Why the goal cannot be school integration

Written By Pamela D'Andrea Montalbano

Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common objective.

We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings. We are fighting for the right to live as free humans in this society. In fact, we are actually fighting for rights that are even greater than civil rights and that is human rights…

-Malcolm X, April 8, 1964 Speech in New York City (in Breitman, 1965)  

On June 6, 2017, New York City released its plan to make its schools, which are among the most racially segregated in the country, more “diverse.”  While some have credited the plan as a well-intentioned, albeit shy, step in the right direction, many advocacy groups around the city have been outspoken by the plan’s lack of commitment to desegregation and integration, claiming the city is not taking strong steps to finally achieve the vision of Brown (Kirkland, 2017; Mader & Sant’Anna Costa, 2017; McGraw, 2017).

Essentially, the goal of the plan is to make NYC schools more diverse and representative of the city’s population. Advocates agree, but they want the bolder goal of desegregated and integrated schools.

While all parties go back and forth about why these different goals matter, my concern grows over the rampant way these terms (diversity, integration, and desegregation) are taking hold of the conversation and the way they are being positioned as goals in the first place. Over 50 years ago, Malcolm X lamented that advocates may be confusing methods and objectives, for when we say the goal is, for example, integration, then the underlying reasons why different parties are fighting for “integration” are left hidden.

Those underlying reasons need to be studied because ultimately, those are the true goals for the methods of diversifying and integrating. Those reasons will either uphold the structures that have prevented schools from important changes or will dismantle those obstacles so that the important changes can finally come to fruition. The words diversity, integration, and desegregation don’t matter nearly as much as people who speak them and the ways by which they mean them.

We have had the opportunity to learn this lesson time and again, including during and after Brown.

Revisiting the objectives of Brown

A recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History reminded listeners that the results of Brown are not all they’re cracked up to be, largely because the goals for Brown were quite different for the different parties involved.

Leola Brown, the mother of Linda Brown, who herself attended Linda’s segregated school, was pleased with the high quality education her daughter was receiving. For the Brown family and for countless others, this was not a matter of getting a quality education; they already had that. The NAACP recruited the Brown family, among others, to join a lawsuit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education, on a matter of a simple principle: if a family wanted to send their child to a White school, they should be able to.

Brown was about ending de jure segregation, and not about beginning the long hard work of integration.

Even still, not everyone was a fierce advocate of this principled endeavor. One notable case of public disagreement with Brown was Zora Neale Hurston’s 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel where she argued against desegregation for the sake of the self-respect of African Americans. She writes, “how much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”

In Hurston’s view, the decision was a forced interaction that only devalues Blacks, positioning White schools as “inherently better because they had White students” (Marcucci, 2017, p. 15).

We do not need to look further than the court’s statement itself to know Hurston was on to something. The court reasoned that “segregation of white and coloured children has a detrimental effect on the coloured children” and that “segregation with the sanction of law has the tendency to retard the educational and mental development of negro children.”  With these statements, the courts had a different goal, one that positioned them as saviors of the underprivileged Black children and not as protectors of the constitution that guarantees the rights of all citizens.

In her analysis of Hurston’s letter, Olivia Marcucci (2017) argues that Hurston’s explanation for opposing Brown can be applied to what Timothy Parson (2010) calls “the myth of the progressive empire,” which hides oppression, in this case the oppression of African Americans, under the guise of “humanitarianism.” In short, where there is evidence that African American students were receiving a high quality education with highly qualified teachers before Brown, by allowing the all-White court to rule under the mindset of Blacks as less fortunate, schools essentially got thrown into the existing racial power structures whereby now Black schools would be deemed inherently inferior to White schools (Gladwell, 2017; Marcucci, 2017).

Shortly after Brown, this is what happened with the supposed “help” for Black children: What were once 82,000 Black teachers before Brown, became half that within a decade (Gladwell, 2017). A third of Black teachers were fired in the span of 20 years after Brown (Marcucci, 2017), and many others made the decision to leave after being subjected to discrimination in their new work environments (e.g., not being allowed to use the teacher’s restroom).

In his podcast, Gladwell highlights the example of a town in Missouri where they chose to close one school and integrate the other, choosing to shut down the Black school and forcing its teachers to be evaluated alongside the teachers of the White school. When the Black teachers were deemed of lower quality, they later tried to sue but the courts cited “intangible factors” for why no Black teachers ended up retained.

Re-evaluating the objectives of today

While on the one hand, Brown represents a major step toward justice and democracy in the U.S. (Kirkland, 2010; Noguera, 2003), many of the ensuing integrationist results seem to validate its critics.  The fact is, desegregation and then integration became terms owned and applied through a lens of Black inferiority. Even today, we talk about integration as though it’s for the benefit of those less fortunate. Advocates for school integration will often propose it as a way to “offer better educational opportunities” to “historically disadvantaged groups” (Carter, 2012, p.150).

