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This American Life explains why school segregation still exists — and is so hard to change

School integration has shrunk steadily for nearly three decades: Ever since 1988, the number of black students and white students who attend school together has decreased. And the achievement gap between black and white students has grown.

Sunday's This American Life provided a potent look at how hard it is to reverse that trend, and how strong the resistance to school integration still is. Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine reported from Missouri's Normandy School District, where Ferguson's Michael Brown went to school before he was shot by police officer Darren Wilson last August:

Students from Normandy began to integrate majority white schools in the St. Louis suburbs almost by accident, when Normandy lost its state accreditation. Students from the district, which was almost entirely black and had a dismal academic record, could transfer to Francis Howell, a majority white district with much better test scores. A thousand parents — one-third of the district — opted to send their students to that district, even though it was 30 miles away. Some buses left as early as 5 am.

The most powerful section in Hannah-Jones's report is from a meeting in Francis Howell, where parents vehemently objected to accepting poorer, black students from a failing district, even though they were required to by law. (It starts at the 24-minute mark in the audio above.)

  • "I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be, and I want to know where your drug-sniffing dogs are going to be," one mother said, to rapturous applause.
  • "I shopped for a school district," another said. "I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed or taking a drug or getting robbed."
  • "We don't have to like it, and we don't have to make it easy," another man suggested, saying the school district should start 20 minutes or 40 minutes earlier, "making it a little less appealing" for the Normandy students to attend.
  • And, perhaps inevitably, one parent argued that it wasn't about racism, but rather reverse racism: "This is not a race issue. I just want to say to… the first woman who came up here and cried that it was a race issue, I'm sorry, that's her prejudice calling me a racist because my skin is white."

The good news was that after facing this much opposition from parents, Normandy students ended up having a fairly good year in their new schools. But the following year, the state took over the district, and the transfer policy was canceled.

Hannah-Jones's full report is really worth your time (and it continues next week). Near the beginning, she sums up why integration works: "It is not something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids," she said. "It's not suddenly that a switch turns on and they get intelligence or the desire to learn when they're with white kids. It gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore it gets them access to the same things that those kids get — quality teachers and quality instruction."