The Battle Nearer to Home
The Persistence of School Segregation in New York City
Christopher Bonastia



Diverse but Segregated

AT A SPRING 2019 event for student activists, New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza fervently insisted: “No, we will not wait to integrate our schools, we will not wait to dismantle the segregated systems we have!” But by August of that year, he conceded: “If I integrated the system, the next thing I’m going to do is . . . walk on water.”1 Carranza was following a path worn by NYC education officials who, for decades, promised to integrate city schools before inevitably explaining their failure as a product of popular resistance, logistical complexities, and demographic realities. Such roadblocks, they’d say, were too imposing to surmount.

The vows to integrate New York City schools began in earnest following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Brown, the NYC Board of Education insisted, “reminds us that modern psychological knowledge indicates clearly that segregated, racially homogenous schools damage the personality of minority group children. These schools decrease their motivation and thus impair their ability to learn. White children are also damaged. Public education in a racially homogenous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of a democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.”2 In retrospect the board’s claims of personality damage, subdued motivation, and learning impairment as result of segregation are problematic, given the implication that schools with entirely Black and Brown student bodies are doomed to failure. Nevertheless, the board admitted for the first time its obligation to dismantle school segregation in New York City.

Four years later, the board-appointed Commission on Integration addressed the issue even more directly: “Whether school segregation is the effect of law and custom as in the South, or has its roots in residential segregation, as in New York City, its defects are inherent and incurable. In education there can be no such thing as ‘separate but equal.’ Educationally, as well as morally and socially, the only remedy for the segregated school is its desegregation.”3 Yet over the ensuing decades, while top school officials were happy to advocate integration in principle, they chafed at appeals for the city to implement integration in practice. In 1964, amid threats by local civil rights organizations to launch a massive school boycott against segregation, Board President James Donovan unleashed his exasperation with their demands: “We are running a board of education, not a board of integration or board of transportation.”4 Over the next few years, weary pro-integration activists would conclude that city officials were unwilling to prioritize integration in the face of white resistance and searched for alternatives to secure quality education for Black and Puerto Rican students.

The New York City school system remains highly segregated. A 2012 New York Times report found that among large urban school systems, only those of Chicago and Dallas were more segregated than New York’s. Two years later, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA concluded that at the state level, New York had the most segregated school system. A 2021 update to that report found that New York remains the most segregated state for Black students, and lags behind only California in the segregation of Latino students.5 In the decades since the Brown decision, New York City has failed to advance integration and equity in a meaningful manner, despite its reputation as a proudly diverse and tolerant city and one leading in scientific and industrial progress.

In some respects, the lack of progress on school integration is unsurprising. While the benefits of liberal interventions such as hospitals and transportation seemed to be universal, school integration efforts—particularly as more whites left and more Black and Puerto Rican residents arrived—were perceived by whites as a zero-sum game.6 To this day, no big city has successfully integrated its school system, much less one that was under no judicial or federal agency mandate in the two decades after Brown v. Board of Education. Maximum school integration in a city the size of New York would have been an enormously complex, voluntary, and largely unpopular effort that most, if not all, top officials in the Board of Education and city government did not believe in. (Some education officials did seek to increase integration incrementally, where possible.)

The Battle Nearer to Home assesses two periods in New York City history when issues of integration and equity were on the agenda of the Board of Ed and activist groups: from Brown v. Board (1954) to the city’s fiscal crisis (mid-1970s), and from the early 2010s to the present. Why the gap between the mid-1970s and the 2010s? In order for an integration-and-equity program to have an authentic chance of enactment and implementation, integration and equity have to be on the docket of the Board of Education, elected officials, and activist groups. During the forty-year gap, as well as prior to 1954, these issues were not foregrounded in public discourse. The placement of an issue on the agenda is not sufficient to ensure enactment and implementation, but it is essential. With its exploration of the contemporary wave of pro-integration activism, this book reveals how the current New York City school system, with its strengths and faults, came to be. It will also enable readers to understand current pro-integration activism in historical context.

Throughout these pages, I examine policies and practices of the New York City Board of Education that perpetuated a system in which Black and Puerto Rican children often attended substandard, segregated schools that fundamentally failed them, but a system that also retained the glint of integration and inclusion. Perhaps the most crucial obstacle to fashioning an exemplary school system in New York was that virtually all the stakeholders in the system—politicians, school officials throughout the massive bureaucracy, the teachers union (the United Federation of Teachers), and the clear majority of white parents—were only willing to support policies and arrangements that required them to make minimal (or no) sacrifices, while offering token concessions to those demanding comprehensive changes to a broken system. The board’s mode of operation was to maintain high-quality education and a semblance of measured integration in a limited number of schools, with whites remaining the distinct numerical majority in those venues even when they became less than half of the school population. I describe how the Board of Ed, with the support of city officials, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the majority of white parents, sustained limited, numerical integration and rampant segregation simultaneously. These groups had decisive advantages over Black and Puerto Rican parents who were calling for meaningful steps to increase integration and equity. In addition to possessing greater political influence, integration opponents were aligned with the sprawling Board of Ed’s proclivity for resisting change.7

The board, then, was largely swimming with the tide of public opinion—or at least the views of those with greater influence: the working-and middle-class white families who had little interest in the transformation of a system that seemed to serve most of their children relatively well and teacher organizations that were unwilling to relinquish any power in order to improve the education of poorly served students. Because the city was never under an order from federal courts or agencies to address the segregation of students, any solution would have to come from New Yorkers. Thus, the actions by the Board of Education must be assessed in relation to the influence of pro-and anti-integration activists, political officials, the UFT, and other actors. In accounting for the very limited steps that the city took to confront school segregation, I assess how the board and other supporters of the status quo attempted to legitimate or justify these actions and inactions in the most cosmopolitan of cities. These rationales did nothing to mitigate the racist indifference to Black and Puerto Rican educational aspirations that left many of these students alienated or abandoned by the school system.

