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The United States Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, set into motion a process of desegregation that would eventually transform American public schools. This book provides a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of how Brown's most visible effect—contact between students of different racial groups—has changed over the fifty years since the decision.
Using both published and unpublished data on school enrollments from across the country, Charles Clotfelter uses measures of interracial contact, racial isolation, and segregation to chronicle the changes. He goes beyond previous studies by drawing on heretofore unanalyzed enrollment data covering the first decade after Brown, calculating segregation for metropolitan areas rather than just school districts, accounting for private schools, presenting recent information on segregation within schools, and measuring segregation in college enrollment.
Two main conclusions emerge. First, interracial contact in American schools and colleges increased markedly over the period, with the most dramatic changes occurring in the previously segregated South. Second, despite this change, four main factors prevented even larger increases: white reluctance to accept racially mixed schools, the multiplicity of options for avoiding such schools, the willingness of local officials to accommodate the wishes of reluctant whites, and the eventual loss of will on the part of those who had been the strongest protagonists in the push for desegregation. Thus decreases in segregation within districts were partially offset by growing disparities between districts and by selected increases in private school enrollment.
"[A] richly instructive 'arithmetical history' of how educational integration waxed and then waned in the years after Brown."—David J. Garrow, The Nation
"This is an important book, with thorough analysis supported by both historical and current data. Clotfelter's angle of vision measuring the lack of interracial contact, is both insightful and informative."—Library Journal
"After Brown is an unusually comprehensive and well-documented analysis of trends in the last five decades in the levels of segregation in American education. . . . It is the most current, most comprehensive reference work available today."—John R. Logan, American Journal of Sociology
THE CHANGES wrought by school desegregation since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision have been at times dramatic, uneven, and subject to reversal. As illustration, consider two school districts in the formerly segregated South.
The first is Taylor County, Georgia, situated between Macon and Columbus, some ninety miles south of Atlanta. A news item that appeared on the national wires in the spring of 2003 reported on a practice there that seemed to bespeak a bygone era: racially segregated proms. Following the desegregation of the county's public schools in the fall of 1971, school officials at Taylor County High, like those in many other districts in the South, decided to discontinue the tradition of holding a springtime prom, allowing instead separate, privately sponsored proms for white and black students. This practice continued until 2002, when, for the first time, a single, integrated prom was held. The next year, however,most white students voted to revert to their all-white prom. Another prom, open to blacks and whites, was held at nearby Fort Valley State University. Thus, five decades after the landmark Brown decision, in a high school evenly split between white and black students, this one part of high school life remained every bit as segregated as it had been in the days of de jure segregation.
A second school district is the Winston-Salem / Forsyth Schools, located in the western piedmont of North Carolina. This district illustrates the sweeping change that desegregation brought to the formerly segregated South, as well as its vulnerability to reversal. In 1969, after a decade of minimalist steps taken by reluctant school officials, very few of the district's students attended racially mixed schools. Although 28 percent of its students were nonwhite, all but ten of its sixty-eight schools had enrollments that were 90-100 percent white or nonwhite. Suddenly, in 1970, as a result of a desegregation order, the district's schools became nearly racially balanced, with only two schools in either 90-plus percent category by 1971. Between 1969 and 1971, the percentage of black students attending 90-plus percent nonwhite schools fell from 84 percent to 3 percent. And for the next twenty-three years the district's schools remained racially balanced. Then, in 1995, a newly elected school board, freed by the courts from continuing its racial balance plan, instituted a new "controlled choice" plan that allowed parents to express their preferences for schools within their part of the district, guaranteeing them one of their top three choices. Although school administrators expressed the hope that the resulting school assignments would produce schools that departed from the systemwide racial composition by no more than 20 percent, this limitation was not enforced, in spite of complaints of growing racial disparities among the district's schools. Indeed, the district's schools steadily became racially imbalanced. The percentage of black students attending 90-plus percent nonwhite schools increased from 0 in the fall of 1994, to 6 percent in 1996, 13 percent in 1998, 21 percent in 2000, and 22 percent in 2002. Thus, during the fifth decade after the Brown decision, Winston-Salem's schools were gradually resegregating.
