Education – The New Segregation
On May 14th, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the segregation of public schools unconstitutional.¹ On July 2nd, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.² Centuries of institutional marginalization and legalized discrimination against African Americans was finally coming to an end. Hundreds of years of injustice had eviscerated the black community of social, financial, and educational resources. Many African Americans suddenly found themselves endowed with the same legal privileges as their fellow countrymen, without the tools needed to meaningfully compete in society.³ How can wealth be transferred across generations when no previous generations had been given the opportunity to amass wealth? How can social networks be leveraged in times of hardship when no one in your social network has any more power than you do? What foundation is there to educate upon when no one raising you has ever been properly educated themselves? While the progress we made in the mid-twentieth century is of massive importance in American history, it does not represent the moment when African Americans and other minority groups were lifted out of the hole created by generations of oppression. If anything, the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Era only represent the moment when we stopped digging.
LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Fast forward to the 1970’s, and the American job market is in the early stages of a seismic shift. Manufacturing jobs, once plentiful, secure, and well paid, are beginning to disappear due to outsourcing and automation. A faltering economy leads to layoffs and underemployment, as well as stagnant wage growth and reduced employee benefits. These changes led to an increasingly desperate workforce, willing to take lower quality jobs and reduced pay to make ends meet. Decrease in job quality and increase of low paying position accelerated the decline of labor unions, further reducing the collective bargaining power of the American workforce. As these trends continued into the 1980’s and 1990’s, executive salaries began to soar as entry level jobs paid comparatively lower and lower wages. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, such low wage jobs were increasingly sought out by the expanding low skill immigrant labor force, comprised of individuals who were willing to work for little pay.⁴
As such patterns persisted over decades, workers began to find themselves unprepared for retirement at unprecedented levels. This phenomenon flushed the labor market with older, more experienced job seekers, further raising the bar for those without education or marketable skills. Entry level and low skill jobs became increasingly temporary, often designed to support a small cadre of permanent employees with higher wages, quality benefits, and enhanced job security. These increasingly common employment situations, not designed for those trying to make a living but for those willing to settle, have resulted in what social scientists refer to as the “casualization” of the workforce. Employment arrangements have become progressively more casual as job insecurity increases and benefits decrease.⁵
If these economic changes that started in the 1970’s were negative for American society at large, they were especially caustic for the newly “enfranchised” African American community. Seemingly overnight, work ethic, common sense, and company loyalty were replaced by education, social capital, and advanced skills as the key criteria for landing gainful employment. These elements were severely lacking in the African American community of the late twentieth century. Just as African Americans were coming out from under the spectre of institutional injustice, they found themselves deeper in the mire of systemic inequality brought on by the new, knowledge based economy.⁶ In other words, segregation had been replaced by education.
“In other words, segregation had been replaced by education.“
This is a trend that persists today. Many American communities remain highly geographically segregated, with African American and other minority groups living in concentrated areas of affordable or subsidized housing. Public schools receive much of their funding from local tax dollars, and as such some public schools in low income areas can be seriously underfunded. Such budget shortages tend to result in a chronic lack of supplies, understaffing, lower quality programming, and academic underperformance. This inequity between districts and across schools is highlighted by the fact that American schools are currently more segregated than at any time since school integration in the Civil Rights Era.⁷
Levels of educational achievement for African Americans and other minority groups reflect this alarming statistic. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, only 36% of African American students and 37% of Hispanic/Latino students are prepared for college upon graduation, compared with 80% of their white counterparts (based on ACT proficiencies).
Moreover, only 34% of economically disadvantaged students in Winston-Salem are prepared for college upon high school graduation, compared with 74% of non economically disadvantaged students (based on ACT proficiencies).⁸
The consequences of such numbers are real, and they reach far beyond the classroom. Low quality jobs (discussed above) are disproportionately occupied by minority workers in the United States, to the point that social scientists often refer to entire categories of employment as “segregated job fields.”¹⁰ These jobs do not provide employment security or adequate pay, tend to keep minority communities low income, and, in turn, lead to underfunded schools. The cycle continues to repeat.
Education is indeed our generation’s segregation. We must remember that there was a time when racial segregation seemed normal, when Jim Crow laws were a reality that just had to be accepted. We look back at such assumptions with horror now, as our children and their children will look back at ours if we do not make a change. These are the injustices the Piedmont Renewal Network exists to combat, and the work is only just beginning.
¹ “History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment,” USCourts.gov, 2/27/2019. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board-education-re-enactment.
² “Civil Rights Act (1964),” Ourdocuments.gov, 2/27/2019. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=97
³ William Julius Wilson. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner-City. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009).
⁴ Arne L. Kalleberg. Good Jobs Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).
⁶ John Iceland, Poverty in America: A Handbook, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013).
⁷ Richard Rothstein. For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since. Economic Policy Institute. 8/27/2013. https://www.epi.org/files/2013/Unfinished-March-School-Segregation.pdf.
⁸ “Preparation for College and Career,” Forsyth Futures, accessed February 28th, 2019. https://www.forsythfutures.org/indicator_preparation-for-college-and-career/
¹⁰ Arne L. Kalleberg. Good Jobs Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).