In 2017, I have heard school integrationists brag about making the sacrifice to send their children to low-income schools “for the greater good” because, without saying it out loud, they hold the underlying belief that adding their children to the equation would improve the education of the less fortunate. Those who are seen as less fortunate are placed in that category because of income level or race.

In 2017, I often see so-called diverse schools tracking children—with clear racial or socioeconomic divides between students who are taking “regular” courses, honors/AP, gifted and talented, special education, those who are disciplined, and those with access to after school programming.

In 2017, this is not everyone nor is it every school, but these cases are common enough to drive the need for us to know what people mean when they say diversity, integration, and desegregation and where they position themselves and others in that meaning and why.

Embedded within the rationale of the Brown ruling was a deficit-oriented and outright racist ideology that, because of dynamics of power, in turn claimed the method of integration. At the time, the NAACP may have been happy to make do with the results, regardless of the underlying ideologies that backed the results. But they confused methods and objectives. Now here we are in 2017 seeking to both live up to the legacy of Brown and at the same time focus on a goal of integration without the work necessary to suck up all the underlying poison.

And if we don’t do that work, we will never get close to eradicating the injustices of the past and present. Instead, the injustices will take new forms (cf. Alexander, 2010).

The case of school choice in Detroit is an example of how this can happen. In his analysis of interviews with Detroit parents, Kirkland (2010) found that the way parents experienced Detroit’s choice program revealed a type of “neosegregation” whereby predominantly White, high-resource schools were the only “true choices” in the frankly ridiculous notion that there is a choice between low-resourced and high-resourced schools. Even though some were unable to take advantage of the “choice,” parents had internalized inferiority regarding their neighborhood schools and in some cases their own children and neighborhood’s children, all the while racial divides between schools remained grave.

Just like Brown existed within the same paradigms of power it sought to disrupt, school choice and other reforms will do the same because the fundamental elements that can create reform, the true objectives to which we should be adhering, have not been made the true intentions of reform.

In fact, if the objective for the method of integration after Brown had not been laced with Black inferiority, then integration itself would have looked very different. Celestine Porter, a teacher in Richmond, Virginia during the Brown era, offered her opinion during an interview at the time, saying they should have made teachers do the integration, not students, and that “if they were going to send White students to the Black schools, they should have sent White teachers there” and vice versa (Gladwell, 2017). Instead, the true objectives of the reform called for a mechanism of integration that made children and Black teachers suffer the burdens of reform.

My point is not that advocacy groups that specialize in integration and desegregation should throw in the towel. I’m saying quite the opposite: advocacy groups and members within those groups should be painstakingly transparent about their goals and actively fill in places where the vision is not clear.  Once that happens, even the different ways in which the mechanism of integration can be carried out can fall more easily into place.

If the goal is emancipation of historically marginalized groups, then the mechanism of integration may look very different than a goal of instilling in our children a belief in cultural pluralism. Even if both of these are goals simultaneously, the mechanism will be different to that of each individually. Who knows, maybe for some goals the appropriate mechanism is not integration at all.

But for now I can assure you that if the goal is to have historically disadvantaged groups perform like historically advantaged groups, then the mechanism of integration will always involve giving power to the historically advantaged and what we call integration will look more like assimilation–or worse.

Pamela D’Andrea Montalbano is a Research Assistant in the NYU Metro Center for Research and Evaluation.


Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.  

Breitman, G. (Ed.). (1965). Malcolm X speaks: Selected speeches and statements (p. 51). New York, NY: Grove Press.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954). (n.d.) In Justicia. Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/347/483/

Carter, P. (2012). Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gladwell, M. (2017, June 29). Miss Buchanan’s period of adjustment. Revisionist History. Podcast retrieved from: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/13-miss-buchanans-period-of-adjustment

Kirkland, D. (2010). Choices we can believe in: City parents and school choice. Journal of Equity in Education, 1(1), pp. 1-29.

Kirkland, D. (2017, June 13). New York City takes the first steps toward school integration. City and State New York. Retrieved from: http://cityandstateny.com/articles/opinion/new-york-city-school-integration.html

Mader, N., & Sant’Anna Costa, A. C. (2017). No heavy lifting required: New York City’s unambitious school ‘diversity’ plan. New York: The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Marcucci, O. (2017). Zora Neale Hurston and the Brown debate: Race, class, and the progressive empire. The Journal of Negro Education, 86(1), pp. 13-24.

McGraw, T. (2017, June 13). Analysis: The “diversity” plan. The Bell: Hearts and Minds. Podcast retrieved from: http://www.bellpodcast.com/podcast/

Noguera, P. (2003). City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.