Voices in Education

Forty Years after Brown, Cities and Suburbs Face a Rising Tide of Racial Isolation
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 10, number 1). Copyright 1994 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Forty years after a unanimous Supreme Court declared segregated schools "inherently unequal" 93 percent of the public school students in Hartford, Connecticut, are either African-American or Latino, and two-thirds are poor. Just four or five miles outside the city—six minutes down the highway—tare small suburban school districts where nearly all the students are non-Hispanic whites and few, if any, are poor.

For the first time since the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education took effect, racial and ethnic segregation—between cities and suburbs, between schools, and between classrooms—is growing worse. Gary Orfield of Harvard University calls it "the beginning of a historic reversal" in school desegregation trends.

Educators and policymakers now face the question of how—and even whether—to renew the struggle for equal opportunity through integration. Meanwhile, press reports and public discussion of education reform routinely ignore the results of more than 30 years of research—which show that integration produces documented positive effects on school achievement, college completion, and job success; and that, more than any other strategy, integration has demonstrated the potential for breaking the cycle of racial isolation, poverty, and educational inequality.

Is Integration Necessary?

Many political and educational leaders consider integration an idea whose time has passed, irrelevant to current priorities for school reform. This point of view makes headlines, especially when expressed by black or Latino leaders.

Last year Cleveland's young black mayor, Michael White, called for an end to mandatory school desegregation. With an ironic twist of the language in Brown, White told the press that one-race schools are "not inherently bad." The black mayor of St. Louis, Freeman Bosley, has said he wants to end a voluntary desegregation program that allows African-American students from the city to transfer to suburban schools.

Efforts to establish one-race academies aimed at helping black boys or Latino students in Detroit and New York City have gotten plenty of publicity. The theory that such schools, with curriculum and school culture geared to the needs of these children, will increase achievement and instill racial and ethnic pride is still unproved.

In many communities the emphasis has shifted from integrating schools to improving the "quality" of one-race schools. Beverly Cole, director of education and housing for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told the New York Times recently: "At the present time, we are more concerned with the quality of education and this has to take precedence over whether schools are integrated." Mary Hoover of Howard University told the Associated Press that "recent research says people can learn wherever they are" and that "children might be better off in schools that are not integrated."

The prominent reporting of statements like Cole's and Hoover's has created a public perception that the black community is uniformly disenchanted with desegregation policy. But many educators and civil rights advocates argue that today's segregation deprives young people of equal opportunity. In 1992 the NAACP publicly renewed its commitment to racial integration as a way to achieve equal educational opportunity.

Orfield's latest research found the schools of New York State to be among the most segregated in the country. Commenting on this finding, the state education commissioner, Thomas Sobol, acknowledged the existence of two distinct school systems—one urban, minority, poor, and failing, and the other suburban, white, affluent, and successful. "This is not a healthy condition for this society," said Sobol.

Segregation is associated with inequalities, including lower test scores and lower college attendance and completion rates among poor and minority students. The problems are most severe for the increasing number of students who attend schools in poor neighborhoods that are nearly all black or Latino.

Efforts to compensate for these inequalities have yielded conclusive results. "Milliken II" funds, named after a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that called for "educational compensation" to remedy the effects of historical segregation, have flowed into some urban schools for years. The decades-old federal Chapter 1 program provides extra money to schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

But in spite of billions spent, and isolated example of successful one-race schools and classrooms, research has turned up no evidence that such programs by themselves can offer a systemic remedy for achievement gaps between whites and minorities or between the middle class and the poor. "The experience to date," Orfield says, "does not suggest that anyone has a model that will overcome the effects of racial and economic isolation."

Poverty and Race

Most of today's segregation is different from the kind originally struck down by Brown. The Supreme Court outlawed segregation that was whether sanctioned by state law or traceable to school board policies. The new segregation is usually blamed on demographic change: differential birth rates and patterns of migration and housing—including federal policies on the location of public housing projects.

By the year 2000, nearly 40 percent of the nation's schoolchildren will be members of minority groups; within 30 years half the nation's public schools will be mainly black and Latino. "Their numbers are now so large," says the demographer Harold Hodgkinson, "that if they do not succeed, all of us will have diminished futures. That is the new reality."

Furthermore, poverty and race in America are statistically inseparable: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43 percent of black children and 36 percent of Latino children—compared with 14 percent of white children—live below the poverty level.

The most troublesome aspect of concentrated poverty and segregated schooling, says the University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, is the "social isolation" of children from middle-class opportunity: "They find themselves in a qualitatively different environment, where the structure of social relations makes it increasingly unlikely that they will have access to those resources and channels necessary for social mobility."

