New York City School Integration, An Urban Legend

Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

By Kayla Alexandria Dorancy • 


If I were to ask you when New York City schools were integrated, what would you tell me? 

1954 right? In fact, most people reference Brown versus The Board of Education and 1954 as when schools were integrated. 

You’re not wrong that in 1954 Brown versus Board of Education was won by abolishing separate but equal and compelled all schools in the United States to be fully integrated. However, the creation of laws to uphold the Supreme Court ruling and their enforcement were/are not reflective of the case’s ruling.

After Brown v. Board, schools slowly started to permit the attendance of black students brave enough to receive an education from a former all-white school. At the cost of violent slurs and actions by white mobs on their way to school, black students living in nearby white communities would attempt to make it safely. This did not happen as often as people think, because many cities were resistant to the Supreme Court decision. 

Thus, Brown v. Board of Education II in 1955 revisited the case under the context of identifying policy and compulsory ways to enforce the decision made the previous year. Chief Justice Warren determined the responsibility of integration should be left to local schools and pressed the importance of acting with deliberate speed

Ten years later, in 1964 and 1965, education would look almost no different. At this point, the federal government began to intervene in other ways besides National Guard escorts for black children to and from school– money became an influential tool. The federal government began funding schools that began integrating black students. This still occurs today. 

But the answer is, never. Schools have never been integrated. 

So, what do I mean schools are not integrated? Well, schools have desegregated, but not integrated. Let’s examine.  

Many conflate desegregation and integration. They are often used as one and the same to describe the fact that segregation is no longer legal. However, they actually have completely different meanings. 

School integration is the social process of admitting students of a different racial identity into a school and creating equal experiences amongst all the students present. This means that any students, regardless of racial, are guaranteed the same opportunities that school provides. 

On the other hand, desegregation is the legal and political process of ending racial separation (segregation).

So as the country began to desegregate, in education and other public institutions — there was no security for integration through policy as there was for desegregation. 

To reference this, the most pertinent and best way to reflect this is the Civil Rights Act. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was one of two landmark policies passed during the Civil Rights Movement that indicated a turning point in American history against segregation (the other policy being the Voting Rights Act of 1965). The Civil Rights Act outlawed racial desegregation in schools — but it never spoke explicitly of integration. Title IV, SEC. 401b of the act states:

“‘Desegregation means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance”.

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Desegregation of Public Education

Many of us are taught briefly in our United States history courses that integration began to faster occur throughout the nation after that point, we aren’t taught the legal interpretation of what it means to be desegregated or integrated. 

NYC schools are legally desegregated, but socially segregated.

Often we are taught about southern segregation and their response to desegregation, but not the North. Northern states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and others were not as boastful of their segregation laws. In fact, the North was the first practitioner of segregation. When southern enslaved blacks and their white owners visited the North, they were often separated on train carts, restaurants, and more. After slavery ended, the North continued these practices as the south adopted them with the vigilante enforcement of the Ku Klux Klan.

The North didn’t accept desegregation just as much as the South. So when the creation of the Civil Rights Act came about, there was a loophole designated to allow the North (and South) to continue practices of procedural segregation and receive federal funding for school integration. 

That loophole is ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance”

Racial imbalance or racial separation is termed used in the North to explain the lack of diversity in schools. Rather than referring to it as segregation, which implies forced and political influence upon the separation — racial imbalance/separation imply a natural process of racial isolation. 

This is in fact not a natural process. By creating discriminatory and segregated geographical lines for school districts (similar to gerrymandering in voting), NYC Department of Education enforces limited and racial school choices through lines excluding certain parts of different communities with black and/or latino residents. School boards created these lines to carefully choose what schools students are allowed to attend. According to a recent New York Times article, “more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75% of students are either white or nonwhite). Students are often limited to attending schools they actually get to on time, just like the premise of Linda Brown in Brown v. Board of Education. 

So, schools do not have to enforce desegregation off racial disparities in population. This means black students or white students cannot be placed in a school solely to bring up racial population in a school. 

Through school funding through property tax and high standardized testing scores, placing unqualified teachers, and other ways, the Department of Education is able to suppress resources provided to schools with predominantly students of color. So, schools do not have to enforce desegregation off racial disparities in population. 

By stating the process of racial separation is natural, the Department of Education absolves itself of any responsibility and accountability for lack of integration.

Even as early as 1959, NYC parents and students protested the lack of initiative the Department of Education took to integrate schools and provide schools with dominating numbers of students of color quality education. Black mothers, specifically mobilized the Black community towards expansion of educational equality. In 1959, 9 Harlem mothers stood before a judge upon not allowing their children to attend school in protest of the city. Separated into two groups, charges against them were the same for violating the compulsory education law. Four of the nine women were found guilty before Judge Kaplan while the other five were found innocent as their judge, Judge Polier found them in no violation of the law as they are constitutionally protected from sending their children to substandard educational institutions. 10 years later in 1968, New York City would see it’s largest teacher and student strike for 36 days in the name of integration. 

Desegregation in the 1970s was disguised as integration. In the heart of the black and brown community of Coney Island, Mark Twain Junior High School in School District 21 was a prime example of masking school segregation. Nonwhite students made up 82% of the population while every other school in the district was predominately white. A federal judge ruled that Mark Twain must be integrated through forced busing. In response, the District 21 School Board (Community Education Council today) placed the only gifted program in the district in Mark Twain. The gifted program required students to be tested and screened for admission. White students had a superior academic career and received admission into the program. As a result, the top floor of the building where the gifted program was located has an overwhelming majority of white children who were getting a completely different education than the students of color on the floors below. Although the school had been physically integrated with the presence of students of all colors within the building, internally there was spacial and experiential segregation. Thus, no integration. 

School district lines haven’t been changed. As school lines depend on the lines of residential lines, it is only an easier justification to absolve responsibility by the DOE of slow integration as we face a new problem — segregated academic programming in schools. 

What does this all mean? 

NYC has to yet prove itself in pushing integration in our education system. The legality of segregation may be visibly eliminated, but the dangerous practices that followed aimed to explain away the results of procedural segregation as natural is well established today. Challenging policy sets the stage for reform, however the work begins when the time comes to abolish such a system that views communities of color as a burden to their education system.


Kayla Alexandria Dorancy is a recent graduate from Brooklyn College with a dual major BA in Philosophy and Political Science. Her focus study and researching consists of Black feminist theory, Black queer theory, Power Movements of the late 20th century, and more. As she anticipates beginning her PhD and JD in 2022, she hopes to utilized her education and experience to dismantle systems of inequity in education, civil rights, and human rights.

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