How America abandoned the only policy that consistently closes the black-white educational gap

After 1954's landmark Brown v Board of Ed ruling, America's (largely racially segregated) cities began racially integrating their schools by busing black kids to white neighborhoods, a project that hit its stride at the start of the 1970s. It worked.

Despite isolated violence (in Boston, for example), the black kids who went to the better funded white schools, where the teachers were better trained and where the students were not uniformly more likely have been traumatized by poverty, did better on their test scores. They got into college more often. They got better jobs. They lived longer. In a single generation, educational integration closed half of the black-white achievement gap — a gap that had been centuries in the making, since African-Americans' ancestors had been kidnapped and enslaved and punished with death if they attempted to learn to read or write.

But then America stopped. After a single generation of remarkable progress, America switched tracks, focusing on doing anything except letting poor black kids go to school with white kids (poor white kids are significantly more likely to grow up in wealthy white neighborhoods than black people, including wealthy black people). These policies did not work. The achievement gap reasserted itself with gusto. Black educational outcomes — and all that is correlated with them, including college opportunities, good employment, pensions, home ownership and life-expectancy — plummeted.

When black teenager Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer from Ferguson's notoriously violent and corrupt police force, his distraught mother Leslie Mcspadden said, "You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many!"

Michael Brown was one of the rare graduates from the Normandy school district, a district that was so terrible, underfunded and mismanaged that it eventually had its accreditation yanked, triggering an obscure Missouri law that required the district to pay to educate its kids in other districts and to transport them there. To sabotage this, Normandy chose a district 30 miles away: the 85% white Francis Howell district. Normandy students who wanted to go to Francis Howell had to get up at 5 AM every day to get to class (Normandy bypassed a better-performing school district a mere 5 miles away).

On this week's This American Life podcast (MP3) journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the wrenching story of Normandy and Francis Howell, and makes it a microcosm for the state of black education and opportunity in America. The podcast complements her 2014 reporting for Pro Publica, in which she presents the devastating, irrefutable data that shows that America deliberately abandoned education for black children, and that this policy is ongoing today, thanks in large part to the white parents who react with literal and figurative violence at the prospect of these victimized, forgotten children being integrated with their own kids.

In case you doubt this, there's tape in the This American Life program of the Francis Howell parents, racist-dog-whistling at volume and speed, all the while insisting (predictably) that they are not racist.

Be sure to listen to the podcast all the way to the end. After a year of integration, the state of Missouri dissolved and reconstituted the Normandy district, wiping its record of educational sins clean with a legal fiction — later overturned by a court — and dragging all the kids who'd been getting up at 5AM, facing down racist slurs to wrest a public education for themselves. The new district is on its third superintendent in three years. Charles Pearson has never been in charge of a school district before, and his plan for rebuilding Normandy is identical to every failed plan for rebuilding other black school districts in America. When Nikole Hannah-Jones asks him why his plan will work now, when it has failed every other time it was ever attempted, his response is frank and heartbreaking.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Can I just say, with all due respect, I've had this conversation with superintendents and principals in districts that look just like Normandy and schools that look just like Normandy for more than a decade.

Charles Pearson

Nikole Hannah-Jones
And you can look at districts and schools with the same racial makeup in every urban community across the country, and the same thing is said. We know what we need to do. But the schools do not turn around. Typically, an entire district does not turn around.

Charles Pearson
That's because an entire district has never turned around. It has never happened. But that doesn't relieve us of the charge to attempt to do it. So you're right. It hasn't been done. However, our obligation to attempt to do it, it still remains. The kids are here. So you're right. It hasn't been done, but it's our watch.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
So then, knowing that, knowing that in these high poverty segregated districts these students aren't doing well, is it possible for a black child in Missouri to get an equal education?

Charles Pearson
Wow, what a great question. The answer right now? I really don't know.

The Problem We All Live With
[This American Life]

School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson
[Nikole Hannah-Jones/Pro Publica]

(Image: Michael Brown, left, attends a small Normandy High School graduation ceremony in August. Eight days later, he was dead; Normandy Schools Collaborative/Daphne J. Dorsey)