Despite the hopes of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, court-ordered school desegregation never led to full community integration.
“Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by the court’s refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together, ” wrote Marshall in his dissent of the 1974 Supreme Court decision Milliken v. Bradley.
That decision effectively blocked drawing from heavily white suburbs to integrate city districts with high minority populations. When the Harvard Civil Rights Project looked at race and education 10 years ago, it concluded that metro Atlanta’s suburban residential segregation was the cause of its school resegregation.
School resegregation is occurring at the same time that the United States is shifting from predominantly white to multiracial. This week, the U.S. Census announced that Latino, Asian, mixed race and African American births represented the majority of births for the first time in history. In the latest year-end count, minorities made up 50.4 percent of the births, up from 49.5 percent in the 2010 census.
According to the National Poverty Center, 38.2 percent of black and 35 percent of Latino children live in poverty, compared with 12.4 percent of white children. Divisions along socioeconomic lines produce the same results as divisions along racial lines: More than two-thirds of black and Latino students sit mostly beside other students of color in their classes.
The research tells us that low-income children attending middle class schools benefit by the stronger academic environments and the involved parent base. As Marshall noted, “If the majority is educating its children and making sure every benefit is available, then minority children can also get those benefits if they can attend those schools.”
In the 1968 Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County, Va., the U.S. Supreme Court called for education systems “without a ‘white’ school and a ‘Negro’ school, but just schools.”
Are we moving away from that goal? And does anyone care?
To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.
Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.
Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.
Professor Johnson takes this story one big step further by showing that the impact of integration reaches to the next generation. These youngsters — the grandchildren of Brown — are faring better in school than those whose parents attended racially isolated schools.
Despite the Horatio Alger myth that anyone can make it in America, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is hard going: children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich, who have about a 22 percent chance.
But many of the poor black children who attended desegregated schools in the 1970s escaped from poverty, and their offspring have maintained that advantage. Of course desegregation was not a cure-all. While the achievement gap and the income gap narrowed during the peak era of desegregation, white children continued to do noticeably better. That’s to be expected, for schools can’t hope to overcome the burdens of poverty or the lack of early education, which puts poor children far behind their middle-class peers before they enter kindergarten. And desegregation was too often implemented in ham-handed fashion, undermining its effectiveness. Adherence to principle trumped good education, as students were sent on school buses simply to achieve the numerical goal of racial balance.
And in the 1990s, when the courts stopped overseeing desegregation plans, black students in those communities seem to have done worse. The failure of the No Child Left Behind regimen to narrow the achievement gap offers the sobering lesson that closing underperforming public schools, setting high expectations for students, getting tough with teachers and opening a raft of charter schools isn’t the answer. If we’re serious about improving educational opportunities, we need to revisit the abandoned policy of school integration.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog