How to talk (and not talk) about race and school segregation

There have been two big stories published about school segregation recently. If you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend checking both out. But, then come back here!

The first that I’ll talk about is the New York Times/ProPublica investigation into racial disparities in the Charlottesville, VA public schools. I’ll then compare that to the coverage of a school integration effort in San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) at

This post focuses on how each outlet covered school diversity issues, especially their discussion of race. Of course, socioeconomic integration and racial integration overlap. Sometimes, their differences can become blurred under the heading of school integration. But, research shows that there are unique benefits associated with racial integration. As I’ll try to show here, when media coverage brushes past these differences, it leaves the public with a very hollow definition of integration. So, to the stories!

The New York Times/ProPublica article traces educational inequities in Charlottesville via the stories of two high school seniors, both black young women who are long-time best friends, yet attend two very different schools. Zyahna attends a mostly white school, while Trinity attended the city’s predominantly black schools.

Here are just a few of the disparities mentioned in the article:

  • “White children are about four times as likely to be in Charlottesville’s gifted program, while black students are more than four times as likely to be held back a grade and almost five times as likely to be suspended out of school.”
  • “As of last year, half of all black students in Charlottesville could not read at grade level, compared with only a tenth of white students.”

(While we’re talking about ProPublica, I should plug this fantastic new database called Miseducation, which makes it very easy to search federal data for educational disparities like these.)

One of the strengths of the article is its effort to disentangle socioeconomics from race. As the authors note, district officials “point to socioeconomic differences,” yet “socioeconomics don’t fully explain the gap.” This part is particularly notable:

  • “State exam data shows that, among Charlottesville children from low-income families, white students outperformed black students in all subjects over the last three years. The same pattern holds true for wealthier students.”

The article then goes into detail about the history and policies that fuel racial inequity, before coming back to the two students featured at the start. At her school, Zyahna “felt isolated,” yet became an activist. She actually petitioned the city council to remove the Lee statue that was at the center of the white supremacist torch march last year. Meanwhile, Trinity was repeatedly barred from enrolling in higher level courses and, as a result, was unable to earn an “advanced” diploma, greatly limiting her educational opportunities. Despite these differences, both students were counseled into attending community college. Their reactions say it all:

  • Trinity: “It made me realize I really haven’t been prepared like the rest of the students to be ‘college ready.’”
  • Zyahna: “No matter how high your scores are or how many hours you put into your work, you are still black.”

Both are stunning descriptions of how students’ opportunities can be limited due to structural racism (Trinity) and interpersonal racism (Zyahna), and together they illustrate the importance of talking about race in school integration.

So, maybe you can tell where I’m going: while the Charlottesville story provides an example of how to talk about racial integration, I found the San Antonio story illustrates what is left out when school integration discussions don’t include race.

SAISD’s integration plan is based on an analysis of socio-economic factors, but it does not consider race. The 74 has very detailed coverage, including multiple videos that explain various aspects of the plan. (I will come back to the plan in a future post, because – separate from the media coverage – there’s much more to say about the plan itself.) In its coverage however, there is very little discussion of race. In fact, this is the only use of the word “race” (or a variant) in the article:

  • “And then [the superintendent] started integrating schools, not by race — 91 percent of his students are Latino and more than 6 percent are black — but by income, factoring in a spectrum of additional elements such as parents’ education levels and homelessness.”

Of course, the implication is that in a majority non-white district, racial integration is moot. However, this leaves out a lot.

Going back to the Miseducation database, a quick look at SAISD reveals that:

  • The district is rated as highly segregated between Black and White students.
  • White students are 3x more likely than Black students to be enrolled in Talented and Gifted programs.
  • Although the district population is 6% Black, Black students make up 15% of all out-of-school suspensions.

Throughout the coverage (and in its very title), the 74 highlights SAISD’s integration plan as “America’s most radical,” because of its focus on socioeconomics and its use of school choice. Indeed, the 74 emphasizes these exact points at the end of several videos about the SAISD plan, as seen in this gif that I made:

I’ll wrap up with several problems associated with this.

First, in a time where race-conscious policies are under existential attack at the K-12 and higher education levels, it is important that we talk about places that use race-conscious integration plans. Using race in a voluntary integration plan has to be done carefully, but it is legal and constitutionally protected.

By highlighting the SAISD plan as “radical,” the 74 directs attention away from race-conscious plans and gives the impression that voluntary integration of any kind is rare. Meanwhile, a recent report from the Center for Education and Civil Rights (where I work), found 60 districts nationwide that use a voluntary school integration plan. It may not be a huge number, but it’s also something that is happening in a lot of places across the country, in conservative and liberal states, in rural places and in cities. We are currently digging into these plans to determine which are most effective in promoting racial integration.

Second, ignoring race in American school segregation requires a willful ignorance of history. The Charlottesville story, for example, goes into detail about how the city’s historical legacy is reflected in debates about the very zoning policies that sent Trinity and Zyahna to different schools. Although there is a similar story in San Antonio, the 74 piece brushes past this history. In San Antonio, district lines were initially developed in 1947 when property owners were allowed to deny sale to non-white homebuyers. As you can see, the result is a byzantine mess that preserves racial segregation. In all, the city of San Antonio has “between 16 and 19 independent school districts,” including SAISD in the center.



As in virtually all cities, there’s a deep and troubling history of racial exclusion here, much of which is detailed in this San Antonio Current piece from just a few months ago. Surely this history affects school integration in San Antonio today. For example, SAISD has open enrollment agreements with neighboring districts, so, despite what is implied by the 74 article, SAISD isn’t beholden to the racial demographics within its particular boundaries. To their credit, SAISD leaders are actively trying to use open enrollment to diversify SAISD schools. It’s just that the 74 doesn’t talk about this in terms of race and doesn’t link to this past.

Racial history is deeply important in school integration media coverage- understanding that the past is not really past, understanding the historical obligation that we owe historically disadvantaged. In the 74’s story, integration is a smart idea developed and implemented by talented district leaders. In the New York Times/ProPublica story, integration is so much more than that – it’s righting a historical wrong, it’s valuing children (children!) whose families have historically and unconscionably been undervalued. Good media coverage needs to write about this so that readers can think about what it means to them personally or politically. This is particularly important in an era in which school integration depends so much on the voluntary choices of individual families and the political will of district leaders.

7 thoughts on “How to talk (and not talk) about race and school segregation

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