Confronting and Addressing K-12 Segregation in New York City Schools

Christopher Bonastia | March 6, 2023

Author and professor Christopher Bonastia. Photo by Rebecca Carroll

In June 1964, four days before the FBI discovered the bodies of three civil rights workers in a Mississippi dam, the Black integration activist Rev. Milton Galamison, minister of Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church, voiced his frustration with those who ignored racial injustice that occurred beyond Southern borders:

I think for the first time in many years, whites in the North are actually confronted with the problem that they tried to pretend only existed in the South….Many whites have been able to call themselves liberal because they would send money to Mississippi. And if there’s a school integration effort in Alabama, it appears in the newspaper that the negroes in Alabama are struggling for equality. If there’s a school struggle here in New York City…the New York City newspapers print that some irresponsible leaders are trying to get publicity. You see, there’s a distinction when the battle gets nearer to home.

Those remarks came a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which found that segregating public school students on the basis of race was unconstitutional and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Issued in 1954, the ruling proved a flashpoint in the demand for, and massive resistance against, civil rights for disenfranchised Americans. The Court’s further instruction, that its order should be implemented “with all deliberate speed,” provided cover for racists in the North and South who sought to delay or defy desegregation.

Man and woman in office attire stand close to one another talking. She holds sign: Jim Crow Can't Teach Democracy

Rev. Milton Galamison and Vivian Casey. 1964. Courtesy CORE NYC.

Rev. Galamison’s critique inspired the title of my recent book, The Battle Nearer to Home: The Persistence of School Segregation in New York City, which explores how New York City has managed and justified a school system that remains highly segregated. Today, in the seven decades since Brown v. Board, only a smattering of New York City public schools reflect systemwide demographics by race and income. Schools with some racial and economic diversity are not uncommon, but they are far outnumbered by schools with an overwhelmingly Black and/or Latino school population. Due to underfunding and other structural issues, the majority of segregated schools are put at a pronounced disadvantage in serving their students – affirming the Supreme Court’s ruling that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”

The title of my book also resonates for me personally. My wife and my son, who is now a high school senior, are Black. As a family we navigated the process of visiting high schools, weighing academics, racial demographics, school culture, and dozens of other factors. We tried to identify schools that had adequate resources as well as a truly inclusive school community. Finding schools with resources and community can be very difficult for Black and Latino students.

Black and Brown Students Who Don’t Feel Integrated

A boy and girl where head phones connected to a tablet and look at the screen. More children are seen using a tablet in a row of desks.

Elementary students in Brooklyn, NY, play the digital learning game Cyberchase-Fractions Quest, produced by WNET Kids’ Media and Education.

In the years since Brown v. Board, the demographics of segregation have become entrenched within New York City’s public schools. In the mid-1960s, nearly half of students were White. Today’s school populations are roughly 41% Latino, 24% Black, 17% Asian, and 15% White. Over 8 in 10 Black students and over 7 in 10 Latino students attend a school where more than 90% of their classmates are students of color; 34% of White students are enrolled in a school that is over half-White. Nationally, New York City’ relies on academic screening for admission more than any other locale in the United States, utilizing a tool that drives  segregation by race and class.

Some Black and Latino students who attend schools where they are numerically underrepresented report that they don’t feel integrated. As I report in my book, one Black youth reflected: “Everyday walking through these doors, I feel alienated, like a single piece of black pepper in a sea of salt.” 

“Not Funny” (feat. Dai Brache)

Dai, a longtime friend and former Lehman College student of mine, is an Afro Puerto Rican woman in her mid-forties who grew up in New York City but attended 7th and 8th grade in nearby Yonkers.

In the song above, which I produced, Dai describes her experiences in middle school and high school. Dai entered her Yonkers school with some apprehension, since it was in the beginning stages of a mandatory desegregation plan. As it turned out, with engaged, relatable teachers and freedom in selecting the courses that interested her, “it was the most amazing experience.”

She returned to New York City after middle school, enrolling in what was “supposed to be one of the better schools in the Bronx.” She found the classrooms overcrowded and the curriculum simplistic: “The stuff I was learning in 9th grade I had already learned in 7th.” Her honors classes also failed to challenge or engage her. “I didn’t feel like I grew there in any way. I can’t tell you a damn thing about what I learned,” she says with a characteristic giggle. “I laugh but that shit’s not funny.”

“How’d Ya Get Here?” (feat. Bree Person)

In this second song, my friend Bree–a Black woman in her mid-twenties–reflects on her time attending a public high school in Manhattan with an overwhelmingly Black and Latinx student population:

If you saw any white kids in the school it was like: ‘What happened?’ It’s almost like: ‘How’d ya get here?’ You’re supposed to be in a better school with better academics. And because they were white, a lot of the kids just assumed they were a lot smarter than us. They put [the white students] on a pedestal–because of how much of our academia was lacking.

The reflections of Dai and Bree, like the data cited above, provoke the question: New York City, how did we get here?

The Disappearance of School Diversity

Following the Brown decision, the New York City Board of Education insisted: “Public education in a racially homogenous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of a democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” This unambiguous statement was not met with bold action. By the 1960s, Black and Puerto Rican students were given the option of transferring voluntarily from overcrowded, segregated schools to under-enrolled, numerically integrated ones, where they were sometimes greeted with hostility. In theory, White students could transfer as well, but few did so.

