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How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society

As we approach the 50 th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, many in the United States are contemplating the value of public policies that flowed from that decision, especially the desegregation of public schools. Over the last half-century we have received mixed messages about whether such efforts were worth the trouble.

Executive Summary

As we approach the 50 th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, many in the United States are contemplating the value of public policies that flowed from that decision, especially the desegregation of public schools. Over the last half-century we have received mixed messages about whether such efforts were worth the trouble.

From the popular press we have heard of more failures than successes - of lingering black-white test score gaps and white flight from urban school districts. Meanwhile, much of the social science research on school desegregation has been more optimistic, showing mixed test score results but a positive trend toward higher African American student achievement during the peak years of desegregation, as well as long-term academic and professional gains for African American adults who had attended racially mixed schools.

Still, much of this research consists of statistical analyses of test scores or graduation rates. It tells us little about students' actual experience in desegregated schools or what it meant to them later in life.

On a more personal level, there are books written by or about individuals who attended desegregated schools. Many of these stories, especially those from the 1950s, are inspiring. But none is conclusive in terms of the value of a public policy that affected so many lives.

What has been missing is a study that connects personal perspectives about school desegregation across different towns and schools in a systematic way. Ideally, such a study would make those perspectives relevant to a question on the minds of many Americans: Were efforts to desegregate the public schools worthwhile?

This report answers that question and others through the voices of more than 500 graduates, educators, advocates, and local policy makers who were directly involved in racially mixed public high schools in different communities 25 years ago. For the last five years we have studied six such high schools and documented what they were like in the late 1970s - some of the peak years of school desegregation in this country. To complement the rich data on these schools, we have tracked down and interviewed members of the Class of 1980 from each site.

Our central finding is that school desegregation fundamentally changed the people who lived through it, yet had a more limited impact on the larger society. Public schools faced enormous challenges during the late 1970s as educators tried to facilitate racial integration amid a society that remained segregated in terms of housing, social institutions, and often employment. Nonetheless, desegregation made the vast majority of the students who attended these schools less racially prejudiced and more comfortable around people of different backgrounds. After high school, however, their lives have been far more segregated as they re-entered a more racially divided society.

We want two emphasize two points in particular:

First, racially diverse public schools of the late 1970s were doing more than all other major institutions in our society - except perhaps the military - to bring people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds together and foster equal opportunity. But they could not, on their own, fulfill the promise of Brown. Despite the different contexts and racial demographics of the six schools we studied, they shared a significant characteristic. Namely, the schools too often reflected the racial inequality of the larger society, as re-segregation within the schools - largely through unequal access to the most challenging courses - became the norm.

In addition, the goal of most educators during this time was to teach students to be "colorblind" by ignoring issues of race. In fact, race was often a "taboo" subject in these schools. Graduates of Topeka High School do not remember any discussions in classes or assemblies about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that had originated just down the road from their school. As one white Topeka High graduate noted, "I probably didn't know a lot about [Brown] until I went to law school."

This lack of dialogue is ironic, since many of the students were the first in their communities to attend school with people of other races. An African American graduate of Austin High School recalled that his teachers did not allow discussions of race in their classrooms because back in the '70s everyone was "still walking on eggshells" and they wanted everyone to "just get along."

All that notwithstanding - and this is our second main point - the vast majority of graduates across racial and ethnic lines greatly valued the daily cross-racial interaction in their high schools. They found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, the best - and sometimes the only - opportunity to meet and interact regularly with people of different backgrounds.

That's not to imply that the graduates were always satisfied with the way their schools implemented desegregation. Indeed, quite a few regretted that more was not done to promote greater racial integration and equality. They recalled re-segregation across classrooms and social groups, and many - mostly African Americans and Latinos, but some whites as well - said they were sometimes treated unfairly because of the color of their skin.

Still, in nearly every interview, blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians discussed the value of school desegregation in shaping their views about race and helping them overcome fear and distrust of people who were different. This is, by far, the strongest finding in our data and thus it is difficult to represent with just one quote. But a white Austin High School graduate who came from an upper-middle-class family was representative when he said:

…Growing up in a racially integrated school, I think, was invaluable for me. I just feel… it helped my people skills. It gave me the ability to relate to just about any person and feel good… and to be sincere, not putting on an act… I can't put enough value on it.

Perhaps surprisingly, today as adults in their early 40s, many Class of '80 graduates, especially the white graduates, for the most part find themselves leading racially segregated lives. Most of them - e.g. 75 percent of white graduates and about 60 percent of all the graduates - reside in racially segregated neighborhoods. Virtually all of them attend one-race churches or temples and share their closest friends' ethnic or racial backgrounds. And while their workplaces tend to be their most integrated settings, many of these graduates, especially the white graduates, still work in environments in which they have little contact with people of other races. A white Shaker Heights High School alumnus who went to desegregated schools from kindergarten through 12 th grade echoed a common sentiment among the adult graduates. About his public school experience, he said: "I've never had as diverse a daily experience."

Echoing national opinion poll data, virtually all the graduates we interviewed wanted their own children to have similarly diverse school experiences. Unfortunately, they have difficulty finding desegregated schools. Moreover, they worry that, in the current, more competitive environment, they need to put academic rigor - as measured mostly by standardized tests - ahead of diversity.

Of the white interviewees who had school-aged children, only about half had them enrolled in racially diverse schools. While more of the black and Latino graduates' children were in diverse schools - about two-thirds - many noted that these schools were becoming less diverse, as desegregation plans ended and their communities experienced white flight.

A white graduate of West Charlotte High School noted, "It's amazing to me that…my parents went through segregation, I went through integration, and potentially my daughter might go back to segregation."

In this way, we found, public schools that brought people of different racial backgrounds together for even a short period of time were swimming against a tide of racial segregation in this society. As an African American graduate of John Muir High School explained, integration made her high school unique. "When you look at the yearbook page by page, there's blacks, whites, Asians, Mexicans on every…single page, and that's rare. It was rare then, and it's rare today."

National statistics and our data indicate that it is even rarer today than 25 years ago, although graduates of desegregation say it was one of the most valuable experiences of their lives. If we want to honor these experiences, we might consider the ways in which current education policies could be rewritten to facilitate more diversity in public schools and reverse the current trend toward greater segregation.

Based on our findings, we make the following policy recommendations:

  • Broaden definitions of school quality and accountability to include measures other than just standardized test scores - for instance, racial diversity could be considered one measure of a "good" public school in a diverse society.
  • Amend current public school choice policies, including charter school laws, to make them more supportive of parents and educators who want to start and maintain racially diverse schools.
  • Expand federal and state support for school districts that are still trying to maintain desegregation through magnet schools and student transfer plans.
  • Pursue non-education policies, such as housing integration and the diversification of suburbs, that will lead to increasingly diverse public schools.

A white graduate of Dwight Morrow summed it up best when he said that school desegregation had been important, but not sufficient. He argued that the movement for a more integrated society needed to be taken to the next level. "It would have had to be…a national priority."

Many of our interviewees have struggled to maintain some degree of diversity in their lives and say that in their hearts they are open to such diversity when the opportunity presents itself. In their sense of loss about the desegregation they once enjoyed in school, there is hope that our segregated society is not the way it has to be.

For the purposes of this study, we defined "diverse" as any school that had no more than 75 percent of any one racial group.

Download the report:  How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society  [Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader]


Published Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004


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