New study questions benefits of desegregation in North

One of the main contentions in my book is that school desegregation benefits students of color – has done so in the past, and would do so in the future. I base this argument on a variety of sources, both anecdotal and academic. The key one is a major study conducted by UC Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson and detailed in his book, “Children of the Dream.”

Here’s how Johnson summarized his own research in a Washington Post op-ed:

Using nationally representative longitudinal data spanning more than four decades, I analyze the life outcomes of cohorts tracked from birth to adulthood across several generations, from the children of Brown to Brown’s grandchildren. … The research findings are clear: African Americans experienced dramatic improvements in educational attainment, earnings and health status — and this improvement that did not come at the expense of whites.

Moreover, the longer students were exposed to integration and strong school funding, the better their outcomes in adulthood. This was true for children of all races. The beneficial effects were found not just for the children who attended desegregated schools, but for their children as well. School integration didn’t fail. The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.

This month, a new study is out that seeks to measure the same effect and comes to a somewhat different conclusion. It’s a working paper (i.e., not yet peer-reviewed and published) that uses newly categorized U.S. Census data to track life outcomes of Black and white students who attended schools under federal desegregation orders. It’s summarized here by the Hechinger Report.

The takeaway: school desegregation had a very large positive impact on Black students in the South — but almost none for Black students in the North. The authors conclude:

The distinct paucity of effects outside of the South, however, suggests that there are also limitations to the efficacy of legally imposed integration initiatives in certain settings. Most saliently, despite strong de-facto segregation and widespread racial animus, northern school districts did not share the South’s history of overt state-sponsored racial discrimination in education, such that court ordered integration was a less direct challenge to the status quo of northern education systems. The nature and intensity of white resistance to integration orders in the North may very well have contributed to these regional differences as well, with the close proximity of racially homogeneous suburban districts and relatively affordable private school alternatives facilitating large scale white flight and mitigating the benefits of
desegregation activity.

That’s an interesting finding. The hasty takeaway would be: desegregation didn’t (and wouldn’t) work in the North. But the authors are correct to observe that the “nature and intensity of white resistance to integration orders” was different in the North compared to the South — and had a different effect.

Look at their data on two different segregation measures, showing basically how segregated the schools were before and after the court orders. You’ll see that desegregation orders had an immediate but ultimately small (and, in the exposure index metric, diminishing) effect in terms of actually desegregating schools.

In other words: desegregation had a lesser effect in the North because it barely happened here. Federal desegregation orders triggered white flight in the North to a degree that did not prevail in the South, where geography made it a more difficult form of resistance.

The results, the authors write, “raise questions as to whether ongoing or potential future integration initiatives are likely to be effective in settings where they are not part of a transformative change to local education systems or where effective paths to avoiding integrated schools are available to white families” (my highlighting). That much is certainly true. An important lesson from the Civil Rights era is that judicial and legislative solutions, powerful and important as they are, cannot create integration by themselves. Rather, true integration depends on buy-in from people living in the community. Rochester and other Northern cities have never achieved that buy-in, and so the blunt tool that was useful in the Jim Crow South cannot solve the problem here. Only we can do that.

Related Posts