Voice: Gary Orfield

Gary Orfield is a professor in the School of Law at University of California, Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

“To think that we can solve (education gaps) by just pressuring the teachers who serve the disadvantaged kids in an increasingly unequal society is something that people in the 1960s would never have believed. It doesn’t make a bit of sense.”

If you look at what was happening in the civil rights era, we were bringing down racial barriers, we were creating accountability, affirmative action plans, desegregation plans, voting rights plans.

We were trying to change the society quite explicitly. Almost all of the efforts in the sense of positive impetus were abandoned by or shortly before the Reagan era. We had a narrowing of the income gap for a long time in part because we taxed higher income people pretty heavily and we had an increasingly generous set of social policies for disadvantaged people.

Gary Orfield

Gary Orfield

We did just the exact opposite in the Reagan tax cuts and the Bush tax cuts. And simultaneous cuts in programs and services and dramatic reversals on civil rights policies.

It just isn’t any kind of big surprise. It is quite clear there was an intentionality both about the narrowing of the gap and the growing of the gap. There was a different theory. The basic theory of the Great Society period was that race and poverty were indistinguishable. They were totally blended together and you had to try to address them on all fronts in terms of income policy, in terms of job equality policy, in terms of getting access to education.

The theory of the conservative era was just get government out of the way and these problems will solve themselves or they are already solved because we have civil rights laws we don’t have to worry about them anymore.

They are very dramatically different policy frameworks. Of course there are other trends in the world at large – globalization of the economy, for example – that make all things more complex in some ways, but these trends are pretty unambiguous.

There are a lot of data questions. What is your basis for the high school graduation rates? It’s an optimistic number. Even the current high school graduation levels are way under what you are reporting for African Americans.

But other things are easy to explain. Why are gaps in the South dramatically better now than they were?

We changed the South. The South was an apartheid system. There were 17 states and Washington D. C. that had legal segregation up until 1954. And in fact they had it until the middle 1960s, because nothing was done to enforce desegregation in any aspect of life. So when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 you had a completely different and distinctive society there in which most black people lived. We had a system like South Africa in those places. We really did break it up quite dramatically from the middle of the 1960s to the early 1970s. It was a huge, huge social change that very few Americans understand.

After that the South became like the rest of the country and in some respects it became better. Two things happened. It was the only area where we really enforced civil rights vigorously. The other was it had stunning economic growth. You had those two things going on. The effects were very dramatic. In the middle of the 1960s, for example there were almost no black firemen in the U.S., very few policemen. The public would become the leading force in integration of employment. It changed dramatically.

There was no affirmative action in the private elite universities until sometime in the middle ‘60s. The civil rights movement and the civil rights laws had a gigantic effect in that period.

But the idea that has been propagated by proponents of civil rights and kind of accepted by the white majority was, “We did it. We fixed it.” There were a lot of problems and Martin Luther King made a speech and we enacted some laws and it is OK now. If there is inequality, it is the fault of individuals not taking advantage of opportunities that they have been given.

That’s just not true. We didn’t do it. We did it more in the South than we did anyplace else. But we really never did it at all for Latinos. Lyndon Johnson’s first job was teaching Mexican kids in a poor community in Texas. But it was still a relatively invisible and mostly southwestern population in the 1960s when the great social reforms took place. It did not really emerge as a force in this country until the 1980s and unhappily right during this period of conservative pull back on civil rights and social policy. Latinos were left on their own. That worked out OK is some ways as long as there were people with jobs with low education. We didn’t become hypersensitive about immigration issues and so forth.

All of those conditions have broken down now and the lack of having any sort of social policy and civil rights policy is beginning to really devastate those communities economically and socially. It’s not a self-curing problem. Latinos have become much more segregated than they were back then.

In California in 1970, the average Latino kid was in a more than 50 percent white school. They are now in about an 80 percent non-white school. They are isolated by race and poverty in really serious ways. And nobody is doing a thing about it. We’re abandoning the modest policies we had, voluntary school integration, affirmative action to college and so forth.

They haven’t all gone by the wayside but in some places they have been reversed dramatically. California and Arizona are good examples of that, where affirmative action has been outlawed, where bilingual education has been outlawed by referenda. Almost all of the school desegregation orders have been shut down. The one in Denver was shut down in 1995.

The Supreme Court said in 1991 we have done enough, we’re shutting it all down. And now it’s almost all shut down in big cities.

All of these things worked together. The positive social and economic policies and the civil rights policies were simultaneously implemented in the 1960s and were abandoned in the 1980s. At the same time you had things like, beginning in the early 1980s, we see a cutback in state and federal support for higher education and a shift of the burden to individual students through tuition that rises every year faster than family income for 30 years. That becomes a completely different world of higher education after all of this happened.

The effect of Proposition 13 in California was devastating. Especially in the West, in the places that have the referendum, the tax systems were shot to hell. The whole West Coast – Washington, Oregon, California – all basically disestablished state funding of higher education. UCLA gets only about 7 percent of its budget from the state now. It’s incredible. Of course there have been a lot of cutbacks on things that are offered to students. This idea that education was a public good was replaced by this idea that education was a private good that should be paid for by individuals.

The states adopted the Reagan agenda which was basically, “Don’t worry about social conditions. If we do enough assessment, accountability and sanctions, market competition will solve the inequality problems.”

And it totally failed. None of the racial gaps went away. At this point after 30 years of just saying we can do it by accountability and so forth, we have to notice that there are community conditions and family conditions out there that are decisively important for our kids. And to think that we can solve them by just pressuring the teachers who serve the disadvantaged kids in an increasingly unequal society is something that people in the 1960s would never have believed. Because it’s silly. It doesn’t make a bit of sense.

You’ve got two different things that are both important. Social class is related to everything. But race is, too. But even for people who are not poor, race matters a lot if you’re black and also if you are Hispanic or if you are Indian. On average, most blacks and most Latinos are in schools that are almost three quarters poor as well as being segregated from whites and Asians.

If you’re poor and you’re white, you are living in a predominately middle class neighborhood with much better schools, for example. You have a much better chance of getting remarried if you’re divorced. If you have an illegitimate child you have a much better chance that you will end up in a family. And a lot of that is related to the income levels of the men.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *