Racial Isolation in Metropolitan Schools

From a 1967 report Racial Isolation in the Public Schools by the United States Commission on Civil Rights:

To define the extent of racial isolation in the public schools, the Commission collected data on the racial composition of schools in more than 100 city school systems throughout the Nation. The data revealed that racial isolation in the public schools is extensive and has increased since 1954. School segregation is most severe in the Nation’s metropolitan areas where two-thirds of the country’s Negro and white populations now live.

My glib response on reading this in the archives today was “what else is new.” Of course, that’s not an intellectually defensible response, because much has changed. More than 80 percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas.


My students today discussed an article by Katherine Hankins and Elizabeth Egan Henry in JUH  about the small subsets of white parents in Buckhead and Northeast Atlanta neighborhoods who worked as advocates for public schooling from the 1970s to the 1990s.[1] Hankins and Henry paint a compelling picture of how neighborhood school activists, mostly women, mobilized and pressured their neighbors to keep their children in the public schools and school administrators to adapt curricula and resources to the preferences of parent organizations. They tell a story that is in many ways hopeful, in contrast to the story of white flight that Kevin Kruse tells, in which racialized interests in property and political control pushed whites to withdraw not only from the city of Atlanta but from public institutions they saw as racially tainted. I agree that it’s important to recognize the efforts of these activists, because the retreat from compelled desegregation and the Supreme Court’s rejection of voluntary systems of race-aware pupil placement for racial balancing mean that reversing the trend of racial isolation in public schools depends on affluent white people, who have access to a broader range of choice in the marketplace, choosing to live in the same school districts as minorities and to send their kids to those schools.

But understanding the motivations of these activists leaves me less than optimistic about the prospects of neighborhood school activists fully reversing white flight from Atlanta and its schools to the extent that it brings affluent families into urban areas and the children of affluent families into public schools (as my colleague Tyrone Forman points out, this discussion in Atlanta implicates affluent black families as well). In the first place, the return to the city’s public schools was predicated on the accommodation of the neighborhood schools concept in the notorious “Atlanta Compromise” settlement of the Calhoun suit against the Atlanta schools. This agreement affirmed neighborhood schools as the desired standard, rejected wide-scale busing or other measures, and affirmed an entitlement for parents in affluent and whiter-than-average areas to influence the schools their children attended. Residential patterns of racial and economic segregation were baked into this settlement and naturalized. In other words, while these public school-choosing parents consciously rejected flight from the school system, the limits to their progressive politics were sharply circumscribed by a racialized politics of place in which some schools and neighborhoods were “better” and more desirable than others.

The recent announcements of indictments against former Atlanta schools director Beverly Hall and a host of other reformist school officials as part of an apparent widespread conspiracy to doctor the answer sheets on standardized tests (which, in bitter irony, secured a half million dollars in performance bonuses for Hall but cost schools money when the cheating bumped them up in class from underperforming to performing schools) make me wonder how far the return to the city will go. From the point of view of affluent whites positioned to choose among metropolitan options, the cheating scandal highlights a number of fearsome elements: the context of low performance, the prospect of the system’s reputation suffering irreparable harm, and, perhaps most importantly, the system’s reorganization around a test-driven reform agenda that parents nationwide are beginning to recognize as detrimental to their children’s learning and intellectual growth. Perhaps the saddest part of the situation is that parents with the social capital, education, and time to mobilize against the “reform” agenda within Atlanta schools are the ones most likely to conclude that the system’s problems might be for other people’s children after all.


1. Henry, Elizabeth Egan, and Katherine Hankins. “Halting White Flight: Parent Activism and the (Re)shaping of Atlanta’s ‘Circuits of Schooling,’ 1973-2009.” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 3 (May 2012): 532–552.

One comment on “Racial Isolation in Metropolitan Schools

  1. […] defended through reform regimes that substitute tight labor discipline for material equity and preserve segregation. Environmental protection has been refigured through the quality of life concerns of north Fulton […]

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