Desegregation’s Other Story: Ansley Erickson

 Ansley Erickson, Assistant Professor of History & Education

Ansley Erickson, Assistant Professor of History & Education

Excerpt reposted from TC Today Spring/Summer 2015 Issue

“History doesn’t offer up ready-made solutions,” says Ansley Erickson, “but it does help us better understand enduring problems.”

Consider the black-white achievement gap, which Erickson, Assistant Professor of History & Education, probes in Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and its Limits, her forthcoming book on Nashville, Tennessee. “Desegregation was an important lever for educational opportunity for African Americans, but its design also undermined black communities,” Erickson says.

As research assistant to education reformer Theodore Sizer, Erickson visited schools nationwide before teaching in Harlem and the South Bronx. Then she made a documentary about K-12 education in Nashville. Statistically the city’s school system was among the country’s most desegregated, but Erickson found that black children had been bused out of their neighborhoods three times as frequently as whites, and saw schools in their neighborhoods closed while new ones opened in the suburbs. And according to Erickson, a new emphasis on vocational education meant more black students faced “racist tracking.”

“Nashville lets you see that city planners thought of schools, housing and property values in relation to one another,” Erickson says. “So integration hasn’t failed only because white people, as individuals, didn’t want to go to school with black people. The state encouraged segregation between and within schools.” The consequences, she says, still reverberate. In the 1980s and 1990s, after witnessing busing’s toll on black children, black leaders focused less on achieving racial balance and more on securing schools for their communities. The conversation about integration’s possibilities had narrowed. “This country once saw education’s mission as broadly humanistic. But so much talk today is about preparation for work,” Erickson says. In Nashville, that focus often meant diminished opportunities for students of color. “History offers us important cautions.”