08 29 2015
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The Wake of Vanport
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Robert L. Reece, doctoral candidate at Duke University and co-author of the study.

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – There is a direct correlation between the geographic concentration of slavery and today’s K-12 school segregation, according to a new study.

The study, “How the Legacy of Slavery and Racial Composition Shape Public School Enrollment in the American South,” appeared in the publication Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, the official journal of the American Sociological Association.

According to the study, counties in the Deep South that had large enslaved populations currently have the highest levels of racial segregation between public and private schools.

“This is fundamentally still a White flight process. We tested whether or not White students were leaving public schools to attend private schools because they were better schools. That’s not the case,” said Robert L. Reece, a doctoral candidate in the sociology department at Duke University and co-author of the study.

“They’re leaving public schools because of integration, because there are Black students in these schools; [and] because slavery created conditions that normalize segregated schooling in these areas.”

Reece and co-author Heather O’Connell at Rice University examined Census and National Center for Education Statistics data along county lines in states that were original members of the Confederacy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and South Carolina.

After Brown v. Board of Education, a wave of private schools washed across these and other states in defiance of integration. Because this White flight was a response to Black students entering previously-White public schools, Reece and O’Connell expected there to be more private schools in places that had been particularly attached to slavery.

Instead, they found that the correlation rested in the level of use of private schools, not the number of schools.

“We argue that the social structural legacy of slavery may separately affect the use of private schools by amplifying their legitimacy as a means to escape integrated public schools,” the study stated. “The strongly demarcated social hierarchy associated with the legacy of slavery may make the use of private schools more likely among Whites, regardless of the number of private schools.”

In other words, there weren’t necessarily more private schools in counties that had had high concentrations of enslavement, but the school segregation in these areas was stark.

Reece and O’Connell explain that high enrollment and racial segregation in private schools in the Deep South was, and still is, partly a result of “racial threat” – the rise of Black students and families in a given county or public school, which then leads to White flight and greater Black-White disparities. To test this hypothesis, they analyzed the same data for counties in the “Upper South:” Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Their results suggested no link between racial threat and racial school segregation in the Upper South, while showing a statistically significant link in the Deep South.

The study noted, “The Deep South was much more reliant on the plantation economy and is argued to have subsequently developed a more rigid set of racial politics that remain in place today.”

Although the researchers focused on the former Confederacy, they make it clear in their writing that this type of segregation happens everywhere – but in different ways and for different historical reasons.

“Everyone [in America] had a connection to slavery. Like New York, for example – a lot of plantation investment money came out of New York, from Wall Street,” said Reece. “We’re measuring how this one specific type of racial inequity was grown and protected in this area. School segregation exists in other areas, but the history is just different.”

As the nation changes demographically, with young children of color already the majority in their generation, Reece asserts that race relations will not change much without examining and targeting these roots.

The study is part of a developing field of social science research on the legacy of slavery that examines the system’s social and economic consequences. Reece and O’Connell hope to advance the field and encourage others to study history as a path toward correcting present-day racial inequality in communities all over the United States.

“What we’re trying to demonstrate is that history mattered. The history of slavery matters,” Reece says. “We can’t really understand the social determinants of things like segregation, and poverty, and income disparity without taking a long pause and historical look at what has been happening. And considering that antebellum slavery, I’d argue, is the most prominent historical period in the country’s history, we have to understand how it affects our current society if we want to be able to fix these social inequities.”

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