Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work: The Case of New York City

In recent posts, I’ve been looking at school desegregation histories in districts around the nation, considering the question of why attempts to redistribute students by race did not produce truly desegregated schools or equalize educational outcomes. In fact, the evidence indicates that top-down, coercive programs of redistributing students actually made things worse.

 These case histories are based on greatly updated and revised passages from my book with Stephen J. Caldas, Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation. I’ll end today with the nation’s largest city, New York.

New York City

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Southern political leaders accused northerners of hypocrisy for vigorously pursuing desegregation in the South, while schools and other institutions continued to be segregated in the north. In the nation’s largest urban center, New York, schools were generally identifiable by race. The four boroughs of Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, held roughly 600 public elementary schools in 1970, and half of these were either 90 percent or more white or 90 percent or more black.[i]

Lending support to Southern accusations, a New York state anti-busing law, passed by the state legislature in May 1969, sought to avoid judicially mandated racial balancing by specifying that only elected school boards could assign students to schools. The New York law, held unconstitutional by a Federal court in October 1970, was widely copied by Southern school districts as a strategy for avoiding desegregation.[ii]

The New York City boroughs made some efforts on their own to achieve racial integration through busing and school re-zoning. These resulted in a number of conflicts. Responding to a plan by the Board of Education of Queens to re-zone schools for more even racial combinations, the president of the Martin Van Buren High School P.T.A. declared, “They’re talking about integrated schools. Well, they’re going to have segregated schools. Because people will move out, that’s all. Or put their children in private schools or parochial schools.”[iii]

In the spring of 1971, episodes of violence broke out between black and white students at South Shore High School in Brooklyn.[iv] A mother and father of a public school student, who had fled the Soviet Union a few years earlier, complained about the treatment received by their son in a newly integrated school:

Each school year he [the son] received certificates for his achievements ... This year, after attending school for two days in the sixth grade, he refused to go any longer. For participating actively in class, he has been called “Jewish faggot” and shot at with paper clips from catapults by his black classmates, because he “knows everything”... No teacher can start anything with students of such different ranges ... They [the black students] scatter the free lunches, preferring to extort food more to their taste - and money too - from their white classmates who are a minority and defenseless.[v]

The parents’ characterizations of their son’s black classmates were probably unfair generalizations from the behavior of a few, and one should be cautious about taking such reports at face value. The conflicts at South Shore certainly involved members of both racial groups and could have been sparked by white hostility. Still, these events testify to the disruptions of New York’s efforts at student redistribution, and concerns about the difficulties of teaching students with a wide range of preparation were well founded.

The earliest federal actions in New York were limited in scope. In January 1974, Judge Jack B. Weinstein directed the city’s Board of Education to devise a re-zoning plan to integrate Brooklyn’s Mark Twain Junior High. Four months later, Judge John F. Dooling Jr. criticized the Board for allowing racial imbalances, and he ordered the members to redraw the boundaries of Franklin K. Lane School, also in Brooklyn, which was attended mainly by black and Puerto Rican students.

A local resident of the Lane school district agreed with the judge’s decision, remarking that “Over the years the Board has gerrymandered our area into an all-black school district.” At the same time, though, the same man also observed that “the whites who got zoned in [to the Lane district] stopped sending their children to Franklin K. Lane and either sent them to Catholic schools or got addresses so they could qualify for other districts.”[vi] He did not, apparently, consider the possibility that re-zoning would produce a rapid increase in false addresses and Catholic school applications.

Officials recognized the problem of segregated housing patterns. Judge Weinstein tried to tie the desegregation of Mark Twain Junior High to an effort to bring more whites into nearby housing projects. The Board of Education raised the possibility of reaching into the suburbs for whites. “Given shifting population patterns - the movement of the middle class to the suburbs - and the declining number of ‘others’ [whites] in the city’s public schools,” declared the Board in a report to the State Board of Regents, “the task of achieving meaningful integration within the boundaries of New York City or other large cities becomes increasingly difficult.”[vii]

Over the following years, desegregation in New York City proceeded largely on a school-by-school basis. To create greater racial diversity at virtually all-black Andrew Jackson High School in Brooklyn, for example, beginning in 1976 the Board of Education set up a special “choice of admissions” zone to encourage white enrollments and move black students elsewhere. The zone plan gave black children who would otherwise go to Jackson the option of selecting any schools in the city with white enrollments of greater than fifty percent (commonly referred to as “majority to minority” transfers).

At the same time, white students within the zone were required to enroll in majority black schools, limiting their choices of admissions. White students and their families were not cooperating with the plan. The New York Times reported that “many white students in these zones have chosen to attend private or parochial schools in the city or elsewhere.”[viii] The existence of other options for white students frustrated centralized planning.

