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Social Justice Segregationism: Is Separate More Equal After All?

These claims put forward by critical social justice-oriented scholars and educationists all lead to the same conclusion: educational justice for black and OC students begins with schools or classrooms segregated by race and ethnicity.”

Historically, white people have been responsible for neighborhood and school segregation. The story is well-known and oft-told: Jim Crow laws, redlining, Southern “Massive Resistance,” discriminatory zoning, and white flight. All of this is true. Although some may add nuances here and there, no one who knows their history would argue otherwise. 

It is a commonplace lament today that seven decades after the Supreme Court ended school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and nearly 60 years since the Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining, neighborhoods and schools remain segregated. The various reasons given for this persistence—legacies of Jim Crow, covert racism, persistence of discriminatory zoning, etc.—all boil down again to a single cause: white people. It is white people who cluster in racially homogeneous neighborhoods; it is white people who send their children to racially homogeneous schools; and it is white people who leverage their political clout to block policies that promote integration by race and class. 

For the sake of argument, let us assume that this is also true. Segregation in neighborhoods and schools persists today because of the covertly racist individual decisions and collective political action of white people up to the present day. My question is: Do the social justice-minded scholars, activists, educators, and pundits who ritually condemn the segregative consequences of decisions and actions taken by white people genuinely object to racial segregation itself?

I have my doubts. Most of what I hear from those who claim to speak for black and of-color people (OCPs) has strong segregative implications.

Let us start with neighborhoods. Contrary to the conventional narrative, white people often move into black and other OC neighborhoods. It is so common that there is a word for it: gentrification. One might expect proponents of desegregation to applaud and even encourage it. Not only does it reflect white people’s voluntary movement into OC neighborhoods, it often revitalizes those neighborhoods. Instead, white interlopers are disparaged in terms that echo those of immigration restrictionists: White people threaten the local culture, take economic opportunities away from incumbent residents, and refuse to assimilate. Eventually, the neighborhood reaches a tipping point, and the OC residents take flight. Critics call it displacement, and it is true that gentrification can raise the cost of living prohibitively for some people already residing there. I also sympathize with people who cherish their community’s character and wish to preserve it. But we need to recognize that, defensible or not, anti-gentrification sentiment is a species of racial exclusion. 

We see a similar aversion to white people when OCPs move into largely white neighborhoods. Researchers and commentators report that OCPs in white neighborhoods feel othered, tokenized, or threatened in white spaces; chafe at local ordinances and community norms that reflect and enforce white bourgeois lifestyle preferences; and perceive micro-aggressions in every casual interaction with white neighbors. As with gentrification, the gist of the complaint is too many white people. Or, to be precise, too much whiteness.

Counterintuitively, given all the handwringing over school segregation, social justice research and advocacy consistently point to segregative educational policies, too.  Plenty of other observers have called attention to the ethno-separatist impulse embodied in so-called racial affinity groups, which many colleges and K-12 schools have created for black and OC faculty and students to get away from their white peers to commiserate over the burdens of working and learning with them. But a closer look at the scholarship and advocacy suggests the segregative instinct runs much deeper. 

We are told, for example, that OC students need to be taught by teachers who look like them. Studies supposedly confirm this, averring that black and OC students perform better when taught by teachers of the same race or ethnicity. The usual conclusion drawn from these studies is that we need to diversify the teaching corps. But that by itself does not solve the problem identified by the research. An Asian-American teacher looks no more like a black student than a white one does. A Hispanic teacher has no more ethno-racial affinity with an indigenous student than a white one. If one believes the research, any student assigned to a classroom with a teacher of another race is getting short-changed. So diversifying the teaching corps only helps if one takes the additional step of grouping students in classrooms by race or ethnicity and assigning them to a teacher of the race or ethnicity. 

A parallel axiom holds that it is essential for black and OC students to “see themselves” in the curriculum. On its face this seems easy enough to accommodate in racially diverse settings. One simply ensures equal representation of the five conventional ethno-racial groupings—white, black, indigenous, Hispanic, Asian—in the curriculum. After all, educators who espouse this claim argue that curricula should present students with mirrors of themselves and windows into the experiences of other races and ethnicities. So even when not seeing themselves in the curriculum, they are benefiting from cultural enrichment. However, these same educators are quick to point out that an Asian-American of Korean ancestry will not “see herself” reflected in a biography of a Vietnamese mathematician, nor will a Navajo student in a social studies unit about the Seminoles or a Guatemalan kid in verses penned by an Afro-Cuban poet. To assume they will is to racialize them by grouping distinct ethnic identities into monolithic racial categories, which any critical social justice adherent will declare is racist. The more diverse the classroom then, the less opportunity students will have to see themselves reflected. The obvious (though never expressly acknowledged) solution is, once again, more ethnically homogenous schools and classrooms, with curricular content adjusted to feature the experiences, accomplishments, and contributions of persons from each ethnicity. 

