Race and schools become a social issue when educational opportunities are differentially available to members of diverse racial groups within a society. Educational discrimination has a variety of effects that often lead to interracial conflict. Since education is a major means of social mobility, discrimination in this domain forces the less favored racial groups to occupy lower status jobs and receive less income. Such results form a vital component in a wider system of racial oppression, as in South Africa during apartheid and the state mandated segregation in the American South.
Racially segregated schools are the hallmark of racial discrimination in education. As under South Africa’s apartheid and the South’s segregation, separate schools allow for vastly fewer resources to be provided for the oppressed race. Indeed, racially separate schools are so central to systems of racial oppression that they are tenaciously maintained in the face of efforts to end them. The protracted and only partially successful efforts to end segregated schools in the US provides a striking illustration.
Public schools did not emerge in the American South until late in the nineteenth century, and these early schools were for whites only. Black schools came later after formal Southern state laws for racial segregation had been sanctioned in 1896 by the US Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy, who had one black great grandparent, had been arrested for riding in a rail car reserved for whites under a new Louisiana law. He sued and claimed the law unconstitutional. The High Court rejected his plea. Only Justice John Harlan, a former slaveholder, dissented with his famous assertion that ”our Constitution is color blind.” While it involved railroad seating, this decision was promptly translated by the white South into separate schools as well. Although Plessy established the formula of ”separate but equal,” Southern schools became very separate and unequal.
It took 58 years before the High Court would overturn Plessy. By 1950, in two graduate education cases, the meaning of ”equal” went beyond mere parity in brick and mortar terms to include such intangibles as faculty reputation and general prestige. The decisions prepared the ground for Brown v. Board of Education four years later to hold separate facilities to be inherently unequal. But implementing this unpopular decision in the hostile Southern US proved difficult.
Critical to the acceptance of mandated social change that runs counter to dominant public opinion is the perception of inevitability. The responses of the white South to the varying firmness of the High Court’s rulings illustrate the point. With an uncompromising, nine to nothing decision in Brown, the Court in 1954 generated a strong sense of inevitability even in the Deep South. But in 1955 the Supreme Court retreated in its implementation order to a vague ”all deliberate speed” formula (Brown II). This formula returned the enforcement of desegregation back to Southern federal district courts without guidelines. Only when this weak order undermined the sense of inevitability did Southern politicians become uniformly defiant and pro segregationist organizations gain momentum. The opposition now believed Brown could be effectively opposed. Brown II is not solely responsible for the violent opposition that followed. But its vagueness contributed to the resistance by eroding the strong sense of inevitability that had prevailed.
Consequently, the region’s school desegregation did not take hold until the federal courts lost patience between 1968 and 1973 (Orfield 1978; Orfield & Eaton 1996). This brief period saw court orders achieve sweeping gains -especially in the recalcitrant South, but also in the cities of the North and West. By the 1970s the South had more racial desegregation in its public schools than any other region. But this process ended abruptly in 1974 when the Supreme Court reversed direction. In Milliken v. Bradleythe Court by five to four struck down a metropolitan solution ordered by a district court to remedy the intense racial segregation of Detroit’s public schools. What makes this decision so regressive is that such remedies are the only means available to desegregate the public schools of many of the nation’s largest cities (Orfield & Eaton 1996; Pettigrew 1981). Moreover, between district segregation is now by far the major component today in metropolitan school segregation (Clotfelter 2004). Decisions of the High Court from 1974 into the twenty first century continued this trend, and allowed racial segregation of the public schools to return not only in the South but also throughout much of the US.
In short, Brown was largely reversed without the High Court ever stating that it was over turning the famous decision. By 2000, black children were more likely to be attending majority black schools than at any time since the 1960s; 70 percent went to predominantly black schools and 37 percent to schools with 90 per cent or more black students. The greatest retrogression during the 1990s occurred in the South, the region that had previously witnessed the greatest gains (Orfield 2001). And Latino school children became more educationally segregated from white children than African American children (Orfield & Eaton 1996).
Supporting this retreat from desegregated schools, the sociologist James Coleman claimed in a highly publicized speech that urban inter racial schools were impossible to achieve because desegregation causes massive ”white flight.” It led, he claimed, to whites fleeing to the suburbs and leaving minority concentrations in central city cores. This research had serious weaknesses and its policy recommendations ignored metropolitan solutions (Pettigrew 1981).
The white flight thesis is actually far more complex than Coleman claimed (Pettigrew & Green 1976). Some whites did move from large cities when school desegregation began. However, this movement was neither universal nor permanently damaging. Some cities without any school desegregation also experienced widespread white suburbanization. Other cities experienced little such movement at the time of desegregation. And where so called white flight to the suburbs did occur, it constituted a ”hastening up” process; within a few years the loss was what would have been expected without desegregation (Farley et al. 1980).
