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Breonna Taylor is one of the names inspiring a massive national movement to overturn racist policing practices. She was shot by police in her home in Louisville, the only big city in the United States that has stood by racial desegregation since 1975.
It’s a place that’s proud to be a progressive blue dot in a deeply red state: The school district fought all the way up to the Supreme Court to ensure that white and Black students could still be bussed across town to attend school together. Since then, voters have fended off state-led efforts to dismantle the county-wide desegregation program. But Taylor’s death lays bare another reality.
Louisville may be a place that’s made progress, but it still has problems with systemic racism that lie bone-deep. Schools are integrated, but classrooms often are not because of gifted programs like the district’s Advance Program, which has historically served mostly white students. And in recent years the achievement gap between Black and white students has actually grown in Louisville.
Perhaps dismantling systemic racism is a task beyond what schools can do. Housing segregation in Louisville has declined somewhat in recent years, but the city is still divided and Black Louisvillians are left out of economic opportunities; Black poverty in the city and its surrounding county is three times that of white poverty.
I attended the Jefferson County Public Schools — which encompass Louisville and the county — from first grade to senior year, when I graduated from Atherton High School, located in a mostly white neighborhood. Another Atherton alum, Delquan Dorsey, is now the district’s community engagement coordinator for the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Poverty Programs. For the last four years, he’s pushed JCPS to embrace deeper changes, including new requirements that schools make racial equity plans to reduce suspensions of students of color and increase their numbers in higher level courses, among other things.
I am white and lived in the middle-class suburbs. Delquan is Black and grew up in housing projects downtown. This week, we talked about what it was like to be bussed to schools outside our segregated neighborhoods and how the experience changed our lives. We also talked about why school desegregation wasn’t enough to remake the city into a place where Black lives matter as much as white ones, and what needs to be done to change that.
Sarah Garland: What was Atherton like for you?
Delquan Dorsey: We only had to ride maybe 15 or 20 minutes max to get to Atherton. If I was late or I missed the bus or I stayed after, I could actually catch the [bus] directly to Smoketown. But a lot of my friends from the neighborhood, we joked that we didn’t know we were poor until we started going to Atherton. We didn’t have that context. Kids got bussed to school, but inside the building everything was segregated.
Sarah: I was in the Advance Program and I was bussed to Coleridge-Taylor [an elementary school in a mostly Black, low-income neighborhood in downtown Louisville]. We had two Black kids in our class from second grade through 12th grade and that’s it. I remember having a class at Atherton that anybody could take. I’d never been with kids who weren’t in advanced classes. We had been completely separated.
Delquan: Right. Personality-wise, I’ve always been considered easy to deal with. I remember my counselor, right before my junior year, moving me over to some pre-calc classes and calculus classes. I had white friends in class, but not really that many.
Sarah: Did your sons have a different experience than you did?
Delquan: Totally. So [segregation inside schools] is a little better. My oldest son, he has way more white friends than I did. Obviously, because I grew up in public housing. Now he has friends of all races.
Sarah: The Black-white achievement gap in Louisville has only gotten wider. And on the flip side, one of the selling points of desegregation is that it changes white attitudes, but it’s still a very racist place. What else needs to happen? What else can the schools do?
Delquan: We’ve had a racial equity policy about two years now focused on curriculum. It focuses on teacher training. It focuses on access to programming. It focuses on hiring as well. And now the lights are coming on, because of everything that’s going on. We have an opportunity, a tremendous opportunity. People can actually use this as a turning point. I think the younger generation of white Americans are pushing on older generations. It may be the benefits of integration. It has to be, you know what I’m saying? It has to be.
Sarah: There are a lot of people like me whose lives were very impacted by desegregation. Going to Coleridge-Taylor changed my life. I just wonder how much more work to take it deeper?
Delquan: It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of work to be done. I went to protests Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You worked 27 years and you get so close. And that is for this moment. We don’t get these windows. You know, I didn’t think I was going to see it in my lifetime, this type of tipping point.
Sarah: And now each school is supposed to have a racial equity plan?
Delquan: Yes. Now it’s time to revisit those plans. JCPS for the first time in its history has a majority of students of color. But the majority of the workforce — 84 percent — are white teachers. So you’re going to naturally have, because we come from segregated communities, this contrast [between the teachers and their students]. But the problem is the [students] need diversity in order for the whole thing to work.
The Black community also has to have economic opportunities outside of education. If that doesn’t work, then everything falls apart.
Sarah: Yes, this is bigger than the schools. And one of the reasons I think you haven’t seen that much change in Louisville housing segregation, the police …
Delquan: There’s police brutality, but … we know it’s a bigger thing. JCPS has the biggest budget in Louisville. It has almost the second biggest budget in the state. But we spend less than 1 percent of our procurement with minority-owned businesses.
You are a district that says poverty is your No. 1 barrier for students to be successful academically. Yet you don’t practice that in the way you spend your money. Imagine if [Black-owned businesses received] 15 percent [of those funds]: the student does better when the parent does better economically. If you apply that to your construction contracting, to your overall procurement and into your hiring, imagine. Even if you just kept doing school the way it is now, if you just [spent more school funds on Black-owned businesses and hired more Black teachers], you’re going to see a bump.
Sarah: Do you think this is a moment when we’re going to see some of these deeper systemic changes?
Delquan: I’m praying. I’m getting emails. I believe in being behind the curtain and not only exposing [the problems], but being a solution in fixing them, too. I try to understand people’s self-interest. With the teachers, it’s saying if you could get this cultural competency training down, your students are going to be great. And then they’ll turn around and make a high wage. And you know, and that high wage will go into your pension.
Sarah: For so long, everybody voted for desegregation maybe because it never really pushed them too hard. I had to take a bus a long way, but I still got to be in the Advance Program. Is this the point where that will change? Can we push harder?
Delquan: Hopefully. Because justice matters. Education and economics are turnkeys that impact everything. If I make a decent income, I can impact my health. I can impact my housing. And those who have more resources do better in the court system.
We think law enforcement is a solution to crime. It’s not. [The police] have been able to get away with [brutality] because it’s been race based. The history of the police department was to find runaway slaves. You approached a Black person and they had to produce their papers. It’s no different now. After 400 years of that, there’s a traumatic impact on your psyche. We’re doing some things in JCPS. But we’ve got to work harder. I’m praying that this attitude from the powers that be remains in place when it comes to addressing systemic racism.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. This story about systemic racism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.