Some critical social justice adherents go so far as to argue that the science curriculum reflects a Western colonial epistemology incommensurable with other cultures’ ways of knowing. This claim is most often made with respect to indigenous cultures, but other non-Western epistemologies are often included among those marginalized in Anglo-American schools. This is where the idea of decolonizing the curriculum comes from, the idea that non-Western epistemologies need to be affirmed and taught, and the Western one decentered, so that black, indigenous, and OC students can grow up to be their authentic selves. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to recall how much time and effort it takes for students of all races to master “Western” science and mathematics, let alone the ways of knowing two, or three, or five ethno-racial epistemologies. Again, the most realistic way to ensure that all children master the epistemology most authentic to them is to teach each ethnic-racial group a curriculum grounded in its own epistemology, preferably by teachers of the same group who presumably embody that epistemology.

Similarly, teaching standard English in school is said to perpetuate white supremacy by devaluing and marginalizing dialects and languages authentic to black and OC students while forcing those students to adopt white linguistic norms—a form of internalized oppression. One might argue here that a language arts teacher can facilitate authentic ethno-racial linguistic expression simply by not privileging standard English and allowing students to speak and write in their own authentic languages and dialects. But it is unrealistic to expect teachers to know several languages and dialects (and the lived experiences they ostensibly embody and express) well enough to provide competent language instruction to a diverse class. The most practical solution is to group teachers and students by dialect and language—that is, by race or ethnicity.

The same goes for culturally relevant teaching—the idea that different ethno-cultural groups have different ways of learning—and culturally sustaining teaching—the idea that each ethno-racial group is entitled to curriculum and instruction that preserves its ethno-racial identity. It is a lot to demand of teachers to master them all and dubious to think that teachers of one ethno-racial group can teach students from another fluently and authentically. Even if they could, it would be logistically daunting to configure ethno-racially diverse classrooms in ways that fairly and adequately addressed every student’s ethnically determined instructional needs. 

These claims put forward by critical social justice-oriented scholars and educationists all lead to the same conclusion: educational justice for black and OC students begins with schools or classrooms segregated by race and ethnicity. Any other conclusion is either impractical or evasive.

I must emphasize that I am not advocating for segregated schooling. I am simply following the claims of social justice-minded researchers, advocates, and educators to their logical and practical conclusions while trying to square them with the anti-segregationist stance they publicly espouse. 

Nor am I indulging in the sort of pearl-clutching characteristic of white liberals like me, performing shock and dismay at the betrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to character over color. I understand that King was more radical than selective quotation from his speeches suggests. I also understand that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s decision to attack de jure segregation in Board v. Board of Education was less a matter of principle than a strategic legal ploy to ensure that black children got a fairer share of state education dollars. I recognize too that many black educators, parents, and community members regretted the closure of all-black schools that resulted from his victory. Derrick Bell, the father of critical race theory, famously repudiated the civil rights movement’s preoccupation with desegregation, arguing that it served white interests at the expense of black families and communities. 

I am not reflexively rejecting this implicit segregationist bias either. It is not my place to question the motives behind the five-fold increase in black homeschooling since 2020 or those of advocates hailing the founding of all-black microschools as a blow for racial justice. Or public school districts offering racially segregated graduation ceremonies and math courses. Whatever the motive—whether to escape so-called white spaces or to simply live and learn with people who share a language, culture, flesh tone, and phenotype—they reflect an unspoken belief that separate is more equal. Jarring as that is to my post-civil rights era sensibilities, I have to be willing to listen and be open to change. 

We cannot have it both ways, though. Even if we espouse a double-standard that self-segregation is racist when white people do it but justified and even laudable when black or OC people do it, the outcome is the same: racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and classrooms.  

Ignoring the segregative implications of policies and practices promoted in the name of social justice while publicly espousing desegregation will continue to result in incoherent and counterproductive public discourse and policymaking. Either it is better for diverse families to live and learn together, or to live and learn apart. The sooner we resolve this tension in the social justice discourse, the sooner we can deliberate sensibly about how to realize whichever American future we choose.

Dave Ferrero is an educator whose career has spanned philanthropy, research, advocacy, urban school reform, and classroom teaching. He is currently an independent consultant working with secondary schools and non-governmental organizations focused on education. 

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