Books on School Integration and Racism

Children of the Dream

School busing has been in the news again as a result of the conflict between Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his runningmate Kamala Harris during the primary debate last year over Biden’s stance on busing in the 1980s. School integration has long been a complicated part of race relations in the United States. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down their ruling in Brown v Board of Education, which stated that state-sponsored school segregation was unconstitutional (because it violates the 14th amendment). The resistance to integrating the schools stemmed in part from those invested in segregation (racists) knowing that integration of the schools would result in the integration of much of the culture (Johnson 1). Children would become friends with each other and that would have an integrating effect on their social circles for the rest of their lives. Integration builds empathy and humanizes those who children may have been raised to hate or fear.

The effects of busing as a tool of integration have been debated for years (for example, you can read more at NPR, The Washington Post, and Politico), but the experts largely agree that school integration does have positive effects on the achievement gap and undermining systemic racism, we just didn’t give it a chance for long enough.

Now, as conversations about anti-racism abound, taking another look at school integration is a good idea. Fortunately, there are plenty of books for doing just that. Just last year, two books came out that look at integration specifically: The Long Ride by Marina Tamar Budhos, a middle-grade novel about forced busing in New York City in 1971, and Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works by Rucker C. Johnson with Alexander Nazaryan, an academic examination of school integration and the consequences of failing to fully invest in policies to support it. Johnson and Nazaryan argue for “three powerful cures to unequal educational opportunity: (1) integration, (2) equitable school funding, and (3) high-quality preschool investments—all of which were tried before but abandoned, partly out of resistance, but also out of a lack of collective patience and wholesale integration of the policies themselves” (12). This book is a pretty academic take (it’s written by an economist), driven by data on education policy, so it is not a “casual” read, but the argument is cogent and persuasive and the authors make it even more relevant through the connections they make between educational inequality and other forms of systemic racism (they specifically examine the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray in their intro).

Another book that may be of interest is Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, which focuses on the psychology of racism. Three chapters in “Part II: Understanding Blackness in a White Context” examine the development of racial identity over the course of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and can help elucidate how segregation reinforces racism.

Norman-Rockwell-The-Problem-We-All-Live-With-1964

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1954) depicts Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals in New Orleans.

Books about Civil Rights Era school integration

There are also many books about the history of school integration during the 1950s, including Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison and Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges. A large number of books focus on Ruby Bridges or the Little Rock Nine, whose integration of their schools in New Orleans and Little Rock, respectively, became iconic images of the Civil Rights Era. I actually wrote about Ruby Bridges in my dissertation, and coverage of her story continues to be a popular way to discuss Civil Rights with young children.

a girl stands at the door

A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools by Rachel Devlin is a newer (2018) book that I am very excited about. In the book, Devlin looks at the history of school integration as a grassroots movement that was largely led by girls and young women and their families, whose court cases put pressure on the federal government to act. This book does a fabulous job of centering Black girlhood, which, along with the role of Black women, often gets sidelined by the “great men theory of history,” no matter how much girls contributed to the high profile protests of the era.

Taken as a whole, these books make clear at least two important points. 1) The history of school integration is one that young people have been at the center of as active participants, not just pawns in policy wars, and 2) school integration is a vital part of dismantling systemic racism. We just have to figure out how to do it well and stick with it.

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