The Unforgiving Math of School Segregation

A blog about business and economics.
July 3 2013 10:14 AM

The Unforgiving Math of School Segregation

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DALLAS, TX - MARCH 23: Students participate in the American Heart Association's Teaching Garden Plant Day at Moss Haven Elementary School on March 23, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Photo by Peter Larsen/Getty Images For The American Heart Association

Greg Kauffman offers a striking fact about de facto school segregation: "74 percent of African Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s."

There's abundant evidence that this is a bad situation for black kids. But it's worth underscoring that this isn't just about a "lack of commitment by the federal government and multiple decisions by the Supreme Court." According to the 2010 Census, Non-Hispanic whites were just 54 percent of the under-18 population. Back in 1980, they were 74 percent of the under-18 population. In other words, back in 1980 there were many more white schoolkids. And even though the 2010 Census was conducted recently, when you're talking about schoolkids and demographic change small numbers matter. The 17- and 18 year-old cohorts that are now ought of school will have been whiter than the 5- and 6-year old cohorts that are now in school. Among kids under the age of 5, non-Hispanic whites are a minority. Meanwhile, the white people are not distributed evenly across the country. You're not going urban minority kids to Maine and Idaho or the Texas panhandle so that they can attend more integrated schools. Nor are we about to ban the practice of rich people (who are disproproportionately white) from sending their kids to private schools.

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So you're going to face a situation where most schools are majority-minority and the vast majority of minority kids are in majority-minority schools and there's not going to be anything you can do about it other than try to make those schools be really good schools. Public school systems simply don't have the capacity to conjure up the large quantities of city-dwelling white children who'd be needed to create a situation where everyone's attending an ethnically mixed but mostly white school.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.