Whatever else might be said about racial patterns in these two school districts, the degree of interracial contact their students experienced in 2004 was far more extensive than it had been a half-century before. Even the most cursory glance backward in time reveals change in the racial makeup of American public schools that is little short of breathtaking. Consider what schools looked like before 1954. As a result of the official segregation that existed in more than twenty states, some 40 percent of the nation's students attended schools that were segregated by law. Tens of thousands more students attended schools that were every bit as segregated, but by virtue of starkly uneven residential patterns rather than by legal sanction. In the ensuing decades schools that had been under the regime of de jure segregation experienced marked increases in interracial contact, and so did many others where segregation had not been enforced by law. As impressive as it was, however, this general increase in interracial contact was diminished by two contrary tendencies. One was the stubborn continuation of pockets of segregation, such as Taylor County's all-white prom. The other was an unmistakable trend in the direction of resegregation, as illustrated by the Winston-Salem / Forsyth district.
The purpose of this book is to document the course of school desegregation over the half-century since the Brown decision. It uses as its basic marker of change the degree of interracial contact in schools. It measures the extent of that contact in schools, both public and private, over as much of the half-century since the Brown decision as available data allow. It compares patterns of interracial contact across regions in the country, in communities both inside and outside metropolitan areas.
Why the focus on contact? The most obvious reason to do so is its central importance to state-sponsored segregation. The fact at the heart of both the apartheid practiced in the American South and the Brown decision that ruled it unconstitutional was the physical separation of the races. In a legal leap based in part on social science research, the Supreme Court concluded that separate schools were "inherently unequal," making unnecessary further comparison of the school facilities available to students of different races. Left unsettled by Brown, however, was whether racial segregation in schools brought about by segregated residential patterns-so-called de facto segregation-might not also be vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Ultimately, the court would reject this interpretation, making state action to segregate schools the necessary condition for federal intervention.
One might argue that, in assessing a policy such as school desegregation, the dimensions of interest should be the quality of resources available to students or socially significant outcomes such as its effects on academic achievement, self-esteem, attitudes, interracial friendships, or long-term social and economic success. Although these considerations are undeniably important, even crucial, in any full assessment of desegregation, no one study can do justice to all of them. Instead, I focus on an aspect that is a necessary intermediary for virtually all potential effects of desegregation-interracial contact. Contact lies at the heart of some theories about how desegregation might affect young people. Psychologist Gordon Allport's "contact theory," for example, asserts that contact is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the reduction of racial prejudice. To have this beneficial effect, the contact must embody equal status and a common objective, and it must enjoy official approval. Theories of labor market success based on information and social connections also require contact. Any number of theories of academic achievement also factor in the effects of peers. And some models of political economy imply that the distribution of resources depends on the distribution of students, that blacks would not receive equal educational facilities until they attended the same schools as whites. Thus, while interracial contact is by no means the whole story nor the only metric by which effects might be measured, it does represent a significant aspect of schools and a necessary ingredient for important potential processes that social scientists have identified.
Interracial contact in schools also has direct relevance to several important issues in education policy. Most obviously, it relates to the policy of school desegregation itself. How the federal courts have come to interpret Brown and refine its constitutional mandate is a question of undiminished importance to both constitutional lawyers and local school boards. The Supreme Court's growing reluctance to require racial balance has been blamed for the resegregation noted by observers of public schools. It is not too much to suggest that some observers believe the era of school desegregation may be drawing to a close. Given the widely acknowledged importance of school desegregation as a component of social policy, a shift of this significance surely deserves careful documentation. Fears of increased racial segregation have also helped drive discussions of school vouchers and school choice proposals; detractors worry that such policies would make it easier for middle-class white families to choose predominantly white schools.
Interracial contact also has direct relevance to the use of ability grouping or academic tracking. These policies are employed widely at all levels of education, particularly in high schools. Justified on the basis that homogeneous classes make for more effective instruction, tracking policies have been decried by critics who argue that their criteria for grouping are often capricious, the assignments they create are usually irreversible, and their educational benefits are dubious. Since these policies tend to decrease the amount of interracial contact within schools, especially when assignment to groups is subject to racial bias, their use quite clearly bears on interracial contact in schools.
Ultimately, patterns of interracial contact have the potential to influence educational outcomes. Consider the distribution of resources in the schools. If whites and nonwhites tend to be in different schools, the possibility exists that students in these racial groups will be exposed to different levels of resources or teachers of different quality. As an illustration that segregation may have this effect, two recent studies suggest that nonwhites are more likely than whites to be taught by inexperienced teachers. If schools are racially balanced, however, such differences simply cannot arise except between classrooms; and if classrooms are racially balanced, they cannot arise at all.
