Siegrid Tuttle
4 min readJan 17, 2021

On February 3, 1964, 460,000 students in New York City refused to go to school. Even adjusting for truency rates, it was the biggest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history. And it happened in a city in the North, where school segregation had been illegal since 1920, and city leaders claimed to be anti-racism and pro-integration. The protests were necessary because, despite the apparent liberalness of the city, due to zoning New York had one of the most segregated, racist education systems in The United States. African American and Hispanic students were packed into schools so under funded and overcrowded, they operated on split shifts, with kids only going to school for four hurs a day.

The Board of Education in New York City released a plan to integrate a small percentage of schools, declaring 15,000 white parents walked to city hall to protest the plan. Facing strong opposition by white parents, the plan fell apart and New York schools stayed segregated.

55 years later, New York City has the most segregated school system in the nation. Even though under 70 percent of the School District’s population is African American or Latino, 64 percent of students in New York City attend schools that are more then 90 percent minority. This segregation is caused at the Elementary and Middle school level by school zones that pack impoverished minority students together. At the high school level, this segregation is exasperated by the entrance exams which guard the city’s highest performing high schools. Affluent middle schools prepare their students better for these tests than poor middle schools can, and affluent parents often pay for their kids to take prep classes. In fact, many poor students are not even told about the tests and never get the chance to take take them. Last year, only 7 of the 895 students admitted to New York City’s best high school, Stuyvesant, were African American.

55 years after the first New York City School boycott, thousands of students in an organization called Teens Take Charge are demonstrating for integration. Bill DeBlasio’s administration promised it would bring change. But the administration’s proposal to base entrance to the city’s best high schools on class rank instead of test scores (the top 7% of students at each middle school would be able to choose to go to attend one of the high performing high schools) has been met with backlash from Asian and White parents. The administration’s other attempts to integrate schools have also been met with backlash. A re-zoning plan was proposed last year that would have sent students in a wealthy, majority white neighborhood (who currently go to a highly-performing middle school) to the lower performing, majority-minority middle school closer to their neighborhood. The plan would have increased diversity in both schools, which studies show has a positive effect on all students (including affluent students). The plan was dropped last year after protests by parents, most liberal democrats.

“When you’ve experienced invisible privilege, equity can feel like oppression,” — Matt Gonzales, a member of the city’s School Diversity Advisory Group.

Even the administration’s language has faced backlash from wealthy parents, students, add alumni who feel they are being vilified. “How is this possible, that people are saying we’re segregated, we’re Jim Crow,” the head of the Alumni association for Stuyvesant High School said, “These words are too harsh. It makes me feel like I’m a bad person.” Bill DeBlasio told the NYC Chancellor of education, Carranza, to stop using the words “segregation” and “racism” after parents complained about his language. “It has a chilling effect on parents speaking out. Some are afraid of being branded ‘racist’ or ‘privileged,’ which they feel is the narrative coming from way up high,” said one wealthy parent. “I am tired of Carranza telling me I have to apologize for white privilege and that my kid doesn’t deserve to go to the best school because of the color of her skin,” another parent said. Her 11-year-old daughter added “If you’re white, you’re bad — that’s how they make me feel sometimes. I just want everyone to be treated equally.”

But students and advocates in impoverished district say the only way to create equality is calling the problem what it is. And that includes calling out parents who are upholding a discriminatory system because it benefits their own kids.