Then and now

Half a century after integrating a New Orleans school, Ruby Bridges says America is headed in the wrong direction

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
U.S. marshals escort Ruby Bridges to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.

At age 6, Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration as the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.

Today at 62, Ruby Bridges-Hall says the United States is going in the wrong direction on school integration.

The New Orleans school where she enrolled amidst protest from white families is now segregated again — this time with mostly black students.

And there’s a growing national trend of white suburban municipalities breaking off from their mostly black urban counterparts to form their own school systems. That’s what happened in Memphis in 2014 when six communities that ringed the city pulled out of newly consolidated Shelby County Schools.

PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Ruby Bridges-Hall claps during a May 20 student performance at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

With her own literacy-focused foundation, Bridges-Hall was in Memphis last weekend for a festival named after her at the National Civil Rights Museum. Chalkbeat sat down with her to talk about the state of school segregation today. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

How do you see school segregation today?

I’m a strong believer that if we are going to get past our racial differences, it’s going to come from the next generation, which is our kids. We all know that’s where racism starts. None of our babies are born knowing anything about disliking one another, disliking someone that looks different. It’s taught to them and handed down. So, if we can teach them to be racist, we can teach them not to be.

And I think that’s where I come in. My experience comes from that of a child having gone through segregation. So, I do feel like I can relate to today’s students better. And I think that they see themselves in my shoes in 1960 and that’s the reason they’re so drawn to the story.

Change won’t happen if we keep children separated. So it’s crucial that schools are integrated. We all have to come together to understand that it’s important that our kids grow up together. I think the best place for kids to get to know each other is in schools.

Can you expound on the moral obligation for integration to happen?

You have to want to do it. It’s about brothers and sisters and taking care of each other. That’s the moral obligation. That’s the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about. Now did we do it back then when he was talking about it? I don’t think so, which led us to where we are today. And now look how much worse it is. So, at some point we have to stop, think about that, and begin to come together for that moral obligation to one another as human beings.

Memphis schools are segregated. And recently an Alabama judge sanctioned the secession of a mostly white school district from a majority black one, despite the racial undertones. What’s your take on that trend?

They have the right to do that. I don’t know how that’s necessarily going to help the situation. I think eventually what they’re running from will run toward them. It’s affecting all of us, whether you live in the neighborhoods that that element comes from or not. That element comes out of that neighborhood and into yours. What they’re separating themselves from, they can’t run from that. I don’t think that’s the answer. And I think that’s what we’ve been doing since the civil rights movement. And it hasn’t helped at all. And it’s affecting all of us.

In what way?

It’s affecting all of us because, look at school shootings. I’ve gone into a school and later hear that someone’s gone in and shot 25 kids. So, what are you really running from? You can’t do that. I think that we think that we can, so we separate ourselves thinking that we’re going to isolate ourselves and we’ll be safe and we’ll be better educated and that sort of thing. And we see all around us that that’s not the case.

I don’t think that we think that deep. We don’t think about the moral issues. We just think “let’s start our own schools” and “we’re going to be safe” and “we’re going to be away from whatever.” No, that’s not happening. And segregation is happening all across the country. So, we have to come together. We can’t isolate ourselves, whether it be in schools, neighborhoods, churches, wherever.

What do you think it will take for us as a nation to move toward school integration again?

Wanting to — that’s it. You really have to want to. Because there’s no laws that we need to change anymore. You just have to want to. We’ve got to go back to thinking morally and being responsible for one another — the whole village coming together for our children.

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.