Federal District Judge John Dooling recognized that the zone plan was not working at Jackson. Judge Dooling ordered the district to come up with another one in 1979. An appeals court overturned the judge’s decision, though, on the grounds that Jackson and other city schools were becoming all minority because of changing demographics and residential patterns, not because of intentional actions by school officials.

An editorial writer, at that time, argued that the real problem was white flight to suburban areas. Therefore, New York should pursue a metropolitan solution, reaching into places such as nearly all-white Nassau County. The writer did not say how those pulled in from the suburbs could be restrained from doing precisely what the generally less economically advantaged whites within the city were already doing: leaving the public system.[ix]

Meanwhile, the school boards of New York tried to engage in desperate juggling maneuvers to keep schools as integrated as possible, avoid overcrowding, and keep whites, who made up only 30% of New York students at the end of the 1970s, from fleeing the area. To relieve enrollment pressures on Intermediate School 231, and to minimize white flight, in 1978 the Queens school board created a new school, drawing students from the mixed-race, middle class neighborhood of Rosedale.

Rosedale had already been losing white residents, but the creation of a new, more middle class school helped to slow down their departure. The president of the school board in school district 29 of Queens, Dolores Grant, explained that “white students were fleeing. That was a fact of life. It was not hearsay. The annex [the new school] helped turn that around.”[x] Federal authorities would have none of the explanations of the Queens school board. On August 29, 1979, the Federal Office for Civil Rights gave the board 30 days to desegregate I.S. 231 or lose $3.5 million in federal education funds.[xi]

The redistribution of white students from the mostly white Rosedale annex of I.S. 231 to the mostly black I.S. 231 provoked what may have been New York City’s greatest desegregation controversy. During the summer of 1980, New York City Public School Chancellor Frank J. Macchiarola, pushed by the threat of losing funds, ordered that 450 seventh and eighth graders be transferred from the mostly white annex to the predominantly black main school. The transfer would result in white students becoming a minority of 15% in their new school.

 In taking this action, the chancellor overrode the authority of local school board 29. The president of the local school board, Joseph Albergo, answered by saying that the transfers would result in over-crowding, as well as racial tensions. “No parent in his right mind will send his child to that school, especially under these conditions.”[xii] Ironically, the annex was one of the city’s more integrated schools, since it contained about 40 black and 330 white children, while many of New York’s schools consisted solely of minority students.[xiii] An editorial writer at the time observed that:

The loss of more white students would make district 29 resemble more closely the many community school districts in New York City in which meaningful integration is no longer possible because of a dwindling white enrollment in the public schools, which citywide are now less than one-third white. Meanwhile, parochial and other private schools in the five boroughs, which have a combined enrollment of 312,647 are two-thirds white.[xiv]

The battle over the Rosedale annex took place in the courts and out. Parents of students in the annex, which was located within the mostly white P.S. 138 elementary school of Rosedale, sought to appeal the chancellor’s order to the court, only to have the appeal dismissed early in 1981. Macchiarola came under additional pressure from the federal government, when, at about the same time as the dismissal of the appeal, the Federal Office of Civil Rights declared that the annex was illegal because it had resulted in the segregation of the main school. Angry parents in majority white Rosedale declared a boycott of majority black I.S. 231.[xv]

The parents of students at the forbidden annex occupied the building and staged sit-ins. New York Mayor Koch barred their eviction, expressing some sympathy for the protestors and seeking a peaceful resolution to the problem. People in the neighborhood claimed that the closing of their local middle school and the transfer of their children to another neighborhood constituted a fatal assault on their community.

Joseph Albergo, the fiery school board head, declared, “They’re [the Federal authorities and the city government] the ones doing the segregating. All these billions of dollars haven’t done a thing, but our community became naturally integrated, and they want to destroy it.”[xvi]

During the first week of February 1981, police officers swooped down on the Rosedale annex, evicted protestors, and arrested the few who refused to leave. As word of the evictions spread through the community, about 250 demonstrators gathered in front of the school with homemade signs. Local parents declared that they would continue their boycott, and refuse to send their children to I.S. 231.[xvii] New York’s Mayor Koch and Chancellor Macchiarola both criticized the protesting parents for their disregard of the law, believing that the protests had gone beyond disagreement with policy and turned into defiance of civic order.

