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Tuscaloosa’s schools have become segregated again since a federal judge released them from desegregation in 2000. But it isn’t the kind of segregation that was condemned in Brown v. Board of Education.
The New York Times “02 27 2023” Crossword
Tuscaloosa, the city where George Wallace stood defiantly in front of a schoolhouse door to keep black students out of the University of Alabama, has had its share of turmoil. Three decades of federal desegregation marked by busing and white flight ended in 2000, but the schools remain 75 percent black. City financial interests shaped the resegregation and a consuming fear of white flying, facilitated by the power of local black leaders and blessed by a U.S. Justice Department no longer committed to fighting for the civil rights goals it once championed.
Judge John England was a familiar face in Tuscaloosa politics, having fought discrimination as a law student and a litigator and served as a city councilman and state senator before becoming a county judge. His credentials carried a lot of weight. England believed that if the schools became more black, white business support would dry up, and the city would struggle to attract commerce. He thought that the district could eventually free itself from court oversight by segregating its schools back to their pre-desegregation status if it acted quickly.
In recent years, the school board has carved the district into three zones, each with a new high school. One cluster on the city’s gritty west side is now an all-black minidistrict with a single high school that is 73 percent black. Another cluster, drawn from an affluent enclave of lake homes and mansions in the north, has two majority-white schools with a combined enrollment of more than 2,300 white students. The third, a reshuffling of the old Central High School, is now 58 percent black and has a single high school.
The result has been a rapid and ongoing resegregation that has left some parents dismayed. Gerald Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Oregon, has studied Tuscaloosa’s school system and found that white enrollment in the city’s schools is down by more than a third from its peak in 1969. But he also points out that resegregation has brought benefits.
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As one of the most thorough school resegregations in America, Tuscaloosa has a tumultuous history. Racial politics, secret meetings, and a consuming fear of white flight shaped it. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice that was no longer committed to fighting for the civil rights aims it had once championed.
Tuscaloosa was the first sizeable Southern city to desegregate its schools, a process that started in 1955 and took three decades. But the town never embraced integration willingly, as the university desegregation riots of 1956 testified. Instead, it turned to a more insidious form of segregation: redistricting.
The school resegregation plan began with a complaint that neighborhood schools were overcrowded. District officials responded by redrawing the boundaries of the school’s attendance zones to relieve overcrowding and make the system “neighborhood-based.” They also aimed to attract parents who had moved out of the city for better schools.
Many black parents are now complaining that the redrawn zones send their children to virtually all-black, low-performing schools. And in a twist that could reopen the debate on integration, they are using the No Child Left Behind law, which allows students to move from failing schools to ones with higher academic standards.
But the rezoning dispute has a more considerable significance: It is the first time that parents have used federal law to challenge school desegregation plans by their localities, and it puts the issue of race and educational equity squarely in the center of a debate on education reform. One troubling truth is that backing away from integration doesn’t arrest or reverse the outflow of white families from integrated districts. Stanford researchers have found that, across the country, school systems’ white populations actually declined slightly after desegregation orders ended.
The resegregation plan has put Tuscaloosa in uncharted territory over whether it violates the constitutional protection against racial segregation, a defense that the Supreme Court has held is not violated when segregation is based on housing patterns rather than on a tangled history of legal and racial segregation.
The case is a reminder of how complicated it can be to dismantle the vestiges of segregation in urban communities. The case also offers a cautionary lesson about how easily school districts can slide into segregation again. The Tuscaloosa district’s superintendent and board president, both white, defended the redrawing of attendance zones by saying that the change was not meant to discriminate against any group. However, the changes did affect black and white neighborhoods, and the all-black schools are now more segregated than they were when Druid High was founded in 1954. The all-black schools now are worse academically, and their graduates have lower college matriculation rates. They are, in short, not equal to Central, which racked up debate team championships and math team victories.
Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed official segregation, Tuscaloosa schools have reverted to the kind that existed in the Jim Crow South. Poor black children are funneled into low-performing schools, where they often don’t graduate. And the achievement gap between white and black students, which narrowed during the era of integration, has widened again.
The story that follows is a look at two high schools on opposite sides of the resegregation equation: Druid High, where students drank from hand-me-down water fountains and lagged far behind white students on state test scores, and Central High, where academically gifted black students were able to take a variety of classes and dominate local competitions in debate, math, cheerleading, and science. The students of both schools aspire to attend college, but their paths are diverging.
After white parents in this racially mixed city complained of overcrowding, school officials in the summer of 2007 rezoned the district to create a new high school, Northridge, located in an old housing development that had been reserved for white residents. Students displaced by the rezone were offered scholarships to go elsewhere, but many were upset about losing their high school. Some parents sued, arguing that the resegregation violated their civil rights.
Among them was Dent, who had gone to all-black Druid High. The school lacked the resources of its white counterparts, but it had a dedicated staff and an energetic student body. The children of domestic workers walked the halls alongside students who had grown up to be teachers. Condoleezza Rice was a student there. Autherine Lucy, who stood in front of the schoolhouse door in an attempt to stop integration and was later expelled, returned to school and graduated with a master’s degree.
Some white residents, like the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, say that Tuscaloosa’s resegregation was a calculated move by the school system to thwart federal court orders. Others, like the superintendent of the Jefferson County school system in Kentucky, argue that it was a matter of economics: The community valued integrated schools and saw them as a way to attract businesses.
But the experience of Tuscaloosa’s black students has also shown that desegregation isn’t always enough. Many black families would prefer to stay in their old neighborhoods and go to their senior schools, even if those schools are now mostly filled with poor black students. It is not an isolated case: Across the country, districts that were once the most segregated have been released from court-enforced integration and have rapidly reverted to the kinds of segregation that once plagued the South. In places like Mississippi and Virginia, black communities have formed their schools, and those schools lag far behind the integrated ones that once served them.