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Desegregation's Beneficiaries

Profiling graduates of integrated schools


As the nation inaugurates its first black president, a new book co-authored by TC faculty member Amy Stuart Wells, Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation's Graduates (University of California Press, 2009), suggests that Barack Obama's generation is ready to take on issues of racial inequality and segregation, in part because so many members of this generation are graduates of desegregated schools.

Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Professor of Sociology and Education, and Director of the Center for Understanding Race and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her co-authors—Jennifer Jellison Holme, Anita Tijerina Revilla and Awo Korantemaa Atanda—spent nearly ten  years interviewing and analyzing 1980 graduates of six racially diverse high schools in towns from Englewood, New Jersey to Topeka, Kansas to Pasadena, California, asking whether desegregation in their high school “was a success, a failure, or a bit of both.” The thoughtful answers, from people now in their mid-forties, signal a strong desire to return to the lessons about race that they learned as adolescents.

“We studied the class of 1980 because we wanted to understand the long-term impact of school desegregation on the adults who had attended the racially diverse public schools it created,” Wells says. “What we found is that these late Baby Boomers hold a great deal of untapped and unrecognized potential to help change this country for the better, especially when it comes to race relations.”

The book’s subjects were born in 1961 (the year Obama was born) and 1962, and entered kindergarten in 1967, just as hundreds of school districts were beginning to desegregate. They graduated from high school just before Ronald Reagan’s presidency and its push for policies that ultimately would increase the earnings gap between rich and poor, discourage housing integration and lead to the re-segregation of many school districts.

Finally, in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that policies in and explicitly aimed at putting students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds together in the same schools, based solely on the students’ racial identifications, were unconstitutional. While this landmark ruling did leave school districts a few options for paying attention to race and trying to racially balance their schools, it made such efforts more difficult. Still, according to the findings of Wells and her co-authors in Both Sides Now, such efforts are extremely worthwhile.

Take Larry Rubin [not his real name; the authors used pseudonyms for the interviewees in the book], who grew up in a white, middle-class Jewish family in . Rubin has fond memories of attending high school “with students from both sides of the railroad tracks that literally divide by race and class.”

Rubin says integration worked well for him, because he learned to move easily between black and white worlds, and to make friendships across racial lines. The authors show that, for the most part, integration worked for blacks, too:  From 1971 to 1988—the peak years of school desegregation—the average gap in National Assessment of Education Progress reading scores between 13-year-old black and white students narrowed from 39 percentage points to 18. As desegregation efforts waned, it began widening again, expanding to 29 percentage points by 1999. Similarly, the gap in average math scores narrowed from 46 to 25 points during the peak years of desegregation, then widened to 32 points by 1999. In both reading and math, the test score gap by race remains wider today than during the years of desegregation.

The book cites other measures that show how school desegregation changed the graduates—white, black and Latino—who lived through it. The most significant finding was the degree to which racially diverse schools improved the students’ racial attitudes and helped to foster greater cross-racial understanding and acceptance. All the graduates interviewed in Both Sides Now report that they are far more comfortable around people of other racial/ethnic backgrounds than their spouses or peers who attended segregated schools.

However, the authors conclude that society as a whole—especially racially segregated neighborhoods—did not change during the height of school desegregation. As a result, when desegregation policies were dismantled in the 1980s and 90s, the public schools, reflecting the neighborhoods in which they were located, became more segregated again. As a result, the graduates interviewed in the book found that, as adults, they were filtered back into a deeply segregated society despite their own more racially open and accepting attitudes. As one graduate notes, in the 1970s, students in integrated schools thought that school desegregation was preparing them for the “real world,” but when they grew up they realized that the “real world” was far more racially segregated than their schools were.  Today, many of their own children attend less racially diverse schools than they did, even though the current K-12 student population overall is far more diverse than in the past.

“It’s amazing to me that… my parents went through segregation, I went through integration, and potentially my daughter might go back to segregation,” says one white graduate in discussing the recent retreat from school desegregation in her southern city,

Both Sides Now acknowledges that the Jim Crow era is long past and that blacks have since made great legal strides. But the 1960s-era belief that putting black and white children together in schools could single-handedly dismantle the larger structures of racial segregation in the society was, in the authors’ view, short-sighted. They argue that more needed to be done simultaneously in the areas of housing and employment to break down racial barriers and inequality.

“What we learned,” they write, “is that efforts to desegregate public schools for a short time in the mid-twentieth century were simply the beginning of what should have been a long and comprehensive journey toward a more integrated society—a journey that has been aborted instead of expanded since that time.”

According to these graduates, because of their experiences in racially diverse schools, they are far more open than their parents’ generation to supporting efforts to cross the racial divides in this country—in housing and educational policies. With these late boomers (those born between 1954 and 1965) now comprising about 30 percent of the electorate and with one of their own in the White House, it may be time for important and much-needed policy changes to take place. 

Co-author Amy Stuart Wells, regarded as one of the nation’s leading experts on school desegregation, was the principal author of a legal brief reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2007 decision regarding racial balancing efforts in the  and school districts. Jennifer Jellison Holme is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy at the . Anita Tijerina Revilla is Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at the , . Awo Korantemaa Atanda, a Teachers College graduate, is a survey specialist at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Published Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009