Quite apart from its implications for the distribution of school resources, interracial contact may bring about outcomes of considerable social value. Consider three sets of possible outcomes: academic achievement, job market success, and racial tolerance. First, from at least the days of the Coleman Report in 1966, some researchers have held out the possibility that interracial contact in schools may itself have a positive impact on the achievement gains of minority students, without causing any offsetting losses among whites. Second, some evidence has suggested that integration may improve the life prospects of minority students by giving them access to social networks formerly open primarily to whites. A third potential benefit of interracial contact is that suggested by Allport's contact theory: under the right conditions, contact can lead to productive interracial relations and thereby enhance racial tolerance. More broadly, interracial contact is important simply because of the significance of racial and ethnic diversity itself. Whatever else its effects may be, interracial contact in schools offers students from all racial and ethnic groups the chance to learn about living in a diverse society. In his study of American race relations a decade before the Brown decision, Gunnar Myrdal observed: "One of the effects of social segregation is isolation of Negroes and whites. The major effects of isolation are, of course, on Negroes. Contrary to popular opinion, however, there are bad effects on whites also, and these are increasing as the level of Negro cultural attainment is rising ... Whether they know it or not, white people are dwarfing their minds to a certain extent by avoiding contacts with colored people." In light of the society's growing racial and ethnic diversity, the force of this statement with regard to schools has surely grown since Myrdal wrote it. For all of these reasons, there can be little doubt that interracial contact holds considerable policy significance.
HOW MUCH DID INTERRACIAL CONTACT CHANGE AFTER 1954?
A primary aim of this book is to document changes in interracial contact over time. One of the best illustrations of the results of judicial and executive branch measures to desegregate formerly segregated schools remains Gary Orfield's Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968-1980, which presents a summary by region of the percentage of black students who attended schools that were 90-100 percent nonwhite in enrollment. He shows that by this measure black students were more racially isolated in the South than in any other region in 1968. Whereas 78 percent of the South's black students attended such schools, the corresponding percentage in all other regions was 60 percent or less. To be sure, this measure is not a perfect indicator of segregation, as it reflects in part the overall racial makeup of regions. Nevertheless, it provides an easily comprehended metric and is an illuminating marker of changes over time for a given region. As a result of the federal government's vigorous pursuit of desegregation beginning in 1968, racial isolation measured in this way declined precipitously in the South, transforming its schools from the most to the least segregated in the country. The percentage of black students in the South who attended 90-100 percent minority schools fell between 1968 and 1972 from 78 percent to 25 percent. By 1972, the region with the next lowest corresponding percentage was the West, where 43 percent of its black students attended such schools.
As compelling as it may be, this statistical record of changes wrought after 1968 still misses what went before. One of the aims of the present study is to extend the historical field of view to cover as much of the period since 1954 as possible. Thus I use unpublished data from the period before 1968 to chart the trends in interracial contact for selected districts and by region. Not only does this analysis provide new evidence on the degree of school segregation outside the South in the 1950s and early 1960s, it also allows for an assessment of changes in segregation over a longer period in all regions. And, in light of the steady relaxation of judicial oversight of desegregation orders beginning in the 1990s and the prospect of resegregation observed in previously desegregated school districts, it is necessary to extend the measurement of interracial contact into the new century.
Documenting changes in interracial contact over the last fifty years is one thing. Assigning causation is another. Did Brown bring about the well-documented reductions in segregation? I believe it is virtually impossible to isolate the effect of the 1954 decision or indeed the subsequent major Supreme Court decisions in light of the other powerful forces at work during the same period. For one thing, the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave to the executive branch a powerful lever-funding-to use to encourage school districts to comply with court decrees and other federal law. In addition, the manifold changes brought about by the civil rights movement, not the least of which was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but also including actions in state legislatures and local school boards and changing attitudes on the part of ordinary citizens, surely influenced the direction of change as well. For these reasons, I generally sidestep the question of causation. Rather, I focus on documenting measurable changes in interracial contact, noting where appropriate the coincident events of the time.
Excerpted from After Brown by Charles T. Clotfelter Excerpted by permission.
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|List of illustrations|
|List of tables|
|Ch. 1||Walls came tumbling down||13|
|Ch. 2||The legacies of Brown and Milliken||44|
|Ch. 3||Residential segregation and "white flight"||75|
|Ch. 4||The private school option||100|
|Ch. 5||Inside schools : classrooms and school activities||126|
|Ch. 6||Higher learning and the color line||148|
|Ch. 7||So what?||178|