UCLA Ed & IS Magazine: Renewing the Commitment to Civil Rights in America

The UCLA Civil Rights Project research shines a light on the continuing challenge.

The American myth is that there were severe racial problems before the 1960s but the great civil rights laws solved them. While there was historic progress in dismantling the official segregation of the South, profound racial separation and inequality continued in the great cities that were transformed by the Black exodus from the South and, later, by the even larger Latino migration. Both groups faced severe discrimination and segregation. Warnings from Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination and from the authors of the 1968 Kerner Commission report about the steps needed to create equal opportunities for urban Blacks were ignored. A large drop in the White birth rate and a huge non-White immigration changed society, even as the tools of civil rights reform were abandoned.

A major commitment in the United States to ongoing independent production of reliable civil rights evidence is crucial to a renewed commitment to civil rights in this country. The research must confront the central obstacles to opportunity for historically excluded groups and must address key issues their leaders and advocates are facing. There is a heavy flow of disinformation from the present executive branch and from media associated with the administration. If the country is to move forward, powerful evidence, strong enough that it cannot be dismissed, free from political control, is critical. And this research needs to be disseminated through new channels and in innovative ways to inform and engage our communities, and penetrate increasingly isolated and partisan groups.

Many assume that the needed research for policy has already been done but the UCLA Civil Rights Project was created because there were huge gaps in basic research on affirmative action and there were urgent needs in each field in which the Project has worked. Most of the serious national focus on civil rights happened a half century ago and was centered on Black-White issues in the South and in some big cities. Decades after that period, an enormous wave of Latino and Asian immigration transformed American society, especially among the younger cohorts, and racial change is now overwhelmingly suburban.

UCLA Civil Rights Project has historically worked on such much-needed research. An important prong of research at the Civil Rights Project documents the resegregation of America’s schools. Almost all the school integration progress of the past half century has been lost, and the gaps in college access have actually increased.

In 2017, the Civil Rights Project released new research showing the reversal of civil rights era gains, and an increase in school segregation in the South. According to the study, Black and Latino students in the South are increasingly isolated in intensely segregated schools and are doubly segregated in schools serving low-income students. CRP research over the last few years shows resegregation of school districts in Indiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Florida.

“While significant gains in integration were made during the Civil Rights era, we are unfortunately seeing a troubling reversal of those trends,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “Much was accomplished by the civil rights revolution and there is good evidence about policies that would advance equal opportunity. Serious work in the 1960s created a powerful agenda for that time. But a half century ago, it was already obvious to civil rights groups and the courts that simply forbidding discrimination could not change deeply rooted social practices. A conscious plan to improve opportunities and measure the results was needed. That is still true today. We need a new agenda now for a much more complex society, more segregated and unequal in some critical ways, and a new vision of integration in a century where we will all soon be minorities who have to depend on each other.”

In 2018, CRP released a study on the school enrollment patterns in Washington, D.C.’s most rapidly gentrifying areas, which have seen a decline in racial segregation, more so in traditional public schools than in charter schools. The report’s authors caution, however, that while the trend of declining racial segregation in schools in some of the city’s most gentrifying areas is promising, a high level of racial segregation remains, and substantial progress is still needed to ensure that these newly integrating neighborhoods result in integrated schools and inclusive communities.

CRP researchers also released a study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, “Charters as a Driver of Resegregation” by Jennifer Ayscue, Amy Hawn Nelson, Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Jason Giersch, and Martha Cecilia Bottia, which describes how charter schools directly and indirectly contribute to resegregation in traditional public schools. The study illustrates how charter schools undermined the capacities of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders to effectively redesign student assignment boundaries to achieve the district’s goal of breaking up high concentrations of poverty.

“Prior research has consistently demonstrated that charters tend to be more segregated than traditional public schools,” said Jennifer Ayscue, a researcher with the Civil Rights Project. “This study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is important because it describes how charters also drive segregation in traditional public schools.”

Also in 2018, the Civil Rights Project released the findings of a new national first-of-its-kind survey of educators, revealing the alarming impact of immigration enforcement on teaching and learning in public schools. The study was presented at a policy forum at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Patricia Gándara, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the study’s lead researcher, said, “Educators from all parts of the country tell us their immigrant students are distracted and living in fear of losing their parents to deportation and this is affecting all the students in their classrooms. As a result, teachers in these mostly low-income schools are being stressed sometimes to the breaking point. The unintended consequences of an immigration enforcement policy that did not consider its impact on the nation’s schools will continue to jeopardize the education of millions of students if allowed to persist.”