Desegregation and Integration

The terms desegregation and integration are often used interchangeably, which can result in a lack of clarity. According to Jennifer Ayscue and Erica Frankenberg:

“Desegregation” refers to a legal or political process of ending the separation and isolation of different racial and ethnic groups. Desegregation is achieved through court order or voluntary means. “Integration” refers to a social process in which members of different racial and ethnic groups experience fair and equal treatment within a desegregated environment. Integration requires further action beyond desegregation.8

In this book, I refer primarily to the concept of integration for two reasons. First, the push for reduced racial isolation in New York City schools did not occur under legal compulsion, and its advocates confronted a system where pockets of numerical integration did occur. (In some instances, I use the terms numerical integration and statistical integration to emphasize that particular proposals or initiatives narrowly focused on adjusting school demographics rather than more expansive conceptions of integration.9) Second, the activists who demanded the reduction of racial isolation in schools were not merely seeking demographic changes to school populations. While early demands for integration did largely focus on creating more diverse classrooms, “integration” evolved to incorporate a deep educational commitment to Black youth and other students of color, a curriculum free of cultural bias, and a teaching staff that reflected the diversity of the student body. Ironically, the scope of integration widened during the late 1960s experiment with community control of schools, often viewed as a rejection of integration. In brief, community-control advocates concluded that the Board of Education and the UFT were not interested in the education of Black and Brown students, so Black and Brown communities should be authorized to operate local schools themselves, with authority over teacher hiring, curriculum, budget allocations, and so on.

What community-control activists often rejected was not integration per se, but how it was practiced. As Leslie Campbell (who later renamed himself Jitu Weusi), a pivotal figure in the community-control movement, observed, the type of integration pursued by the Board of Education was often focused narrowly on “a mixing of bodies,” with no tangible changes to the larger educational system.10 Skepticism about integration as it happened on the ground was common. The Black social worker Preston Wilcox exemplified this ambivalence. At the same time that he was becoming a prominent voice advocating for community control of schools in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods as an alternative to integration, he enrolled his son in an integrated private school (see chapter 5). He described integration as “the sharing of a mutually self-reaffirming educational experience by students of a variety of ethnic, religious, social, and economic backgrounds . . . designed to enable students to establish co-equal relationships and to understand the true nature of society.”11 By “true nature,” Wilcox presumably meant that such education must incorporate a frank assessment of the rampant racial oppression and exploitation that have scarred the United States from its earliest days, as well as a rigorous exploration of the vast contributions that African Americans and other marginalized groups have made to the nation’s political, social, cultural, and economic life.

The purpose of this book is not to build a case for the benefits of school integration; the evidence is clear. Most recently, the economist Rucker C. Johnson makes a highly persuasive case that school integration, when thoughtfully implemented and accompanied by equitable school funding and robust pre-school investments, is the most potent weapon against educational inequality.12 These caveats are crucial: curating a demographically diverse classroom or school is insufficient to create a meaningfully integrated environment. We will see numerous examples of this constricted brand of curated “integration” in the pages that follow.


1. Eliza Shapiro, “Desegregating N.Y. Schools Was His Top Priority. What Happened?” NYT, Aug. 23, 2019.

2. Quoted in In the Matter of Charlene Skipwith and Another, 14 Misc. 2d 325 (1958), Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York, Children’s Court Division, New York County, 195833914misc2d3251234.

3. Quoted in Skipwith.

4. “Offer ‘Free Choice’ Policy to End Jim Crow in N. Y. Schools,” CDD, Jan. 21, 1964, 5.

5. Ford Fessenden, “A Portrait of Segregation in New York City’s Schools,” NYT, May 11, 2012, interactive/2012/05/11/nyregion/segregation-in-new-york-city-public-schools.html?searchResultPosition=1#; UCLA Civil Rights Project, “New York Schools Most Segregated in the Nation,” press release, March 26, 2014, integration-and-diversity/nyc-school-segregation-report-card-still-last-action-needed-now/NYC_6–09-final-for-post.pdf.

6. Daniel H. Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).

7. Jerald E. Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill–Brownsville Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 24.

8. Jennifer Ayscue and Erica Frankenberg, “Desegregation and Integration,” last modified Feb. 25, 2016, in Oxford Bibliographies, obo-9780199756810/obo-9780199756810-0139.xml.

9. Ansley T. Erickson identifies a similar distinction between “statistical desegregation” and “other broader, and crucial ambitions,” such as “an egalitarian ethos in schools, social learning between young people, [and] full equality of opportunity and outcome across racial categories.” Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 21.

10. Lesley Oelsner, “Goal of Integration in Schools Elusive,” NYT, Nov. 20, 1977, 1.

11. Augustus Trowbridge, Begin with a Dream: How a Private School with a Public Mission Changed the Politics of Race, Class and Gender in American Education (Xlibris, 2005), 105.

12. Rucker C. Johnson (with Alexander Nazaryan), Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works (New York: Basic Books, 2019). For overviews of the history of school segregation and resegregation and of the effects of integration and segregation on students, see also Charles T. Clotfelter, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Sean F. Reardon and Ann Owens, “60 Years after Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation,” Annual Review of Sociology, 40 (2014): 199–218; Jomills Henry Braddock II and Tamela McNulty Eitle, “The Effects of School Desegregation,” in Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 828–43; Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Ayscue, and Gary Orfield, Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, UCLA Civil Rights Project, May 10, 2019, k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown/Brown-65–050919v4-final.pdf. The website of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA includes a trove of research related to school segregation and related issues: https://www.civilrightsproject.