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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 30th March 2018 > RE-SEGREGATION NATION


American schools are as racially divided today as they were in the 1960s. Case in point: Charlotte, North Carolina

Photo illustration by GLUEKIT


RONALD REAGAN CAME TO NORTH CAROLINA on October 8, 1984, a month before American voters would decide whether to give him another four years in the White House. In 1980, running against Jimmy Carter, he’d won the state by only 39,000 votes, but it was now morning in America again, and the president was in a sunny mood as his rally began, shortly after noon, in downtown Charlotte.

As is customary in politics, Reagan praised his audience, then himself. Soon, he turned to attacking the Democrats, whom he accused of keeping people “in bondage as wards of the state.” They wanted dependents, not citizens. And instead of listening to Americans, liberals would tell Americans what to do. To illustrate his point, Reagan alluded to a matter of fierce contention across the South: the court-ordered integration of public schools and the yellow buses that made that integration happen, carrying white children to mostly black schools and black children to white ones.

But there was no cheering, no applause, only the stony silence that accompanies an errant note. And when a reaction did come, it was in the form of a Charlotte Observer editorial titled, flatly, “You Were Wrong, Mr. President.” The paper’s editors chided Reagan, writing that Charlotte’s “proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.”

Back then, the claim was true. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (the district includes Charlotte’s surrounding suburbs in Mecklenburg County) had achieved true racial parity in its schools, and had done so without the violence or rancor that accompanied similar efforts, not only in the Deep South but in Northern cities like Boston and Chicago. In Memphis, Tennessee, opponents of integration buried a school bus. In Charlotte, the buses came and went. Long known as the Queen City, Charlotte had an enviable new nickname: “The city that made desegregation work.”

The nickname would not apply today. Charlotte, in 2018, looks like most other American cities, where schools are nearly as segregated as they were before the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional. Some cities, like New York, never really integrated their schools, hiding for decades under the guise of Northern liberalism. Many others complied with court orders, but did so unwillingly and incompletely, without ever convincing people that integration was a public good. Charlotte was the rare city that made its citizens believe in integration, and those citizens in turn made integration work. Their retreat from that experiment has been revealing—and complete.

Earlier this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, or CMS, published a report titled “Breaking the Link,” which explored the relationship between poverty and education. A single sentence in the introduction grimly sums up the state of things: “If you are born poor in Charlotte, you are likely to stay that way.” In a lowpoverty school (i.e., a school where less than a quarter of students are eligible for a free lunch and breakfast program), 95.2 percent of students graduate; only 77.6 percent graduate in a high-poverty school, where more than half of students are eligible for free lunch. The latter have younger, less experienced teachers. There are more disciplinary problems at these schools, and test scores are lower.

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VIKTOR ORBAN In early March, Janos Lázár , a senior Hungarian minister, posted a video on Facebook complaining about the lack of “white Christians” in Vienna. Muslim migrants, he warned, were destroying the city, and if someone didn’t do something, they would transform Budapest, Hungary’s capital, in a similar way. “If we let them in…our cities,” Lazar told his followers, “the consequences will be crime, impoverishment, dirt, filth and impossible urban conditions.” Lázár is chief of staff to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, and his post came roughly a month before the country goes to the polls in April. It was a classic move from Orbán, something his Alliance of Young Democrats (known as Fidesz) had done many times before: play to voters’ fears over Islam and immigration.