Does Diversity Matter?: How we are becoming more segregated in the U.S.

Lola and I sat in the back of the auditorium. On stage, students rapped haltingly and slightly off-tune. Students, all recently arrived immigrants, were diverse: one was from Nepal, one from Japan, two were from China, two from the Dominican Republic, and still another from West Africa. The group was rounded out by a Haitian, and a boy who had grown up in both the Dominican Republic and France, who rapped in Spanish, French, English and Arabic– a language he had decided to learn a few months earlier and practiced with the many Yemenese students. In the audience, their hip-hop teacher and classmates cheered loudly as if Jay-Z himself had materialized. The school where I do my research was holding a townhall meeting to boost student morale and come together as a community.

As Lola (a pseudonym) and I whispered together, she told me about how she had come to be a teacher in such a setting.

I’m here because I attended a school in Virginia that was incredibly diverse, she said. And continued: it was the only high school in the area, and so everyone went. Rich kids, poor kids. White girls from the suburbs like me, and kids from Eastern Europe and Ghana. That experience has influenced so many of my life choices. 

I knew from our previous conversations that Lola had studied Russian and lived and worked in Russia. In the classroom, she gives students multicultural literature. One story described Native American burial practices, while another was set in what we New Yorkers affectionately call Nuyorican (Puerto Rican) New York.

Like Lola, I too was raised in diversity. Before I was fourteen I had lived in the U.S., Canada and Germany, and had learned three different languages. As a young adult, I navigated the intense transnational diversity of London and Los Angeles.  In London, my best friend was first generation Welsh-Chinese who had lived in Paris for a decade and spoke fluent French. My boyfriend was an Australian who had lived for many years in Beijing. Transcultural interactions and multilingualism was normal, fun, and preferred.

While my personal experience  has taught me about the joy of diversity, demographics in our schools show something else. In May 2014, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles reported that schools are rapidly become more segregated. In fact, desegregation efforts of the 1960s have been rolled back both through legislation, and increasing poverty implicating communities of color. As seen in the chart below (originally displayed in a post on Business Insider), disaggregating data by racial category shows declining integration in schools.

screen shot 2014-05-29 at 1.28.27 pm

The dark blue line shows how Blacks in the South were intensely segregated in schools in 1968 but more integrated by the late 1980s. However, since the 1980s segregation has been slowly climbing. What are the implications of this pattern? I have been asking myself this question a lot lately, wondering about the temperature of where we are nationally. I wonder– does diversity matter to us as a people? The answer at which I have arrived pains me.

Well, no. No, diversity isn’t a public value today.

I have reached this conclusion for several reasons. First, academic research in education and law, we have documented how affirmative action and civil rights legislation has been dismantled, slowly and systematically. Think of the roll back of busing schemes in cities around the country. Busing was originally implemented as a way to integrate schools across neighborhoods. Some of the roll back was good, as busing was rarely two-way street. Black children did most of the busing, while white children did not.

But, think also about the attack on affirmative action at the higher university level. In other words, resources go to maintaining segregated schools. These things- in addition to segregated neighborhoods due to racial profiling, and other systems maintained by whiteness– add up to an institutional and economic structure in which integration and diversity do not matter as a goal of public life and public education.

Secondly, consider rhetoric around our education system that privileges “accountability” and “standards” and racing to the tops of things. We talk about testing: testing teachers, kids and systems. We talk about making it harder to get into colleges and out of high schools by changing the content of curriculum.

How do we get to a place where we can become willing to talk about the gifts and opportunities of cultural, racial, gendered, linguistic, religious and sexual diversity?


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