Trouble in Liberal Paradise: A Case for the Reintegration of Seattle Public Schools

By Lyla Barrett

“The biggest fault most Negroes find with the Seattle white-power structure is that it doesn’t seem to recognize the problem even exists.” 

Oh, how little has changed. This utterance, recorded by the Seattle Times in the context of the 1966 boycotts to protest racial segregation in Seattle’s Public Schools, still rings alarmingly true today-- Seattleites love to speak of our city as an accepting, progressive “liberal bubble”, but our desire to preserve this virtuous self image often manifests as a willful ignorance to the deep-rooted inequality and systemic racism in our city. For a place where propping up a Black Lives Matter yard sign is the most common form of landscaping, we have some serious social incongruences to reckon with-- namely, how the academic performance gap between black and white students in Seattle schools is one of the worst in America. Unsurprisingly, the common denominator among the other top-ranking U.S. cities for black-white achievement gaps is highly segregated school systems. 

To understand Seattle’s dramatic racial divide in schools, it is imperative to recognize how redlining--denying Black and other people of color mortgages in certain neighborhoods--gave birth to a city with starkly racialized neighborhoods. While redlining is illegal today, single-family home zoning produces the exact same result by effectively banning low-income housing (or anyone who can’t afford a single-family townhouse) from most residential neighborhoods. This almost directly correlates to the racial breakdown of schools, as students must attend the public school located closest to their home address. It hasn’t always been this way, though. In the mid 70s, the city attempted to facilitate the integration of schools through a busing program in which middle school and high school students were transported to schools all around the city, with no correlation to their residential neighborhoods. The initiative was widely unpopular among white parents, and by 1996 the Seattle School Board had voted to end the program, but a significant cultural shift dubbed “white flight” had already been spurred into motion. To avoid sending their children to historically under-funded and under-resourced schools comprised of predominantly minority children, white people withdrew their children from public schools in multitudes, either enrolling in private institutions or relocating outside the city limits. Consequently, in the five years after the Seattle Plan was introduced in 1978, white enrollment in public schools declined by 10%.

In this way, the lack of diversity in Seattle public schools isn’t just the consequence of pervasive racist systems of the past, but rather an ongoing, intentional process today. In fact, schools are more segregated today than they have been in the last 45 years. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Institution, in the 2019-2020 school year, there were 16 schools with 70% white student populations, contrasted by 14 schools with demographics of at least 90% students of color. This disparity perpetuates itself in a cyclical manner: when well-to-do white people opt out of public schools or move to more affluent school districts, inequality of school programs, funding, and teachers is exacerbated, and thus more white people are inclined to take their wealth to schools that are better staffed and better resourced. While it hardly seems fair to ridicule parents for wanting the best educational opportunities available for their kids, as a product of the white flight myself, I can provide a one-sided perspective on the insidious nature of this trend. Growing up in a neighborhood in southeast Seattle, I attended private school my entire life, mostly because my designated public school was the kind with aluminum sheets instead of bathroom mirrors and discarded heroin needles consistently littered in the north end of the soccer turf. While I had the privilege of avoiding certain systemic pitfalls in the Seattle schooling system, I experienced less obvious deficiencies in my holistic education. In high school, I had four Black kids in my grade, a number that was reduced to just two by senior year. There was a much higher percentage of East Asian students and a few other scattered minorities, but I still in no way experienced the racial, cultural or socioeconomic diversity that I would have in a truly integrated school. I consider my experience as it relates to a central concept in McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together: the idea that racism hurts all Americans, just in different ways and to varying degrees.

A dearth of diversity in the classroom affects children’s development invariably, regardless of their racial and ethnic identities. Sean Riley, an longtime public high school teacher in Seattle, makes pertinent the significant losses experienced by students at both ends of the spectrum of privilege: he explains how his students at a wealthy public school never interacted with peers who were refugees or dependent on food stamps, and thus were never forced to reckon with the scale of inequality in our city, noting, “they don't often feel the discomfort necessary for self-examination, and they don't often feel the disgust necessary for righteous action.” Teaching in a southend public school, he saw how his students perceived themselves to be powerless in the great injustice of their ecosystem, and witnessed how institutionalized racism subconsciously affected their self-concepts: they internalized the poor conditions of their schools as reflections of their own worth and value as students. Riley uses data to back up the effects of school segregation on children’s development, namely their willingness and ability to collaborate across differences, as well as their subconscious biases and stigmas. He references one Harvard study that found that teens who graduated from more integrated schools in the 1970s through the 1990s exhibited heightened complex thinking skills in college, and as adults, were more comfortable in racially-diverse groups and more inclined to broach polarizing topics in such settings. He cites other studies that found students of integrated classrooms harbor less biases, are more creative and critical thinkers, and even have better odds of staying in school and going on to attend college.  

While the segregation of public schools disproportionately harms the outcomes of underprivileged youth, all Seattle students--and therefore an entire generation--are being robbed of the critical learning and holistic development that depends on vibrant, multicultural classrooms. Diversity is America’s strength, and in an increasingly global world, proficiency navigating differing opinions, backgrounds, and values is an invaluable and necessary skill. It is of paramount importance that Seattle and other cities with highly-segregated school systems prioritize reintegration efforts and ditch antiquated discriminatory housing policies like single-family home zoning. We owe it to our children, every single one of them. 

Lyla Barrett is a Seattle native studying at Davidson College, where she plans to major in Psychology.