I’ve lived all over the country including in the Deep South, so I can safely say it takes on a lot of different flavors. At my high school the way it worked was the school itself was a very old and historic downtown institution. Hundreds of years old. Big beautiful building literally on the tallest hill.
Lots of famous people graduated from it in the early 20th century, and not surprisingly it was all-white for most of that time. Because it was downtown, and because of the shifting demographics of cities over the years, that meant by the time I was attending the school in the 2000s the freshman class was about 30% black and 20% Latino. It was a relatively good school; so it’s not a surprise that PoC students who lived in walking distance wanted to attend.
And they really wanted to attend, because their other options were the two all-black high schools or the one Latino high school. Technically the black schools were not all black, but they were/are both > 95% black.
Side note: those two schools were literally toxic (built on a superfund site), and literally crumbling (walls falling down). They were sh$t holes. The Latino high school was a little nicer, but still seriously underfunded and >95% Spanish speaking IIRC. None of those three schools had college admission rates over 25% or graduation rates over 75%.
Anyway, the white kids however, were mostly rich kids who were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 10th generation students! (Mostly 3rd-4th though. Aka the type of old money that was called “new money” in 1910. One of my classmates was Tucker Carlson’s cousin for reference.) So it’s quite a weird dynamic for a school.
“4th generation rich white kids” don’t live near downtown in the modern American Midwest city— so most of the white students were commuting up to an hour to get to class. They had their own “private” rich kid parking lots near the campus, which was always full of lambos, bmws, and absurdly expensive pickup trucks / SUVs. The school actually had a very very big waitlist for these “out of district” spots, and was operating significantly over capacity. We even had portable “temporary” classrooms set up on the practice football field.
But the alumni donations from these rich multigeneration families made up a large portion of the operating budget of the school. That money was the main reason the school was so good!
I know I’m getting a little off track here, but think about that dynamic.
• explicit segregation is illegal
• more rich white kids from the suburbs want to attend than you have space for
• parents of the rich white kids fund the school
• the school is way over crowded
• you can’t stop local black & brown kids from attending
So what do you do?
1️⃣ First, you segregate the students during the school days.
You do this because the rich racist parents don’t want their brats going to class with undesirable black, brown, or poor people. This is pretty easy to do, because the rich white kids are going to 1st-8th grade at their suburban schools in a different district. Those suburbanites get funnled straight into an all-white “honors system” of classes on the first day of freshman year. The prerequisites for those “honors” classes are conveniently only offered at the suburban schools. PoC students have no way in. (I put “honors” in quotes because these kids were NOT smarter, and there were no tests they had to pass.)
2️⃣ You make the school experience for the white kids as high quality as possible while making the experience for everyone else as bad as possible.
The white kids’ have nicer classrooms with lots of sunlight, digital white boards, and 20 students or so. They have better teachers, and more rigorous academics available to them. They get guidance counseling aimed at helping them navigate the college admissions process, etc.
The black kids are packed 33 at a time into crappy basement classrooms with chalk boards. Their teachers are alcoholic sports coaches, and their “counseling” is about picking a working class career after graduation (something that doesn’t involve college, like: mechanic, waiter, hairstylist, taxi driver, etc).
3️⃣ You segregate all the extra curriculars as much as you can.
The newspaper and yearbook were white. The debate team was white.
The only integrated extracurriculars were a few of the varsity sports (basketball, track, and football had black kids, cause duh. So did baseball. But even there, most of the pitchers and QBs were white. And the volleyball team, field hockey team, swim team— those were all white.
Oh, and the choir and the school musical were integrated because they had open auditions. (Although the drama department still managed to do a second big production every year that was, you guessed it, more exclusive, bigger budget, and all white).
For some of the dances, EG: “white prom” kind of things, they were a “private party” that was held at a fancy country club on the white side of town. I’m not sure if that place still had an official no-blacks or Jews policy, but it was that kind of place historically. Sometimes those parties / dances were just sort of like after prom, but they were organized by the PTA and by students on campus working with teachers. They very much were official events, even if they were “officially officially” not.
Practically the only black kids I knew who ever got invited were the star quarterback and his absurdly beautiful mixed race (light skin) girlfriend.
4️⃣ You create a system to funnel the black and brown kids you don’t want there out of the school as fast as possible.
This can be done through selective enforcement of truancy rules. It can be done with extremely harsh grading of the “bad” classes. Lots of ways to do it. But the end result is pretty easy to describe in numbers, because my class size was nearly 1000 exactly. On the first day of high school, me and about 999 other students showed up.
• About 500 white freshmen (mostly from suburbs)
• About 300 black freshmen
• About 200 Latinx freshmen
The school had 4 years of class, and just over 3000 students. If you’re doing the math, you might notice that it was missing 1000 students right? It’s worse than that though, because 3K was actually way more than we could handle. By the end of the school year the population would be down to 2,500. This process repeated every year.
So where did the missing students go?
Of the 500 white students, about 50 would drop out or transfer before graduation. BUT, a new 50 would transfer into the school. So the graduating white class would be about 500. Over 95% of the white graduates went on to attend a four year colllege, many of them Ivy Leagues. Of the 500 PoC students, about 250 would drop out, or be forced by the academic office to change schools by Junior year. Another 100 would drop out or transfer before the end of senior year. About 150 total would graduate. About half of them would go to college, and less than half of that group would graduate college.
So final score for “preparing students for life” is:
• 500 PoC freshmen = about 150 high school diplomas and about 40 college diplomas.
• 500 white freshmen = about 500 high school diplomas, and about 400 college diplomas.
Also, it’s hard to even know the distinction between drop out and transfer, as the system was designed to hide the drop out rates. My high school officially listed all drop outs as transfers. And the schools they “transferred” to? They just never listed those kids as attending. The kids functionally just disappear from the system like they have moved out of state. No one looks to check if that happened, because no one wants to know. But everyone knows.
This is still happening to this day.
It’s a nice neat little system beautifully encapsulating white hegemony & how systems can enforce white supremacy. No one thinks it’s racist. From the teachers to the guidance counselors, parents, students, school board, and administrators, no one considers ANY of it racist. If you call them racist at a school board meeting — which I did — they clutch their pearls & get angry. (They suspended me). If you try to raise awareness, they get really angry.
I wrote a well sourced paper detailing the system & handed out printed copies to my classmates during lunch —I was an angry little precocious teen activists— they got really upset. But when you look at the total system, you can’t ignore how it is perfectly designed to provide rich white people exactly what they want at any cost.
You can’t ignore the carnage that does to the black & brown students. The system was & still is essentially designed so that rich white kids can go to their parent’s alma-mater downtown, but won’t have to interact with black or brown students. The way that is achieved is by making life as bad for PoC students as possible. This is not unique to the South or the Midwest. This stuff is everywhere.
And this isn’t just schools either.
The justice system has plenty of stuff that works this way. Universities & community colleges; banks, real estate & the credit lending system too.
When people talk about institutional racism I hope this case study helps you understand what they mean. But it’s not notable in the US; this stuff is all around you.