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Is School Segregation Still Legal? Chicago Teens Reflect on Their Racial Isolation

40 percent of Latino and 70 percent of black students in Chicago area attend extremely segregated schools.

Legal school segregation ended back in 1954 with the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, but for most students across the nation, racial isolation is still the norm. Nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 52 percent of black students and 58 percent of Latino students attend schools where 75 percent or more of students are minorities. In Chicago, the most segregated city in the nation, the schools reflect the stark racial division.

Indeed, 40 percent of Latino and 70 percent of black students in Chicago attend extremely segregated schools and the level of segregation is actually on the rise. WBEZ's Race: Out Loud series talked to graduates of the class of 2012 about what it's like to attend highly segregated schools. Their observations are a sad reflection on how much work there still is to do when it comes to desegregating schools and integrating our society.

Some students have gone through their entire K-12 education "without ever having a classmate from another race." One girl, Jakeeda, actually thought, based on what she saw around her, that schools "were still legally segregated." Still, other students don't feel that what they experience is segregation. Another girl told the interviewer said the she doesn't "really feel like we're segregated, cause we're all one race—so I believe segregation would be like, these people here, and these people over here." She sees her experience as just being separate.

For many of the students, segregation seems to be only when a school has an official policy about not admitting students from a particular racial or ethnic background. Many of them haven't quite made the connection between discriminatory housing practices and their low performing, highly segregated schools. And, although they're living in educational apartheid, they see being able to speak Spanish at school and have their culture affirmed as a fringe benefit of segregation.

However, as much as some of them claim they're fine with being separate, that doesn't mean they've made peace with knowing that the schools white students attend generally have better facilities and more resources. The result of being aware of the inequality is that, "to be honest, you kind of build a dislike for whites," said another student, Karl.

We need to ask ourselves whether we have the desire to integrate schools. Have we just accepted de facto segregation as the way things will always be? Some experts even believe that school segregation doesn't matter if the students are attending a high achieving school, but Jakeeda disagrees. "It does matter to be desegregated," she says. "Because if a student plans on being successful, then they're going to have to deal with diversity and being around other races. I don't think there’s a job with all black people or all white people."

Jakeeda's right, but we have to provide kids with culturally and racially diverse experiences not just so that a company doesn't get sued for one employee making racist remarks to another, but because it's the right thing to do. It's heartbreaking to hear the students talk about how uncomfortable it is to be in a more diverse setting, and how uncertain some of them are about attending integrated colleges this fall. What's certain is that unless things change in Chicago—and in so many other cities—another generation is sure to grow up thinking segregation is the norm.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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