The Tide Turns

Partly as a direct result of the Brown decision, integration of black and white students increased dramatically through the 1960s and 1970s. Gary Orfield has shown that the trend toward integration is now over.

Integration of blacks, Orfield found, leveled off in the 1980s and is now decreasing. The segregation of Latinos, who are even more isolated than blacks and will soon be the largest minority group in the schools, continues to worsen, as it has since data were first collected in the 1960s.

In 1987 about 32.5 percent of African-American students attended "intensely segregated" schools, where more than 90 percent of students were black or Latino; and about 63 percent attended "predominantly minority" schools, where more than half the students were black or Latino. By 1992 thee figures had increased to 34 percent and 66 percent. While the changes appear small, the increase is significant because it is the first sign of overall decline in integration since Brown.

As for Latinos, about 29 percent were in intensely segregated schools in 1981, 32 percent in 1987, and 34 percent in 1992. The percentage in predominantly minority schools rose steadily from about 55 percent in 1965 to 73 percent in 1992.

"Segregation is most intense," according to Orfield, "in the largest older industrial metropolises where the central city and its school district were hemmed in by independent suburbs more than a century ago." Segregation is not confined to central cities; minority enrollment is increasing in many suburbs as well. According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of blacks living in suburbs increased from 21 percent in 1970 to 33 percent in 1990. Latinos, however, are still largely concentrated in cities: as of March 1991, 92 percent of Latinos lived in urban areas. And the migration of blacks to the suburbs is not substantial enough to offset the declining white enrollments in city schools.

A 1992 study by Orfield and Franklin Monfort of the University of Wisconsin showed that African-Americans and Latinos who move to suburbs are likely to end up isolated there, concentrated in one neighborhood and therefore in one school. "When they leave the central city," Orfield and Monfort write, "they are very likely to end up in older and declining sectors of suburbia where they often face increasing residential and educational segregation."

Orfield finds the growing segregation of black students in the South particularly disturbing, because that region led the nation toward integration after Brown and has been the most racially integrated part of the country since 1970. Despite increasing segregation, African-American students in the South still have the most contact with whites in school. The states in the Northeast have the highest levels of school segregation for both black and Latino students.

The Real Test

Research on the effects of desegregation on academic achievement, conducted in the 1970s, documented small gains in the reading achievement of blacks and either positive or neutral effects in math. Researchers also consistently found that desegregation does not hinder achievement in white students. Research on the effects of desegregation on Latino students' achievement is inconclusive; so far, studies show either small gains or no changes. In a 1989 review of the research, Janet Schofield of the University of Pittsburgh concluded that desegregation has its largest positive effects on black children in their earliest school years.

But achievement research should be approached cautiously. Schofield disqualifies many studies because of methodological flaws and criticizes others for not measuring students' achievement over time. "It is important not to over-emphasize achievement scores as an end," she argues, pointing to other benefits of desegregation.

Indeed, the goal of desegregation is not merely improving academic performance but rather providing equal opportunity for life achievement. "We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1954. "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."

In a review of ten national surveys, Jomills Braddock of the University of Miami, Robert Crain, now of Columbia University, and James McPartland of Johns Hopkins University found black graduates of desegregated schools more likely to choose desegregated colleges, to complete college, to live in racially mixed neighborhoods, to get jobs once closed to blacks, and to choose desegregated schools for their own children. Most of the ten studies followed large groups of students through school and into adulthood. All controlled for other variables, such as socioeconomic status, grades, region of birth, and financial aid awards, which could affect mobility and college completion.

The real test of desegregation, Braddock, Crain, and McParland argue, is not higher achievement test scores but whether it "enables minorities to join other Americans in becoming well-educated, economically successful, and socially well-adjusted adults." Without exception, "they conclude, "the studies.show that desegregation in schools leads to desegregation in later life—in college, in social situations, and on the job."

One-Sided Reporting

Other research indicates that public support for desegregation—and even for mandatory busing to achieve it—is growing. A 1987 Louis Harris poll showed that, in "one of the most dramatic turnarounds of public opinion in recent history," opposition to busing had dropped by 25 percentage points since the mid-1970s. The poll found that 47 percent of the public favored the policy. Harris also reported a sharp upturn in "satisfaction levels with the experience of busing children": 71 percent of families whose children had been bused called the experience "very satisfactory."

A national survey published by the Boston Globe in 1992 showed that 80 percent of Americans favored integrated schools. Fifty-three percent said they favored mandatory busing if it was "the only way" to achieve racial integration."

