Education for Imprisonment: School Desegregation and the Roots of Mass Incarceration in the World’s Prison Capital
Walter Stern

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Discipline

Louisiana’s path to becoming the world’s incarceration capital began in schools. As the state prepared to dramatically expand school desegregation during the late 1960s, a growing spirit of inter-racialism within New Orleans suggested that Louisiana’s largest city was prepared to redirect its long history of racial inequality. Yet violence quickly erupted within the city’s desegregating high schools as new types of black activism collided with equally adaptive forms of white resistance.Black students were at the center of this innovative phase of the Civil Rights Movement, and in New Orleans and nationally they organized around a remarkably similar set of issues: against discriminatory disciplinary policies, police surveillance, and unequal academic and extracurricular opportunities and for Black History and the formation of Black Student Unions. While white students often responded violently to black activism and assertiveness, white and black adults regularly misunderstood—or actively dismissed—black students’ grievances. By harshly penalizing black youth and expanding security and police surveillance within and outside of public schools, school, municipal, state, and federal officials laid the groundwork for mass incarceration.This study draws upon previously unavailable archival sources to explore life inside desegregating and resegregating high schools during a period when the future of the Civil Rights Movement and American liberalism hung in the balance. The heart of the project is a micro-history of one formerly white New Orleans public high school from 1967, which was the year it first admitted black students, to 1975, which was the year its last white students left. Expanding upon recent historical scholarship on the local, state, and federal initiatives that spawned mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, this book project explores the following question: in the state with the industrialized world’s highest incarceration rate, how did conditions inside desegregating public high schools affect the development of punitive policies within and outside of schools, and what were the consequences of those policies for students, schools, and their communities?
About Walter Stern
Walter C. Stern is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He earned his Ph.D. in History from Tulane University, and his research focuses on the historical intersection of race and education in the urban United States. He teaches courses in History, Afro-American Studies, and Educational Policy Studies on topics relating to the history of education in multicultural America, education and the Civil Rights Movement, the history of youth activism, and schools and the “urban crisis.” His recently published book Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764-1960 explores the critical role that schools played in the development of the modern segregated metropolis. His teaching and research interests developed out of his experiences teaching public high school in Mississippi, covering education for a daily newspaper in Georgia, and working as a consultant for multiple education initiatives in Louisiana.

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