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“This is a system that we created.” How segregated neighborhoods lead to segregated schools

Clipping courtesy of Ray Litt / via Detroit Free Press
Coverage of desegregation in Detroit's public schools in the Detroit Free Press.

Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, many school districts in Michigan and throughout the country remain deeply segregated.

In the Detroit City School District, for example, just 2.18% of students are white, while more than 80% are black. In many of the city’s suburbs, the numbers are reversed. In Utica Community Schools (which includes Sterling Heights), about 86% of students are white, while fewer than 5% are black.

(Data comes from the Michigan Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year.)

So why are today’s schools so segregated?

According to Joyce Baugh, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Central Michigan University, the answer can be found in our neighborhoods. It’s a phenomenon that many of us experience every day, even if we may not notice it: housing segregation.

“We decided as a country that we would segregate our neighborhoods and that we would maintain them through all kinds of discriminatory policies, whether we’re talking about federal and local governments or practices of realtors and banks,” Baugh said. “This is a system that we created. So that’s the primary driver for school segregation all over the state.”

In metro Detroit and other Michigan cities, federal redlining helped create the segregated neighborhoods we have today. Restrictive covenants in some areas excluded minority families entirely, while banks were often hesitant or unwilling to lend to non-white borrowers. Real estate agents likewise would “steer” minority borrowers away from white neighborhoods.

During the early 70's, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against local and state officials in response to the state Legislature's repeal of a plan to desegregate eleven of Detroit's 22 high schools. It identified a strong connection between housing segregation and school segregation. 

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Baugh wrote a book about that lawsuit's ripple effects, titled The Detroit School BusingCase: Milliken v Bradley And The Controversy Over Desegregation. She told us that the federal judge who first heard the case was initially dismissive of the NAACP’s claims. He later changed his mind, convinced by evidence presented by the NAACP that housing segregation was no accident. It seemed local and state school authorities strove to create and maintain segregation in public schools.

“Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that, yes, the schools were illegally segregated, but because the suburban school districts were not part of the problem, then they couldn’t be part of the remedy,” Baugh said. “What Chief Justice Burger said was [the suburban school districts] hadn’t taken any action to segregate their schools, but the fact was, they didn’t need to because of housing segregation. There weren’t any black students to attend those schools.”

Today, Detroit’s schools are in poor shape. Decades of white flight and a shrinking industrial base have depleted the district of resources. Students in Detroit routinely underperform the rest of the state and the nearby suburban districts.

For instance, in 2015, the graduation rate in Detroit Public Schools was 77.3% and the dropout rate was 11.4%. In Utica Community Schools, the graduation rate was 92.4% and the dropout rate was 3.18%.

Baugh thinks that many of these issues may have been avoided if not for the Supreme Court’s fateful decision in Milliken.

“I just don’t believe that the Detroit Public Schools would have been allowed to deteriorate the way they did if white parents and suburban schools had been forced to send their children to those same schools,” she said.

Listen to our full interview with Joyce Baugh, author of The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v Bradley And The Controversy Over Desegregation, above.