Law professor Elise Boddie, who teaches at Rutgers-Newark, is founder and director of The Inclusion Project (TIP), which works to promote systemic equity in public education. Since 2017, she has worked with civic organizations, students, religious leaders, educators, and researchers to desegregate the state’s public schools. She is also advising plaintiffs’ attorney in a lawsuit challenging segregation in New Jersey, which is among the worst in the nation. More than 270,000 black and Latino students attend schools that are more than 90 percent non-white, according to state data. Plaintiffs include the Latino Action Network, the New Jersey Chapter of the NAACP and the United Methodist Church. Unlike landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which were brought in federal court to strike down intentional segregation, this litigation is one of the few desegregation suits at the US state level. It challenges the “de facto segregation” in public schools, which is the product of intentionally discriminatory policies of the past decades, such as redlining, which has led to disinvestment in black communities.
Below, Boddie talks about the history and impact of school segregation in New Jersey and elsewhere.
How does school segregation affect children from all backgrounds?
Children in racially segregated Black and Latino schools tend to have fewer educational resources. For example, they are more likely to be in overcrowded classrooms, to be taught by more substitute teachers, and to have less access to AP classes. These inequalities have systemic effects. It is more difficult for them to go to university, which affects their employment opportunities and, eventually, the types of resources they will have throughout their lives.
School segregation is the epicenter of racial injustice, not only because of its material consequences – such as how it leads to systemic underfunding of urban schools – but also because it conditions people to be suspicious, distrustful and resentful of those who are different. We often think of school segregation as an issue facing black and Latino children. But segregation also hurts white children. We’ve known that for some time. For example, a brief filed by white social scientists in Brown v. The Supreme Court’s Board of Education in 1954 concluded that segregation leads white children to overestimate their abilities compared to black children. When white kids are isolated from black kids, they don’t see their talents and possibilities. Segregation also encourages children to “other” those outside their social environment, which can lead to racial hostility. This idea did not start with Brown. A segregation case filed against Boston public schools in the 1840s by Charles Sumner (who was later elected to the U.S. Senate and became a radical opponent of slavery) claimed that white students growing up in a segregated environment “are nurtured by caste feelings.” The same is true today.
How is school segregation in New Jersey related to residential segregation?
From the 1930s to 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, the federal government denied mortgage insurance to anyone who wanted to buy a home in a black neighborhood. This racist political decision led to decades of public and private disinvestment in black communities, including in New Jersey. As a result, blacks could not accumulate wealth to the same degree as whites who lived in neighborhoods with many public and private resources, including high performing public schools. This inequity persists to this day: low-income black people who would prefer to live elsewhere often do not have that option because they lack the resources to move. Whites, relatively speaking, have more intergenerational wealth, which gives them more mobility and more neighborhood choices. Exclusionary zoning compounds the problem because it limits the availability of affordable housing in affluent communities that tend to be predominantly white. Another problem is that a significant portion of school funding comes from property taxes. So if you are in a low wealth area, you have low wealth schools. When you have a state law – like we do in New Jersey – that requires kids to go to school in the segregated neighborhoods where they live, that often means they will attend segregated schools.
How to make desegregation work?
We can decouple schools and residences by allowing students to attend schools outside their zoning, in particular by creating regional schools. Another option is to create magnet schools with different academic specialties to attract students. For example, this may include schools specializing in the teaching of languages, sciences and/or the arts. We also need to think about how to design schools for equity, including ensuring that the curriculum is not only strong, but also reflects students’ experiences. Doing all of this requires the right kind of leadership. Therefore, we need highly motivated and committed superintendents, principals and teachers. We also need to ensure that historically marginalized communities have a seat at the table and play a central role in designing and building these school systems.
How has your own experience as a student shaped your perspective?
I have been in schools that have done integration well and in schools that have not done it well. I went to kindergarten in Los Angeles, where I was bused to a school I loved. I don’t remember anything about the bus rides; all I remember is school. When I was older, I went to school in a suburb of Houston, Texas. There were about 1,000 students in the school, but only a handful of black children. This is not integration; it is symbolism, which is harmful to children. We must be careful to avoid the same pitfalls.