Law Professor Elise Boddie: School Segregation is 'Epicenter of Racial Injustice'

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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 collaborated with civic organizations, students, faith leaders, educators, and researchers  to desegregate the state’s public schools. She also advises counsel for plaintiffs 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% 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 vs. Board of Education, that were brought in federal court to overturn intentional segregation, this litigation is one of America’s few state-level desegregation suits.  It challenges “de facto segregation” in public schools, which is a product of intentionally discriminatory policies of past decades, like redlining, which 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 courses. These inequities have systemic effects.  It’s harder for them to attend college, which affects their job opportunities and, eventually, the kinds of resources they will have throughout their life.  

School segregation is the epicenter of racial injustice, not just 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 about school segregation as a problem faced by Black and Latino children.  But segregation also harms white children.  We’ve known this for some time.  For example, a brief filed by white social scientists in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education concluded that segregation leads white children to overestimate their abilities in relation to Black children.  When white children are isolated from Black children, they don’t see their talents and possibilities.  Segregation also encourages children to “otherize” those outside of their social environment, which can lead to racial hostility.  This idea didn’t begin with Brown.  A segregation case filed against the 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) argued that white students who grow up in a segregated environment, "are nursed in the sentiments of caste.'' The same holds true today.  

How is school segregation in New Jersey linked to housing segregation?

Beginning in the 1930s through 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, the federal government denied mortgage insurance to anyone who wanted to buy a house in a Black neighborhood.  That racist policy decision led to decades of public and private disinvestment in Black communities, including in New Jersey.  As a result, Black people could not accumulate wealth to the same degree as whites who lived in neighborhoods with a lot of public and private resources, including high-performing public schools.  That inequity continues to this day:  Low-income Black people who might prefer to live somewhere else often don’t have that option because they don’t have the resources to move.  White people, relatively speaking, have more intergenerational wealth, which gives them more mobility and more neighborhood choice.  Exclusionary zoning makes the problem worse because it limits the availability of affordable housing in wealthy communities that tend to be overwhelmingly white.  Another problem is that a sizeable amount of school funding comes from property taxes.  So if you're in a low-wealth area, you have low-wealth schools.  When you have a state law—as we do in New Jersey-- that requires children to go to school in the segregated neighborhoods where they live, that often means that they’ll attend segregated schools.  

How can we make desegregation work?

We can decouple schools and residence by allowing students to attend schools outside their zoned district, including by creating regional schools.  Another option is to create magnet schools with different academic specialties to attract students.  For example, this might include schools that specialize in teaching languages, science, and/or arts.  We also have to think about how to design schools for equity, including making sure that the curriculum is not only robust but also speaks to the experiences of students.  Doing all this requires the right kind of leadership.  Therefore, we need highly motivated and committed superintendents, principals, and teachers.  We also have to make sure that historically marginalized communities have a seat at the table and that they play a central role in designing and building these school systems.

How has your own experience as a student shaped your perspective?

I've been in schools that have done integration well and schools that haven't done it well. I went to kindergarten in Los Angeles, where I was bused to a school that I loved.  I remember nothing about the bus rides; all I remember is the school.  When I was older, I attended school in a suburb of Houston, Texas. There were about 1,000 students in the school but only a handful of Black kids.  That’s not integration; that’s tokenism, which is harmful to children. We have to make sure we avoid the same pitfalls.