Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Education

Five Questions with Lawrence Blum and Zoë Burkholder, authors of “Integrations”

The promise of a free, high-quality public education is supposed to guarantee every child a shot at the American dream. But our widely segregated schools mean that many children of color do not have access to educational opportunities equal to those of their white peers. In their new book, Integrations, historian Zoë Burkholder and philosopher Lawrence Blum investigate what this country’s long history of school segregation means for achieving just and equitable educational opportunities in the United States, and we decided to ask them some questions to delve deeper into their findings.

book cover image for Integrations

In the introduction to Integrations, you frame the work as grounded in both history and philosophy. How did you negotiate your interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter? 

ZB: This was a really exciting part of the project for us, and we both enjoyed the challenge of fitting these two disciplines together into a coherent analysis. We wanted to ensure that the two disciplinary approaches were discernible so that readers could follow how historical and philosophical frameworks each add something significant—and original—to the complex question of how school integration correlates to educational equality in the United States. The result was a great deal of conversation—in person, and through written feedback and questions—about each other’s data, interpretation, and development of the book’s central argument. All parts of the book benefitted from this collaborative process.   

Why was Brown v. Board of Education ultimately unsuccessful in its aim to meaningfully end segregation in the American public education system? How do the lessons of the past point towards a more equitable future?

ZB: While it is true that Brown did not end segregation, it is important to acknowledge that this was a landmark ruling that transformed American public education as we know it and resulted in significant improvements in educational equality.

LB: Brown did not end school segregation for three reasons: (1) White resistance to integration and to educational equality for students of color. The decision was not self-enforcing and until the 1964 civil rights act, the federal government had no power to enforce it. By and large southern states did not implement it until forced to by that act, and by several supreme court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (2) Starting in the mid-1970s the Supreme Court began a decades-long retreat from the goal of integration, hampering or preventing states and districts from pursuing that goal. National policy did not strongly aim at integration during this period, i.e., up to the present. This is because conservative whites voted into office elected officials, including president Richard Nixon, who made dismantling school integration a priority. Nixon appointed four conservative justices to the supreme court who dutifully dismantled legal mandates for school desegregation. (3) Residential segregation, very widespread in the US, leads to school segregation, in the absence of strong policies to keep it from doing so, such as were mandated by the court in the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s but no longer after that.

On the equitable future question, the lessons from the past are that simply aiming at integration will not bring about equality, and even achieving integration will not do so. As long as class-based inequalities, especially in the extreme form we see them in the US, continue to plague us, educational equality is impossible.  Wealthy people can “game the system” and hoard opportunities for their children, disadvantaging the working class and poorer students. Poverty will continue to translate into an educational disadvantage. The inequality issue must be tackled front and center. Integration is not a substitute for dealing directly with inequality.

The value of integration is not primarily in bringing about equality, but rather in contributing to a robust civic education where children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds learn about each other and their (and their own) history, heritage, and culture, and learn to work with and respect each other.  This is the prime value of integration, not equality.

Can you say a few words about the history of race-based inequality and injustice in the US public school system today? Racial inequality in American public schools has endured for years, what’s the solution?

LB: Unless racial and class inequalities in the major domains of life—wealth, income, health, occupation, housing—are seriously reduced, it will not be possible for public education to be equal for all groups. President Biden’s poverty-reduction programs especially in the build back better act would do more for educational equality than anything schools purely by themselves can do.

Of course, schools and classes must strive to treat all students equally, as well as teaching students about social justice and injustice in society.

ZB: History shows us that Americans built public schools to exclude and discriminate against children of color. Remedying that will require significant structural changes to how public schools are organized and operated. Pressing changes that need to happen include equalizing school funding across districts, creating restorative justice frameworks, decolonizing the curriculum, hiring more faculty and administrators of color, and ensuring all parents have a say in school governance.

Your book problematizes not only the troubled history of segregation in America but also the notion that integration as such is the answer. How do you parse the distinction between integration and the titular word “integrations”?

LB: Discussion of school integration is limited because people have different ideas of “integration.” Some people use it in the brown meaning, i.e. Desegregation, understood as removing the legal foundations of the system of Jim Crow segregation that was obtained in the southern US (until 1964). That has been the controlling meaning in many Supreme Court decisions, and it does not require that students of different races actually attend the same schools. It only requires that if they don’t, this is not because they are deliberately assigned to racially exclusive schools. Other people mean by “integration” that students of different races are in fact attending schools together. This is probably the most common meaning today. But a third meaning regards this second meaning as not sufficient; for example, Dr. King thought “integration” had to include people treating each other respectfully and as equals once they occupy the same spaces.

In addition, people of color have conceived of multiple visions of school integration and its relationship to educational equality and larger goals of liberation. This is no surprise, given the extraordinary range of circumstances that different people living in different times and places have found themselves in, but nevertheless, it is important to recognize and affirm that all of these many visions of educational equality are have merit. In some cases, black, Latinx, and Native American educational activists have opted for alternatives to integration, and this aspiration has helped to improve public education in the US even though it does not involve integration. 

Obviously, these different meanings or forms of school integration yield very different answers to the question of how integration relates to equality, and to civic education. If you build in-school equality into your integration efforts (King’s definition), this will obviously have a more salutary effect on achieving overall educational equality than if you simply bring racially different populations into the same spaces but do not require that they treat each other equally (the second definition). (But King’s “ideal” definition still won’t be enough for equity because it leaves the inequalities in the outer society in place.)

Similarly, integration in King’s sense is much more likely to serve the goals of civic education and civic engagement than merely bringing the racially different students into the same space. His definition builds in a respect and equal treatment that is part of what civic education requires.

Towards the end of the book, you maintain that “schools by themselves cannot create educational justice.” What more is needed? How do you find the line—if any—between educational activism and social activism?

LB: Educational activism must always be mindful of social activism on the wider issues impacting schools, and must seek to form alliances that will strengthen the in-school and out-of-school aspects of the educational equity movement. Of course, there is a role for activism aimed at purely in-school reforms, such as curriculum, pedagogic, and disciplinary matters.  But movements for in-school change must always be thinking about how poverty, racism, and inequality in society are impacting what goes on in schools, including which students are attending which schools. The teacher “rebellions” of 2018-19 were a good model of teachers taking up issues of inequality that affected their students, such as adequate school funding, community schools (e.g. Health workers in schools, wraparound services), and sometimes housing equity.

Integrations: The Struggle for Racial Equality and Civic Renewal in Public Education is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.