Many black parents and several black officials were offended at the unwillingness of the Rosedale inhabitants to send their children to a school where whites would be a small minority and insisted that the Rosedale parents should follow policies established by the city and the federal government. Dr. Shirley Rose, a black school board member, declared that, “If they feel that the public school system cannot satisfy their needs they have the right to go to private schools.”[xviii] Responding to Dr. Rose, an assistant principal at Benjamin Cardozo high school observed:

Unfortunately that [white, middle class movement to private schools] is precisely what will happen. At a time when pressure is being put on Congress to pass laws that will bring about a voucher system and/or tax tuition credits, public education needs all the friends it can get. What is happening in Rosedale is hastening the demise of the public schools. The middle class is being told it is not wanted. How can any system of public education function without the support of the backbone of its community?[xix]

The people of the Rosedale neighborhood defended their protest marches and sit-ins as desperate measures, intended to save a community centered on its schools. Rosedale was a small, working class enclave, surrounded by poverty and urban deterioration. Mrs. Sandra Petker, an active PTA member, explained that, “closing the annex would be the beginning of the end, absolutely. Whites have been staying in Rosedale because of the schools. If the community starts moving because of the closed annex, I’d have to move too.”[xx]

By the beginning of the 1981-82 school year, appeals to the courts to re-open the Rosedale annex had been decisively defeated and the boycott had come to an end. Reportedly, ten to fifteen percent of the students who enrolled at I.S. 231 were white. Ironically, apparently as a consequence of desegregation, minority predominance at the school was sufficient to qualify the school for a $300 million federal grant through the Emergency School Act to promote desegregation.[xxi]

We can never know for certain if retaining neighborhood schools would have stemmed white movement out of the boroughs of New York or out of the city public school system. All the indications suggest that maintaining schools such as the Rosedale annex would have at least slowed the process. This is counterfactual history, though, and there is no way to convince those who prefer to believe otherwise. We do know that attempts to redistribute students for desegregation did not desegregate the schools.

The proportion of white students in New York schools had gone down from 30% at the end of the 1970s to just 15% in the 2002-2003 school year. This was slightly more than the 13% who were Asian. Hispanics had displaced black students as the largest category in the city, since 34% of those on the New York City public school rolls were black in 2002-2003 and 38% were classified as Hispanic.

 In the formerly white enclave of Rosedale, the Rosedale Elementary school was 93.5% black and 4.8% Hispanic. P.S. 138, where the Rosedale annex had been housed, was 88.9% black and 6.8% Hispanic. I.S. 231 had become the Magnetech 231 Educational Center, offering special magnet programs. Two decades after it was a center of the desegregation controversy in New York, this middle school was 90.9% black and 6.3% Hispanic.[xxii]

In a series of articles entitled “A System Divided,” published over several months in 2012, the New York Times examined the changing racial and ethnic composition of New York public schools. In this series, the newspaper provided a view of a school system in which non-Hispanic whites had become a small minority. Among the schools, a high degree of de facto segregation prevailed.

“In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades,” wrote reporter N.R. Kleinfeld, “New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated. While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort. About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race, a New York Times analysis of schools data for the 2009-10 school year found; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.”[xxiii]The white students who remained in the system often did so, rather than flee to private schools or move to the suburbs, because they could find ways to avoid disadvantaged minority concentration schools through winning spots in elite public institutions through academic achievement: "New York has eight specialized high schools whose admission is based entirely on the results of an entrance exam."[xxiv] Given the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we will describe below, this meant that these schools had few black and Hispanic students.

At Stuyvesant High School, considered the best public school in the city, whites made up 24% of students in 2012, while blacks were 1.2% and Hispanics were 2.4%.[xxv] The elite public schools tended to be dominated by Asians, though, who generally lacked the ability of whites to flee to private institutions or leave for the suburbs. At Stuyvestant, 72.5% of students were Asian in 2012. Because of their dedication to studying in order to win places in the elite schools, though Asian students were only 14% of students in the system in 2011-2012, they made up 60% of those at the eight top schools with admissions based on test results.[xxvi]

A system of meritocratic admissions will clearly continue to segregate students by race and ethnicity. Although the NYC Department of Education trumpeted the claim that "NYC students outperformed students in NYS [New York State] across student groups" on the new NYS common core tests in 2013, this "outperformance" was largely an artifact created by comparing the city's Asian and white students to Asian and white students elsewhere, even though white students made up a much smaller proportion of the school population of the city than of the state as a whole.

 On that test, Asian students in grades three through eight, concentrated in a few magnet programs in NYC, scored at or above the proficient level in mathematics at a rate of 61.4% in NYC,  while 60.3% of Asians throughout the state were at the proficient level in math. Among the white students, who were a small proportion of NYC's pupils found largely in the top schools, 50.1% scored at or above proficient in mathematics, compared to only 38.1% of white students throughout the state.

In English, the city's Asians (more often immigrants or children of new immigrants than Asians in other locations) did slightly worse than Asians in other parts of the state. Among NYC Asians,  48.1% were at or above proficient, compared to 50.4% of New York State Asians. Tellingly, one should note that Asians did better than even New York's white students in English, since 46.8% of whites in the city and 39.9% of whites throughout the state were at or above proficient.

