Documenting the Limits of a Desegregation Success Story: Ansley Erickson probes the realities behind Nashville’s oft-celebrated statistics
“Even as Nashville’s schools became exceptional for their statistical desegregation they remained unexceptional in the patterns of unequal educational opportunity they demonstrated. In the desegregation years, Nashville’s educational outcomes generally followed national patterns – they both improved, and remained starkly unequal.” —Ansley T. Erickson
On paper, the court-ordered integration of Nashville’s public schools between 1971 and 1998 was one of the great successes of the desegregation era. In her new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis (University of Chicago Press), Ansley T. Erickson notes that the Nashville “district became one of the most statistically desegregated school systems in the country over the twenty-seven-year span of busing there.”
Yet Erickson, Assistant Professor of History & Education, focuses on the largely untold story of the realities that lurked beneath the oft-celebrated statistics. Subtitled “School Desegregation and Its Limits,” her book paints a complex portrait of a school district in which full educational equality had not been achieved, but rather “inequality had shifted form.” It is a story that played out across the country, she argues, and must be fully understood if future attempts to promote educational equity are to overcome the forces that have limited them in the past.
“Even as Nashville’s schools became exceptional for their statistical desegregation, they remained unexceptional in the patterns of unequal educational opportunity they demonstrated,” Erickson writes. “In the desegregation years, Nashville’s educational outcomes generally followed national patterns – they both improved, and remained starkly unequal.”
Erickson’s research highlights the many complex connections between Nashville’s school system and the larger political and economic setting within which it functioned. Housing policy, economic development agendas and urban renewal projects all affected the “hundreds of small choices made by local, state, and federal officials” that determined how Nashville enacted desegregation on the ground. Those choices, she writes, allowed Nashville to achieve “relative statistical success while remaining unable or unwilling to value all of the district’s students, their communities, and their places in the metropolis.”
Matthew D. Lassiter, author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, says Making the Unequal Metropolis “demonstrates how federal and municipal policies consistently reproduced racial inequality” even as they were credited with achieving statistical desegregation in Nashville, as elsewhere. “Nashville’s white leadership and educational system always favored economic growth over racial equality, white suburbs over urban neighborhoods, and market logics over democracy and full citizenship,” he says.
Today, interest in the problem of segregation is growing among both advocacy groups and federal officials. Erickson believes history is a crucial determinant of how the present unfolds. She says that today’s policy makers must have a strong understanding of the past, including of previous desegregation efforts’ successes as well as challenges, if they are to devise policies that will make a genuine dent in the persistent problems of segregation and educational inequality.
“Inequality has been at once deeply embedded and difficult to fully identify,” she writes. “Making visible its full scope and the broad range of those invested in it is, even today, the first step to challenge it.” – Ellen Livingston
Published Wednesday, Jul 13, 2016