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50 years after groundbreaking Swann ruling, CMS reverts to resegregation
Supreme Court decision undone by lack of will
Published Wednesday, May 5, 2021
by Jared McMasters | UNC Media Hub

Fifty years after the United States Supreme Court affirmed busing as a tool to desegregate Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the district has reverted to segregation patterns from the 1960s.

President Ronald Reagan was caught off guard in Charlotte.

Reagan, who was on a stop during his 1984 re-election campaign, believed he could earn some points with his largely Republican audience by sneaking a jab in about how Democrats viewed integration in Charlotte schools.

“They favor busing that takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants,” he said. “And we’ve found that it failed.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the air.

“(Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s) proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools,” the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board wrote the next day.

To understand the city’s disagreement with Reagan, you have to look back 30 years earlier, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” segregation policies in public schools were unconstitutional.

Although that ruling was intended to spark a nationwide surge of desegregation, there was no instruction manual on how school districts could achieve that goal. Enter the Supreme Court’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision, which turned 50 years old in April.

After James Swann, a Black student, was denied enrollment into one of the city’s only integrated schools in 1965 and told to try his luck at an all-Black school, his parents, the Rev. Darius Swann and Vera Swann, filed a lawsuit. They were represented by civil rights attorney Julius Chambers.

Part of Chambers’ argument included that James was denied entry into the integrated Seversville Elementary School because the school board only encouraged transfers out of integrated schools — a sign of the city’s initial resistance to desegregation efforts.

“(Chambers’) real belief was that, basically, money follows power, and the only way that a school is going to get the resources it needs is if the children who mattered to the powerful are educated at that school,” said Pamela Grundy, author of “Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality.”

Six years later, a unanimous Supreme Court supported federal Judge James McMillan’s ruling that if busing students to different schools was determined to be an effective means of desegregating Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, then it should be implemented immediately.

“The court case was really important because the folks who were anti-desegregation efforts said, ‘OK, this is the law of the land, and we’re going to follow it,’” said Amy Hawn Nelson, former director of social research at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. “It not only was important nationally by providing a legal remedy, but it was really important locally because it shifted the discourse. It shifted the impetus for elected officials to do it right.”

But now, Hawn Nelson and fellow experts have deemed the integration process a “rejected success” as parents, teachers, administrators and others continue debating the future of how to handle Charlotte’s issues with race, socioeconomic status and equality in CMS.

For Lenora Shipp, a Black woman who graduated from West Charlotte High School in 1976, the success portion of Hawn Nelson’s thesis was a firsthand experience.

There were roughly 24,000 Black CMS students in June 1969. Approximately 14,000 of those students attended 21 schools that either had an entirely Black student body or were 99% Black.

Segregation between Black and white students — Asian and Latinx students made up less than half of one percent of the total student body in the 76 schools that reported data this early — was rampant throughout the district.

By 1980, though, nearly 38% of white students in CMS elementary schools that reported data attended a school where there were more Black children than white — a large leap from the mark of about 9% a decade prior.

“(Integration) really shaped the quality of my life,” said Shipp, who spent more than 30 years in CMS as a teacher and principal before she was elected to the Board of Education in 2019. “It really helped me so much to understand diversity, culture, race and have those conversations every day. We’d have them on the bus, right in the school, in the classroom.”

What neighborhood are you from? What do you and your family do for the holidays? What do you think about this teacher?

These are the conversations, Shipp said, she and her friends were having with other students of different backgrounds in the halls of West Charlotte to understand their cultures and perspectives.

As one of the few remaining historically Black high schools left in the city today, West Charlotte’s relatively successful integration efforts were also attributed to the types of white students who elected to be bused there.

Several of the wealthiest white families in the city decided to have their children attend West Charlotte. Because those children attended West Charlotte, the school received more resources than many of its counterparts, allowing it to thrive.

A well-funded curriculum, consistent teaching staff and impressive athletics helped earn the school the unofficial title of the state’s flagship model for integration through busing.

“We just all knew that we were going to be somebody when we were ready to graduate,” Shipp said. “I felt like they instilled in us this sense of greatness. We were going to graduate to great things.”

The incentive for ensuring these efforts were successful was simple: The city’s leaders recognized the potential optics of Charlotte on the national stage.

“If you have the reputation as having, quote unquote ‘fixed your race problem,’ you’re a lot more attractive,” Grundy said. “That was the push that really got people to say, ‘We have to do this because the fate of our city is at stake.’”

