after the shooting of a Black man by police, has a relatively small Black population but the percentage of students in highly segregated schools is inching up. A city that did not have a single highly segregated school in 1993 had two such schools last year.
And across the country, Black and brown children have been increasingly concentrated in schools with high teacher turnover, aging textbooks, fewer advanced courses, and, ultimately, lower test scores. Blacks have continued to lag behind white peers on many economic measures. They’re less likely to attend and graduate from college, more likely to be unemployed, less likely to own their home and more likely to live in poverty.
‘We outlawed de facto segregation’
The story of school integration in Minneapolis is somewhat different from the rest of the country since it was state and regional policy — not a federal court order — that made the Twin Cities an integration success story, said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has spent his career documenting the resegregation of schools and neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.
Though Minneapolis schools were under a desegregation court order from 1972 to 1983, two local policies from that time had a bigger impact, Orfield said. One was a program that required municipalities in the region to develop affordable housing. That essentially prevented the suburbs from excluding low-income families that were more likely to be families of color.
The other was a state law that barred districts from concentrating too many students of any one race in any one school. If any school had significantly more Black or white or Latino students than the district as a whole, the district could lose state funding, Orfield said.
“We outlawed de facto segregation,” he said. “We forbid it and didn’t allow it to occur in any form.”
Then the politics of integration began to shift. The housing policy fell victim to changes in federal funding and local priorities in the 1980s. The school desegregation law lasted into the 1990s, when the state’s governor and Legislature were on the verge of expanding it to include more of the suburbs. Then, in 1998, the state’s attorney general issued an opinion that largely gutted it, Orfield said.
The attorney general, Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III, was running for governor at the time. His opinion asserted, among other things, that existing desegregation programs were illegal.
“He just wiped it out,” Orfield said. “He changed our civil rights law by 180 degrees.”
Humphrey, who lost that race for governor, did not respond to requests for comment.
After that, Orfield said, desegregation efforts became largely optional — school districts that wanted to integrate could qualify for extra state funding, but districts could opt out without consequences, or use the funding ineffectively. At the same time, the rise of a new school choice system further hampered integration efforts.
Minnesota had been a national leader in school choice in the 1990s. It was the first state to allow privately run, publicly funded charter schools and it created programs allowing students to attend schools in neighboring districts.
Supporters believed choice would help integrate schools by giving low-income families of color a way out of low-performing schools. But in practice, some white families used choice to avoid integration.
“If families did not want to send their kids to a school with, quote, ‘those kids,’ they could escape, and a number did,” said Bill Green, who was the superintendent of Minneapolis schools from 2006 to 2010.
Choice programs also hurt Minneapolis schools financially, Green said. As suburban schools recruited city students — sometimes using desegregation dollars to do so — city enrollment declined, as did state funding. And Green, who is Black and now a history professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, questioned whether students of color were getting a better education in schools that didn’t necessarily have racially diverse teachers or curriculums.
As the choice system grew more popular, districts faced financial pressure and began pulling out of the multidistrict integration consortiums that, decades earlier, had created diverse magnet schools to comply with the law when it had more teeth. Most of those schools have closed.
The magnet schools had offered a “real, visible, tangible” way for the region to work toward “a common goal of equity and inclusion,” said Bassett, who served on the board of a regional integration consortium.
When districts walked away, “they dismantled something that was unique, that really set us apart,” Bassett said. The region’s integration programs “gave such hope,” she added, “and then slowly, over time, it got chipped away and chipped away.”
‘They can do it everywhere’
Schools across the country have become more diverse in recent years as Hispanic and Asian populations have grown; white children are no longer a majority in public schools. But Black and Latino students in U.S. cities remain highly isolated. While 16 percent of U.S. public school students were Black in 2018, NBC News’ analysis found that a typical Black student attended a school that was 48 percent Black.
Addressing this problem will require different solutions than those tried in the past, experts say. Recent Supreme Court rulings have largely barred the use of race in student enrollment, so districts would need to use other criteria, such as family income or ZIP code. Plus, suburban sprawl has spread students over larger areas, making busing to magnet schools more complicated.
Some experts, like Johnson, the Berkeley economist, say the solution includes housing policy changes aimed at integrating both neighborhoods and schools, as well as changes to school funding systems to prevent isolating needier children in financially strapped schools.
Others, like Frankenberg, from Penn State, said new technology such as computer models that could identify effective changes to school attendance zones could be deployed to help schools desegregate.
And in Minneapolis, Dan Shulman is using the tool that worked back in the 20th century: a lawsuit.
A suit Shulman filed on behalf of Minneapolis and St. Paul students in 2015 — Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota — won the backing of the state Supreme Court on a key argument and is now in mediation.
Shulman, a staff attorney for the Minnesota ACLU, said he’s been working on a settlement with Attorney General Keith Ellison. The two are developing integration strategies that could withstand legal challenges, including adding magnet schools and hiring and retaining teachers who are highly qualified and diverse, Shulman said.
Just as protests on the streets in Minneapolis this spring inspired similar demonstrations in cities across the country, Shulman hopes his desegregation lawsuit can inspire efforts elsewhere.
“Now we have a national black eye, which is well deserved and long overdue,” he said, citing statistics that show large academic and economic gaps between Black and white residents of the region.
But he hopes his lawsuit can change that.
“If we can do it here in one of the worst areas, with the greatest gaps and the most segregation,” he said, “they can do it everywhere.”