A life in civil rights: Gary Orfield

For anyone committed to fighting for civil rights or working to create a greater measure of educational or social justice in the world, pursuing a path of reform is a long, tough road to travel. Gary Orfield, professor of education, law, political science and urban planning and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, has known no other way.
In "A Life In Civil Rights," an article written by Orfield that recently appeared in the journal, PS (Political Science), he said of his work: "Mine has been a very different kind of experience that could be characterized more as an against-the-grain persistence in digging into some fundamental questions of social inequality that were fashionable half a century ago but were abandoned by most Americans with influence and power.
Orfield.Cropped"I am convinced that we have no viable policies in place that will produce a healthy and successful society as our vast racial transition continues," he said. "My research has convinced me that there are much better answers."
As co-directors of the Civil Rights Project, Orfield, along with his wife, UCLA Education Professor Patricia Gandara, lead a nationwide UCLA-based think tank of scholars and legal experts who are committed to creating new research in social science and law, on the critical issues of civil rights and equal opportunity for racial and ethnic groups in this country.
Over the past 15 years, the CRP has commissioned more than 450 studies, published numerous books and cultivated a new generation of interdisciplinary civil rights researchers. The U.S. Supreme Court cited the Civil Rights Project’s work in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision upholding affirmative action, and in Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent (joined by three other justices) in its 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools decision. That ruling prohibited assigning students to public schools solely to achieve racial integration.
On April 21, the CRP held a forum for more than 100 academics, advocates, educators and congressional aides in Washington, D.C., to discuss the far-reaching civil rights ramifications of the law known as No Child Left Behind — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — which is up for reauthorization.
"One of the things that we have been able to do is to legitimize certain kinds of research that have been marginalized by a lack of funding," said Orfield. "We have limited funds, but we do publish a lot of things, and we give people visibility and we create networks of scholars.
"Many people are willing to do a lot of work for almost nothing for those opportunities to actually contribute to social justice," he said. "We offer an opportunity for people to have their research reach where it’s needed and where it might make a difference, and many, many people respond to that."
Finding such opportunities to make a difference has been a lifelong quest for Orfield, going back to his college days.
As a native Minnesotan and undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, he led its student government and coordinated student projects on Minnesota’s Indian reservations while researching his thesis on presidential leadership in racial crises. "In a very stratified society in which different groups have radically different abilities to communicate, I feel a special responsibility to help the voiceless be heard," he said in the journal article. "And I always believed that research and ideas can make a difference."
After earning an M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, Orfield spent his early career working on campus and in Washington while serving as a one-man research initiative, picking up funding from the university and "small pockets of government" and focusing on anything related to civil rights. During the political and social tumult of the 60s and early 70s, he testified and challenged three of President Nixon’s conservative Supreme Court appointees — G. Harrold Carswell, Clement Haynsworth and William Rehnquist.
Later work for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Brookings Institution provided Orfield with the opportunity to examine a volatile nationwide busing controversy, an effect of the implementation of new desegregation orders from the Supreme Court’s 1971 Swann decision, which authorized busing as a means of integrating schools.
To help reform the St. Louis’ school system — then in one of the country’s poorest cities and in rapid decline — Orfield documented the state’s failure to take affirmative measures to desegregate the schools. Based on his report, a Missouri federal court found the state liable and ordered it to fund an entire plan for desegregation and improvement.
The order produced more than $1 billion to rebuild schools in St. Louis and established a plan to permit black students to go to suburban schools, the largest voluntary suburban transfer plan in U.S. history.
orfield and gandara
Orfield and Patricia Gandara, his wife, are co-directors of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
"Few people initially thought that families would be interested in transfers, but this approach worked on a large scale for three decades," Orfield said. "The experience convinced me that under the right policies, considerable desegregation was possible in almost all metropolitan areas and could produce substantial educational and social gains. The St. Louis experiment showed, in a very difficult context, that options existed that no one had believed possible." But the Rehnquist Court turned the other way.
Orfield continued to study civil rights issues and participated in dozens of civil rights lawsuits. Encountering resistance within the halls of institutional power, he recognized that he would have to transform his one-man research effort into something larger.
"I could not get funding for the kinds of issues I was interested in researching during the 1980s. I could not even get data from the Reagan administration. … One head of the civil rights office informed the staff that anyone who talked to me would be fired," Orfield said.
In lieu of colleagues interested in studying civil rights issues, he enlisted his students at the University of Chicago as researchers. "We gave ourselves an impressive name, issued reports as if we were a major funded project, and insisted on professional quality work and were taken seriously."
In 1996, after joining the faculty at Harvard, Orfield founded the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles with fellow faculty member Christopher Edley, Jr., now the dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law. In 2007, CRP moved to UCLA where it resides in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
The breadth of the Civil Rights Project’s collaborative style can be seen in its 2010 Arizona Educational Equity Study, a spectacular pro bono effort overseen by Gándara and Orfield. With Gándara in the lead, the Civil Rights Project recruited 21 senior scholars and advanced graduate students from four major research universities, all of whom donated their time to produce nine new studies that examined harmful educational policies for English learners in Arizona.
Over the coming year, CRP will release findings from a number of studies, including a series of reports on the severe effects of budget cuts on the Cal State University system, three reports examining equity and community college issues, an analysis of segregation using the 2010 Census of the U.S. Southwest, and a study of employment inequalities.
In looking back on his days as a naïve college student, Orfield laughed. "I remember thinking when I was very young, well, maybe all the big problems of the world will be solved by then!"
Clearly, that has not been the case.
To learn more about Professor Orfield and the Civil Rights Project, visit: