More than six decades after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, increasing numbers of black children in the U.S. attend what researchers call “apartheid schools” where students of color comprise more than 99 percent of the population.
Such schools educate one-third of black students in New York City and half of the black students in Chicago; nationwide, according to a report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, they educated more than 15 percent of African-American kids and 14 percent of Latinos in 2012. Even in places where racial segregation isn’t quite so absolute, the physical divide between white kids and kids of color in public schools—and charter schools—keeps growing.
We’ve gotten used to explaining the segregation we see in our schools by pointing to the segregation we see in our neighborhoods. It seems pretty simple: Kids who don’t live in the same place aren’t likely to go to the same school.
But that explanation has it backwards. In many cities across the U.S., public schools were the first and nearly always the most effective of the tools white residents had to police the boundaries of their neighborhoods. Often, it was school segregation that created neighborhood segregation, not the other way around.
Take Progressive-era Baltimore, for example. Before 1954, this was a Jim Crow town. Laws segregated its parks and playgrounds and allowed the owners of movie theaters, department stores, restaurants, and hotels to discriminate against whomever they liked. White children went to white schools, black children to “colored” ones. The city was, famously, a segregation pioneer: From 1910 to 1917 the nation’s first residential segregation ordinance told (or tried to tell) African-Americans where they could and could not live.
But before that, Baltimore was like many other other multiracial cities: Black people and white people were often each other’s neighbors, living side by side in one historian calls a “salt and pepper” pattern. For example, on one working-class West Baltimore block, the 1900 Census counted a white grocer and his family living next door to an African-American waiter and his family; down the street, an Irish marble-polisher lived between a white butter dealer and a black musician. As historian Karen Olson notes in The Baltimore Book, at the turn of the 20th century, “although African Americans constituted 10 percent or more of the total population in three-fourths of the city’s 20 wards, no single ward was more than one-third black.”
This made segregation a scattershot proposition. According to the city’s rules, white pupils got new schools and black pupils got hand-me-downs, converted (as the Baltimore Sun reported in 1903) “when the neighborhoods in which such schools were situated became colored neighborhoods.” But in a majority-white city with no identifiably black neighborhoods, what did this mean?
According to the school board’s taxonomy, there was no such thing as an integrated neighborhood: A place was “white” or it was “colored,” with no in-between. But the decision to convert or not convert a particular school wasn’t nearly so straightforward. It depended on the discretion of the board, and in particular on the judgment of the city’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Baltimore’s first school conversion of the 20th century took place in 1901 under the supervision of a brand-new superintendent, a Coloradan named James Van Sickle. It was the English-German School at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street, one of a handful of bilingual public schools established in the city after the Civil War to accommodate an influx of German immigrants.
By the turn of the century, few German speakers still lived in that part of West Baltimore, and half the chairs in the school built for them only 15 years earlier sat empty. It seemed to Van Sickle like a no-brainer: Close the English-German school and open in its place the city’s first Colored High School and Polytechnic Institute.
But the superintendent’s proposal went off like a bomb in the heart of then-white West Baltimore. Protestors packed school board meetings and fired off pugnacious letters to city officials and newspaper editors. Most did not speak German, and many did not even have school-age children, but still their dedication to the preservation of the half-empty English-German School was absolute. Why? “We are not actuated by race prejudice,” one explained to a newspaper reporter that summer, “but we desire to preserve the value of our property, which has taken some of us a lifetime of hard work to accumulate.”
As many writers have noted, the market preference for segregation was one of the most powerful forces shaping the 20th-century American city. For white homeowners, Jim Crow schools were more than just schools: They were chess pieces blocking black migration. They were also an insurance policy, a promise from the city to keep white assets safe.
Baltimore’s is an instructive story, but it’s not unique. In the decades before Brown, Southern cities with legally segregated schools, such as Nashville and Raleigh, used them deliberately to carve out all-white neighborhoods and isolate all-black ones. The same phenomenon was at work in the West and Southwest, where school officials blamed “special language needs” for their concentration of Mexican and Mexican-American students—even those who were fluent in English (or did not speak Spanish at all)—in schools with virtually no white students. Even Northern cities where segregated schools had ostensibly been outlawed—places like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston—had often had them for generations. The settlement patterns they established didn’t just dissolve; neither, for that matter, did their labels. Officially or not, a black school tended to stay that way.
Schools were the first tools available to whites who wanted to guarantee that their neighborhoods would remain segregated, but they were not the only ones. After the Supreme Court overturned residential segregation laws like Baltimore’s in 1917, cities across the country embraced one segregationist measure after another, like exclusionary zoning, restrictive covenants (ruled unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948), and—especially after World War II—mortgage redlining.
But each one of these policies was pegged, still, to the promise of segregated schools. For decades, developers used the promise of “good” schools—code, then as now, for majority-white schools—to lure white homebuyers to new neighborhoods they were building on the urban fringe. Before 1948, these neighborhoods were sometimes also segregated by covenant. More often, though, segregation was accomplished by what historian Jack Dougherty calls “branding.” And however they got that way, white-branded schools were supposed to guarantee white neighbors and high property values.
In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that suburban school districts (Detroit’s, in this case) didn’t have to participate in municipal busing schemes designed to desegregate city schools. The Court’s reasoning was that the causes of residential segregation were “unknown and perhaps unknowable,” so all-white suburbs shouldn’t have to bear its burdens. In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote:
School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races when…white parents withdraw their children from the Detroit city schools and move to the suburbs in order to continue them in all-white schools. The message of this action will not escape the Negro children in the city of Detroit.
We know, as Justice Marshall did, that these school district lines are never “innocently drawn.” We know that for almost two centuries, in almost every city in the United States, school communities didn’t just reflect patterns of residential segregation that already existed—instead, they helped create them.
And they’re still doing it. Urbanites continue to hie to the suburbs “for the schools,” or stay in the city and pay through the nose to live in the “right” school zone. When they do, they preserve a marketplace that, just like Baltimore’s in 1901, puts a hefty price tag on something that looks an awful lot like Jim Crow.