The Civil Rights Project study is based on an analysis of thousands of survey responses from educators in more than 730 schools across the country. It illuminates the extent to which increased enforcement is a problem for schools, many of which are among the most challenged in the nation; how the problem varies by region; the “collateral” fallout for non-immigrant students; and the extent to which educators are being affected and reacting.

Another key focus of research for CRP is on school discipline and its disproportionate impacts on students of color. In 2017, a CRP study, “Massachusetts Students Missed More Than 156,000 Days of Instruction Due to Discipline” showed that the overuse of suspensions in the Commonwealth’s schools is harming educational opportunities for all students, but with the burden impacting Black students and students with disabilities more than other groups. The study is the first ever to quantify the school-level days of missed instruction due to discipline, reporting both the Black/White gap and the impact on students with disabilities. Researchers find 38 schools averaged greater than 100 days of missed instruction for every 100 enrolled due to suspensions. Black students and students with disabilities missed the most days and most missed instruction was in response to minor misbehavior.

“In contrast to the civil rights era in which the courts saw their responsibility to support civil rights in spite of public pressure, the Supreme Court has substantially cut back civil rights since the late 1980s,” says Orfield. “No national administration since the 1960s has devoted serious resources to informing the public about these issues as did the Presidential commissions of Presidents Truman and Johnson. In this situation researchers and journalists have a very heavy responsibility to inform the public about the basic racial facts and issues if the country is make progress.”

“It is a threatening time for civil rights, but there has been no easy time and the keys are vision and persistence. The advantage of this time is that the 2016 election and what has happened since swept aside the delusion that our civil rights problems had basically been solved. Most Americans now recognize that we have serious racial and ethnic problems and that something must be done. Often the most frightening times are also times of opportunity. The UCLA Civil Rights Project has played an important role in keeping alive a different vision in what have been hard times, and will continue to do so. Significant new research and action is needed.”

OVERVIEW: The UCLA Civil Rights Project

The UCLA Civil Rights Project (CRP) was created to provide intellectual capital to academics, policymakers and civil rights advocates. CRP is a multidisciplinary research-and-policy think tank and consensus-building clearinghouse; operating with the highest intellectual standards; attentive to dissemination for multiple audiences; and committed to building a network of collaborating legal and social science scholars across the nation.

CRP has convened dozens of national conferences and roundtables; commissioned hundreds of research and policy studies; produced major reports, and published twelve books. CRP directors and staff testify and provide technical assistance on Capitol Hill and in state capitals. Its research has been incorporated into federal legislation, cited in litigation, and used to spur Congressional hearings. In any given month, CRP work is quoted in major national media.

CRP’s work was cited in the 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action, and in 2015, CRP published and submitted a brief of 823 social scientists as amici curiae in Fisher v. University of Texas. The center’s research has been used and cited in a number of other important civil rights decisions.

During CRP’s initial years, much of the work focused on forging stronger links between national civil rights organizations, lawyers, academics and policymakers. More recently, the organization turned its attention to strengthening state and community racial justice efforts, and conducting state or locally focused research towards that end.

It is at these levels where many key policy decisions are made regarding education, criminal and juvenile justice, electoral reform, and other matters. Officials at the district level often set policies regarding school discipline (“zero tolerance”), special education, and voluntary desegregation efforts. State legislators, state school boards and state attorneys generally influence such policies as testing and accountability for failing schools, sentencing and parole practices, and juvenile justice procedures.

The Civil Rights Project was initially founded at Harvard by Founding Co-directors Christopher Edley, Jr. and Gary Orfield. Edley left to become law school dean at the University of California at Berkeley in 2004. In 2007, the Civil Rights Project moved to UCLA and became The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles with Gary Orfield and new Co-director Patricia Gándara. At UCLA, new initiatives related to immigration, language policy and a special local focus on studies of the Southern California metropolitan megaplex were included in the research and policy agenda of CRP. CRP also seeks to expand its reach into non-English media outlets, reaching a broader and critically important constituency.



  • Impacts of the elimination of affirmative action in higher education admissions
  • Benefits of racial diversity in K–12 education
  • Impacts of Title I and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reforms on K–12 education, and particularly on minority children
  • Alignment of the civil rights and standards-based school reform agendas
  • High stakes testing
  • The relationship between religion and civil rights goals and advocacy
  • Racial disparities in school discipline and special education practices
  • School resegregation trends and remedies
  • Dropout trends and remedies
  • Long-term implications of the country’s rapidly changing demographics, especially in suburbs and metro areas
  • Effective educational policies for language minority students (English Language Learners)


Portions of this article were originally published by the Learning Policy Institute in their blog “Education and the Path to Equity,” written by Gary Orfield.

For more about The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, click here.

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