Charlotte’s integration efforts made it more attractive to businesses and potential residents than other Sun Belt cities that were still dealing with much more publicized racial issues.
“Corporate executives and their spokespeople would … milk the school system’s desegregation accomplishments for all they were worth in the national competition among localities to attract investment capital,” historian Stephen Smith noted in his book “Boom for Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte.”

Along with Shipp’s personal experiences with integrated education, there’s also no shortage of data that supports the tangible benefits in the classroom of an education in a desegregated environment.

Rucker Johnson, a public policy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, found that for Black students, each year of exposure to court-ordered desegregation led to a 1.3 percentage point increase in how likely they are to graduate from high school.

For Black students, a desegregated education that begins in elementary school leads to a 22.5 percentage point reduction in the probability of “deviant behavior” and a reduction of almost 15 points in the probability of incarceration by age 30, Johnson found.

“Kids like me — middle class, upper-middle class white students — were not negatively impacted at all,” said Hawn Nelson, who graduated South Mecklenburg High School in the mid-1990s. “Our outcomes stayed the same and, in some cases, increased. But children who are living in poverty and Black children really benefited from the policies, and the data bears this out.”

CMS reaped the rewards of this success for more than 20 years. Despite all of the apparent benefits, though, the Swann decision was turned on its head with William Capacchione’s lawsuit.

When Capacchione sued the district in 1997, the rejection element of Hawn Nelson’s hypothesis began to take root.

Capacchione, a white parent, sued the school district because he believed his daughter was denied enrollment at a local magnet school due to her race. While the CMS school board defended its busing plan, Federal District Court Judge Robert Potter ordered the district to end the use of race during its school assignment processes in 1999. A 2001 decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with Capacchione, signaling the end of mandatory busing in CMS.

As a result, school assignment transitioned to the new “Family Choice Plan,” so students were mostly assigned to particular schools based on what neighborhood they lived in. This move, combined with the city’s already deeply segregated neighborhoods, created a vicious cycle for Charlotte families.

“We looked at the period, for example, from 1998 to 2006,” said Helen Ladd, a public policy professor at Duke University involved in the school’s Center for Child and Family Policy, “and segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg went up about by about 20 percent during that period.”

Families with resources and opportunities — in Charlotte’s case, this usually meant white families — moved into whiter neighborhoods that were assigned to predominantly white schools.

“As we look at where we are today, to me, it’s somewhat alarming and disheartening that after all the work we did to integrate schools, it’s almost completely segregated again,” Shipp said.

“If your family has resources and money, you can decide where you want to live, you can send your child to private school, you can work the magnet system,” Grundy added. “The problem, really, is that the kids who are hurt most by resegregation, who are the low-income children of color, their families can’t do that. They’re just basically stuck.”

All of the benefits backed by research and data flew out the window as schools began to revert to segregated populations. From 1999 to 2010, Shipp was a principal at several CMS elementary schools, and she could see the toll resegregation was taking on students in the classroom.

For Shipp, one of the most pressing concerns of the school choice plan was losing the connection students formed with their classmates. For example, if Susie was struggling with a math question and her teacher was busy helping another student, it was now more difficult for her to find a friend who could help because many schools’ academic performance suffered a major blow.

“To me, we’ve lost that understanding of each other, and even having conversations to get to know each other well and understand that we’re all human and in this together,” Shipp said. “Getting to know each other’s beliefs and cultures and what we bring to the table is so much of what’s been lost. And that’s what we worked so hard to achieve.”

As many Americans were thrown into a reckoning of the United States’ ongoing racial injustices last summer, Elyse Dashew believed the potential for a turning point was there.
After 20 years of resegregation in CMS, Dashew, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education’s chairperson, thought that with the topic of racial equality at the forefront of every discussion, there had never been a better time to spark change in Charlotte’s schools.

“It felt like maybe people will have an appetite or maybe people are waking up to that greater good,” Dashew said. “But I’m not sure if that was just a moment, like a fad or a trend that then disappeared, or if it was a shift in our society.”

But some experts, including Ladd, see the potential for the district to become even less diverse in the near future.

By modeling larger cities in the Northeast, there could be a push in the state legislature to split counties into multiple districts, which would make it even easier for families to move to neighborhoods in districts that skew toward one race while still being able to easily commute to work.

All of these predictions remain theoretical, though, because essentially nobody knows what will really happen in Charlotte’s debate around race and socioeconomic status and how those relate to education.

After Dashew contemplated whether last summer’s protests and nationwide movement were a legitimate shift or just a trend, she said the phrase, “I’m not sure.” three times, pausing between each iteration.

Half a century after the Swann decision, that seems to be the only sentiment the people of Charlotte can agree on.


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