But does school desegregation improve the life chances and choices of African Americans? From the 1970s to the 1990s, black high school completion rates rose sharply. While less than half finished high school at mid-century, by 2000 the figure approached that of white Americans. During these same years, the mean difference between black and white achievement test scores steadily narrowed. White scores were improving, but blacks who entered school during the late 1960s revealed especially strong gains – when extensive school desegregation began. But these positive trends stalled and were even reversed by the late 1990s once the federal courts allowed resegregation. Yet these trends are only suggestive, since other factors were also influential – notably, rising black incomes and such effective national educational programs as Headstart.
More to the point, did school desegregation expand opportunities for African Americans in the long term? An array of sociological studies tracked the products of desegregated schools in later life to find answers (Pettigrew 2004). With social class controlled, black children from desegregated schools, when compared with black children from segregated schools, are more likely later (1) to attend and finish majority white colleges; (2) to work with white coworkers and have better jobs; (3) to live in interracial neighborhoods; (4) to have somewhat higher incomes; and (5) to have more white friends and contacts and more positive attitudes toward whites. Similarly, white products of desegregation have more positive attitudes toward blacks than comparable whites from segregated schools. In short, desegregated education prepares black and white Americans for an interracial world.
These positive lifetime effects of desegregation do not primarily reflect test score gains. More important is the fact that desegregation enables African Americans to break through the monopoly that white Americans have tradition ally had on informational flows and institutional access. Sociologists have identified several inter related processes underlying this phenomenon (Pettigrew 2004). These processes mirror the harsh fact that life chances in America flow through white dominated institutions.
Desegregation involves interracial contact. Intergroup contact is one of social psychology’s best established theories. A comprehensive meta-analysis found that 95 percent of 714 independent samples with 250,000 subjects show that intergroup contact reduces prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp 2006).
Desegregation teaches interracial interaction skills. Given the nation’s racist past, neither black nor white Americans are skilled in inter racial interaction. The products of desegregated schools have the opportunity to learn these skills. Their anxiety about such interaction is reduced. This is highly useful for both blacks and whites, for it contributes to their willing ness to enter biracial environments and their acceptance in these situations.
Desegregation erodes avoidance learning (Pettigrew 1964). After facing discriminatory treatment, some black Americans learn to avoid whites. But this reaction has negative consequences. It closes off for ghetto dwellers the better opportunities that exist in the wider society. And, like all avoidance learning, it keeps one from knowing when the situation has changed. Desegregated schooling overcomes such avoidance.
Desegregated blacks gain access to formally all white social networks. Information about colleges and jobs flows largely through formally all white networks. This process does not require personal friendships. Weak interpersonal ties are the most informative, because close friends are likely to possess the same information (Granovetter 1983). Interracial schools allow black students to gain access to these networks.
Thus, although not popularly recognized, the racial desegregation of American’s public schools has led to positive outcomes. But the resegregation of the nation’s schools in the twenty first century threatens to retard and even reverse these beneficial processes.
While America’s racial scene has many unique features, social research in other nations suggests that similar intergroup processes operate in schools throughout the world. Additional research is needed, but the separation of groups in schools and other societal institutions, whether the groups are racial or not, appears to have comparably negative effects. In addition to thwarting beneficial intergroup contact, inter group separation triggers a series of interlocking processes that make group conflict more likely. Negative stereotypes not only persist but are magnified, distrust accumulates, and misperceptions and awkwardness typify the limited intergroup interaction that does take place. The powerful majority comes in time to believe that segregated housing, low skilled jobs, and constrained educational opportunities are justified, even “appropriate,” for the minority.
Intergroup schools have proven to be one of the needed antidotes for combating these negative processes – from Northern Ireland to the Republic of South Africa.
- Clotfelter, C. T. (2004) After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Farley, R., Richards, T., & Werdock, C. (1980) School Desegregation and White Flight: An Investigation of Competing Models and their Discrepant Findings. Sociology of Education 53: 123-39.
- Granovetter, M. S. (1983) The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory 1: 201-33.
- Orfield, G. (1978) Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.
- Orfield, G. (2001) Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation. Harvard University Civil Rights Project, Cambridge, MA.
- Orfield, G. & Eaton, S. E. (1996) Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New Press, New York.
- Pettigrew, T. F. (1964) Profile of the Negro American. Van Nostrand, Princeton.
- Pettigrew, T. F. (1981) The Case for Metropolitan Approaches to Public School Desegregation. In: Yarmolinsky, A., Liebman, L., & Schelling, C. S. (Eds.), Race and Schooling in the City. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 163-81.
- Pettigrew, T. F. (2004) Justice Deferred: A Half Century after Brown v. Board of Education. American Psychologist 59(6): 521-9.
- Pettigrew, T. F. & Green, R. L. (1976) School Desegregation in Large Cities: A Critique of the Coleman ”White Flight” Thesis. Harvard Educational Review 46: 1-53.
- Pettigrew, T. F. & Tropp, L. (2006) A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.