One would never know that this evidence of the benefits and public acceptance of school integration exists from reading the typical American newspaper. Of ten major daily newspapers that published prominent stories about Orfield's segregation study in December 1993, not one even mentioned any of the research on the benefits of integration. Seven of the ten, on the contrary, reported that parents and educators are disenchanted with integration and busing. Several made vague references to other studies in a way that created the false impression that research had proved desegregation ineffective. The Atlanta Journal and constitution ran an editorial claiming that Orfield's study had "proved" the failure of mandatory desegregation—a serious distortion of his findings.

Integrating City and Suburb

Metropolitan desegregation plans that integrate urban and suburban students have been associated with the most stable white enrollments, the biggest achievement gains for minority students, and the most contact between whites and nonwhites. These are the only plans that have been consistently successful in deterring "white flight" on a large scale.

The most successful city-suburban plans follow one of two models: in mandatory plans, predominantly white and predominantly minority districts are merged; in voluntary plans, interdistrict consolidation is achieved through magnet schools. Both models include firm requirements for racial balance.

Desegregation plans that rely exclusively on voluntary enrollment in magnet schools are often perceived as less threatening to white parents. But Orfield and Monfort's 1992 study and other research show that these voluntary programs do not always prevent whites from leaving urban areas. In large cities with magnet plans, rates of white flight have often been as high or higher than in communities with mandatory busing. (In fact, cities with no desegregation plans at all have been losing whites at virtually the same rate as cities with such plans.) The percentage of white students continued to decline in school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Prince George's county, Maryland, even after the implementation of magnet programs designed to create racial balance. The end result is obvious: the absence of white students makes integration impossible.

Though creating city-suburban plans is not easy, some educators see such plans as the most promising route to lasting integration." "This is probably how school desegregation suits are going to go in the future," says Susan Uchitelle, director of the interdistrict city-suburban transfer program in St. Louis. "And it is the way they ought to go if the goal is to have long-term integration."

In St. Louis, 13, 500 black students are bused voluntarily to 16 suburban, mostly white districts. To settle a lawsuit, suburban districts agreed to accept transfer students to achieve a minority enrollment 15 percent higher than their 1983 levels. Suburban districts are now 15 to 25 percent black. Meanwhile, about 1,100 white suburban students go to specialty schools in the city. About 75 percent of the urban transfer students come from low-income families. Transfers to suburban schools include low, middle, and high achievers.

"It's not all joy," Uchitelle reports. "Sometimes there are tensions. But the point is, the kids from the suburbs will never be able to survive in the real world if they don't learn to accept different types of people. They are so isolated, they just wouldn't have learned some very important lessons otherwise. It is a tremendously enriching experience."

The St. Louis plan's biggest challenge comes from political leaders who want to halt voluntary busing. But the program's strong base of support in both the white and black communities may prevent its demise.

Other districts, too, have shown the way. A federal district court freed the schools of Louisville, Kentucky, from desegregation mandates 13 years ago. But strong community support for integration led school leaders to retain a city-suburb desegregation plan. Indianapolis's plan similarly requires that students be bused to suburbs for racial balance. Orfield and Monfort found that white enrollment in these communities has been more stable than in cities with other types of desegregation plans.

Border Crossings

Educators who want to increase cooperation between urban and suburban schools do not need to wait for a lawsuit to take action. Some communities use transportation funds to pay for exchanges between urban and suburban schools. Joint field trips and partnerships between inner-city and suburban schools have been taking shape at the grass-roots level., often through the initiatives of teachers and principals.

In suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, journalism teacher Roslynne McCarthy worked with students and teachers in several communities to create a magazine called Border Crossings. Student authors from Norwalk, New Canaan, and Darien interview suburban and urban students on such topics as racism, family life, their plans for the future, their fears. The students visit segregated schools in nearby Bridgeport, all-white suburban schools, and integrated schools to get their material, then meet one night a week to write and edit.

McCarthy started the magazine project because the suburban students she knew seemed to think they were superior to students from neighboring urban areas. Much of her newspaper class in New Canaan focuses on the historical reasons for the pattern of nearly all-minority cities surrounded by nearly all-white suburbs in the United States.

Such ad hoc programs are no substitute for large-scale integration. But they can at least reduce isolation to a small extent and, possibly, lay the groundwork for future change. "There is a lot of tension between kids in different towns," says McCarthy. "One experience can't change attitudes like that, but it really does seem to be dispelling some myths these kids had about each other."

About the Author: Susan Eaton is a researcher at the Harvard Project on School Desegregation.