In early February, the White House announced that President Obama’s budget would include a new grant program meant to support local schools’ efforts to further socioeconomic integration. The “Stronger Together” grants would provide $120 million as competitive grants for schools that voluntarily take actions that break up concentrated poverty. Largely praising Stronger Together, The National Coalition on School Diversity writes, “The Administration’s 2017 budget demonstrates a solid understanding of the research base that supports the use of integration strategies. Studies consistently show that racially, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse schools are strongly associated with a range of short and long term benefits for all racial groups. This includes gains in math, science, reading, and critical thinking skills and improvements in graduation rates.” Stronger Together should be celebrated for attempting to tackle one specific dimension of school segregation, that is, segregation by poverty status, but we must be very careful that socioeconomic integration is not considered as a proxy for racial integration. The new frontier of school integration cannot be understood through a purely socioeconomic lens, because this obfuscates the ways in which race persists independently as a salient characteristic that structures segregation and opportunity. In this way, Stronger Together disappoints as an integration strategy for schools.
While we know that there is often double segregation by race and poverty in schools, and thus addressing economic integration theoretically may have important impacts on racial segregation, there are reasons to be skeptical of this argument. Research has demonstrated that race-conscious policies (as opposed to race-neutral policies) are crucial to maintaining racial integration. In 2007 when the Supreme Court was ruling on the use of race-conscious policies for the purposes of voluntary school desegregation efforts in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a group of 553 social scientists filed a friend of the court brief to support the use of such policies to further integration in schools. Among the arguments made were that resegregation typically results in the wake of race-neutral policies and that districts using choice or geographic-based assignment strategies tend to experience greater levels of segregation. But most importantly in terms of the implications for Stronger Together, the brief reads, “Statistical analyses evaluating whether income-based integration plans in the nation’s largest school districts would create racially integrated schools found that income-based plans based on student school lunch eligibility would have little or no effect in producing racial integration.” The Court ultimately struck down the district’s voluntary integration plans in Parents Involved that included race as one factor in assigning students to schools. Resting on the argument that the Constitution requires the government be colorblind in its actions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the plurality, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Echoes of such arguments can be seen in integration plans that do not include race as a factor to integrate students.
The Parents Involved decision has very important impacts for integration initiatives such as Stronger Together. Though socioeconomic integration is clearly an important way to increase one dimension of school diversity and should be pursued, it cannot replace strategies that should be used to combat racial segregation and resegregation. The Stronger Together initiative must be considered in the context of the increasing impossibility of using race-conscious measures to further racial integration. A commitment to ignore race in integration programs represents a willful blindness to the conditions past and present that make government action to further racial integration necessary. Not only were there years of de jure segregation in the South, but there has been and continues to be de facto segregation across the country in housing and in schools that governments at local, state and federal levels has been a part of creating and maintaining. These conditions make continued federal intervention to pursue racial desegregation necessary, and we know that the best way to achieve that is to use race-conscious measures; using socioeconomic status cannot be a proxy for race. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent to the Court’s decision in Parents Involved, “The last half century has witnessed great strides toward racial equality, but we have not yet realized the promise of Brown…This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret.” Stronger Together is one such legacy of that decision, an integration program that will not consider race. It is regrettable that an integration initiative today is silent on racial integration, and it is indicative of the entrenched nature of notions of colorblindness and our abdication of responsibility for the public policies that have created and maintained racial segregation.