The city's black and Hispanic majority, though, scored far lower than either Asians or whites, and no better than blacks or Hispanics elsewhere in New York State. In mathematics 15.3% of blacks were proficient or better (exactly the same as the percentage of blacks throughout the state), and in English 16.3% of blacks were proficient or better (only slightly more than the 16.1% of statewide black students). Among NYC Hispanics, 18.6% were proficient or better in math, and 16.6% proficient in English (as opposed to 18.4% of statewide Hispanics in math and 17.7% of statewide Hispanics in English).[xxvii]

It is interesting, although disconcerting, that in 2013 black students were still doing worse than any of the other groups; even worse than Asian and Hispanic students in English, despite the fact that many Asian and Hispanic students lived in immigrant, non-English speaking households. But it is clear why Asian and white students would be concentrated in the elite schools and programs throughout the city, and why their families would seek to avoid desegregation into mostly black and Hispanic schools if policy makers would ever recover the "political will" to make new aggressive efforts at racial redistribution.

Given the achievement gaps, being in a classroom with black and Hispanic students (and especially with black students) means being in a low-performing classroom. Those who want to avoid low-performing classrooms can either leave the system altogether, as whites did during the history of desegregation, or they can find schools that select on the basis of achievement within the system. Those schools will be racially identifiable, with mostly Asian and a substantial minority of white students.


[i] John Herders, “Challenge to the North on School Segregation,” New York Times, February 15, 1970. sec. 4, p. 2.
[ii] “Antibusing Law for State Voided by Federal Court,” New York Times, October 2, 1970, 1.
[iii] Lesley Oelsner, “Queens School Plan Stirs Racial Controversy,” New York Times, April 12, 1971, 48.
[iv] Martin Arnold, “Racial Outbreak at South Shore High School in Brooklyn is Traced to Earlier Tensions,” New York Times, April 30, 1971, 40.
[v] Mia and Mitchell Vickers, New York Times, October 17, 1970, Letter to Editor.
[vi] “Integration Plan Hailed at School,” New York Times, May 18, 1974, 35.
[vii] Gene I. Maeroff, “City Schools Hint Suburbs are Needed in Integration,” New York Times, February 27, 1974, 1.
[viii]Marcia Chambers,”School Integration Goals Elusive in Changing City,” New York Times, April 23, 1979, B1.
[ix]“Abandoning Andrew Jackson High,” New York Times, April 27, 1979, A30.
[x] Marcia Chambers, “U.S. Tells Queens to Desegregate a School,” New York Times, August, 30, 1979, B3.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ari L. Goldman, “Macchiarola Orders Whites Shifted to Nearly All-Black Queens School,” New York Times, 19 June 19, 1980, B5.
[xiii]Gene Maeroff, “Imbalance in the Schools and the Dilemmas of Integration,” New York Times, December 27, 1980, 25.
[xiv] Ibid
[xv] Ari L. Goldman, “Queens Parents Defy Macchiarola on Pupil Transfer,” New York Times, February 2, 1981, B3.
[xvi] Serge Schmemann, “Rosedale School Dispute: The Parents Feel Abused,” New York Times, February 6, 1981, B1+, quote on B3.
[xvii] Edward A. Gargan, “Police Evict Protestors Occupying Queens School in Integration Case,” New York Times,  February 8, 1981, 1+.
[xviii]Ibid., 30.
[xix] Howard Sertan, letter, New York Times 18 Feb.1981: 30.
[xx] Serge Schmemann, “White View of Schools Clash,” New York Times Feb. 17 1981: B1+, quote on B1.
[xxi] Gene L. Maeroff, “U.S. May Aid Queens Racial Plan,” New York Times, Sept. 11, 1981, B2.
[xxii]Enrollment data available on-line at <
[xxiii] N.R. Kleinfeld, “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?” New York Times, May 11, 2012, MB1.
[xxiv]Fernanda Santos, "To Be Black at Stuyvesant High,” New York Times, February 25, 2012, MB1.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Kyle Spencer, "For Asians, Schools are Vital Steppingstones,” New York Times, October 26, 2012, A18.
[xxvii]NYC Department of Education. "2013 New York State Common Core Test Results: New York City Grades 3-8,"  August 2013, accessed October 28, 2013,


  1. I remember the boycott very well. It was not stopped by the start of school, the students did not attend school at ps 138. Teachers actually met with parents and gave them worksheets so the parents could prove schoolwork was still getting done.

  2. I remember the boycott very well. It was not stopped by the start of school, the students did not attend school at ps 138. Teachers actually met with parents and gave them worksheets so the parents could prove schoolwork was still getting done.

  3. JM,

    Thanks for this additional information. If you are willing, at some point in the future, I'd like to hear more from you about your experiences in the boycott.