Community Control Alternative: Thwarted

As the weakness of the City’s integration efforts crystallized, increasing numbers of Black New Yorkers argued that community members should run their local schools, with the authority to dismiss problematic teachers. The United Federation of Teachers responded with an all-out assault against this proposed weakening of its members’ job security.

Many in the Black community became exasperated with the City’s failure to improve the education accorded to Black and Brown children, whether by integration, community control of schools, or some other means. In the September 20, 1968 edition of the New York Times, an array of notable African Americans voiced this frustration:

Negro and Puerto Rican parents sought to achieve quality education through desegregation. They have been mocked and thwarted in this approach. They then turned to decentralization as a desperate alternative. And, again, they are being blocked. The vested interests which fought attempts to integrate the schools are now fighting community control. They seem blind to the inconsistency and racism of their position.

Signatories included James Baldwin, Le Roi Jones, James Earl Jones, Jackie Robinson, Nina Simone, and Rev. Wyatt T. Walker.

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Special Programs and Admission Screening

Throughout the decades, when it came to more serious approaches to integration, the Board of Education (later, the Department of Education) has been quick to appoint a committee to study the issue but, wary of political controversy, loath to implement its recommendations.

In late 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the 38-member Student Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) “to reshape citywide policies and practices such as admissions and program planning. The first SDAG report in February 2019 recommended that the Department of Education (DOE) require the nine school districts with sufficient demographic diversity to develop diversity and integration plans. The DOE decided to merely encourage such efforts. In its second set of recommendations released in August 2019, SDAG proposed the elimination of the highly segregated Gifted and Talented (G&T) program, and the unscreening of all middle schools and some high schools, excluding the eight specialized high schools over which the state legislature has partial control.

De Blasio’s state-of-the-city address in February 2020 made no mention of SDAG or school integration. The mayor’s efforts to convince state legislators to change admissions standards to the specialized high schools–which rely on a single test that results in low numbers of Black and Latino enrollees–fell flat in Albany. The eruption of the COVID crisis in March 2020 turned the DOE’s attention to online instruction. Diversity virtually disappeared from the conversation.

With three months remaining in his term as mayor in 2021, de Blasio announced plans to phase out G&T programs. In 2022, Mayor Eric Adams quashed this plan, deciding instead to expand G&T. The Adams administration has also instructed district superintendents that they can resume middle-school screening–which had been suspended for two years–if they so choose. Integration–via a decreased reliance on admissions screens, among other possible measures–is not a priority for the current administration. Despite decades of agitation for a school system that ensures a quality education for every student, New York City remains and has increasingly become a place where there is a smattering of “great” schools for the “winners” of the admissions competition, and a much larger number of schools that are short-changing their students (I describe how screenings increase segregation in a Gotham Gazette opinion piece).

Advocates in the Fight for Equity

Current advocates of increased integration and equity might look for inspiration at those who came before. Beginning in the 1960s, Babette Edwards marched and lobbied for integrated schools; fought for community-controlled schools in Harlem; and attempted to open her own charter school. Because of her unflinching work, she is widely upheld, as scholar Terri N. Watson has noted, as “Harlem’s Othermother.”

The psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark is best known for his contributions to the victory in Brown v. Board. His testimony about the “Doll Test” experiments, conceived by and conducted with his wife, psychologist Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, and his comments about the penetrating effects of segregation on the self-image of Black children, made a tremendous impact on the Supreme Court. Afterward, Dr. Clark spent decades fighting on behalf of Black and Latino children in New York. He stands as a fierce long-term advocate for school integration.

Flyer calling for a NYC one-day boycott to protest segregation and inequality at New York City public schools

The City Wide Committee for Integrated Schools called for a boycott to protest segregation and inequality at New York City public schools.

On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school to protest segregation. More recently, a coalition of student activist groups, including Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC, echoed that action by planning a one-day boycott for May 2020. Like so much that year, their protest was upended by COVID, but today, those groups are beginning to re-emerge. Their members are not naive: they know that every school will not reflect overall system demographics. But these young people have smart ideas about how to make schools more equitable, more responsive to students, and yes, more integrated by race, class, disability status, and English-language ability.

Action Steps for a School System That Serves All Students

Since at least Brown v. Board, New York City has supported the idea of racial and socioeconomic integration in its schools but displayed little willingness to foster integration. Overzealous academic screening, which fuels segregation, has penalized students who end up in “last resort” schools. Grade point average often tells us less about students’ commitment to hard work than it does their class status and cultural capital, the preparation they were given in previous grades, and their exposure to teachers who showed an unstinting belief in their ability to learn and achieve. As it stands, too many Black and Latino young people are pushed aside and kept behind. Is this the school system New Yorkers want?

As parents navigate the byzantine school system, they might ask themselves how their choices impact their children, socially as well as educationally, and how those choices align with their hopes for the system and the city as a whole.

All New Yorkers might look to Babette Edwards, Rev. Milton A. Galamison, and Dr. Kenneth Clark for their steadfast determination to realize a school system that truly serves all students, whatever their background. The future of the city depends upon it.

Most importantly, policymakers and media professionals should heed the views, ideas, and activism of New York City students. It is students who are directly impacted by segregation and inequity. As New Yorkers, it is time we take their insights seriously.

By Christopher Bonastia | chrisbonastia.com


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