Published Online:

Separate and Unequal

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Cambridge, Mass.

In the late 1960's, Gary Orfield was a young graduate student at the University of Chicago. He remembers sitting in a history class and hearing John Hope Franklin describe how whites and liberals had abandoned the cause of Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War. The noted historian talked about how the numbers of blacks holding elective office quickly declined after that and how Jim Crow laws began to take hold.

"If that ever happens in this country again," Orfield remembers thinking, "I'm going to do the other thing."

As one of the nation's leading experts on school desegregation, Orfield has remained true to his word. Even after federal funds supporting desegregation research dried up and other researchers turned to new interests, Orfield has doggedly pursued work in this field, continually prodding schools to do a better and better job of promoting integration.

Some people say that kind of devotion is admirable. Others fault him for it. They say his views have colored his work.

"You wouldn't call it social science," says Christine H. Rossell, the chair of Boston University's political science department and a frequent critic of Orfield. "You would call it advocacy research."

Building a Reputation

On an August morning, Orfield sits amid the clutter of his fourth-floor office here in Harvard University's Gutman Library. Bookshelves, crammed to overflowing, line every available inch of wall space. Boxes and stacks of papers are piled on the floor. And even in the doldrums of summer, the telephone rings continually.

A caller asks: Would he speak at a church forum in Cambridge? Yes. A reporter calls for a comment on the racial implications of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He declines. He sticks to what he knows, Orfield tells the reporter.

At age 52, what Orfield knows best is school desegregation. A political scientist by training, Orfield became interested in the field when he did a doctoral dissertation on school desegregation in the South. He wrote a book on the subject--one of what would be several over the years--and by the late 1970's, advocates on both sides of major court cases involving school desegregation were citing his work. In all, he's been a witness in 21 civil-rights court cases on school and housing discrimination, higher education, and testing issues. He's also had a hand in producing dozens of studies on the subject.

Orfield's contention now is that, 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, the nation's schools are slowly sliding toward resegregation. His own national studies, produced for the National School Boards Association, have found, for example, that the segregation of African-American students now exceeds 1970 levels and that Hispanic students are even less likely to be educated in integrated settings. He says resegregation is even happening in places like the South, which after the 1970's had become the most integrated region in the United States.

And this is taking place as some school districts, chafing under the constraints of their own court-ordered desegregation plans, are increasingly looking to abandon them--with the courts' permission.

If you understand all of that you understand why, decades after busing lost much of its muscle, Orfield has remained in the trenches of the school-desegregation fight.

"I felt the country had quietly made the decision that separate could be equal, and there are deep structural reasons why separate can't be equal," says Orfield, whose formal title at Harvard's graduate school of education is professor of education and social policy.

That trend becomes all the more worrisome, Orfield says, as the nation's minority populations continue to grow. Statistical projections show that within 30 years the majority of all young Americans will be members of groups that are now considered minorities.

"We're a multiracial society, and we're going to become predominantly nonwhite, and we're trying to operate within this tremendous tension with no attention to race relations," he says. "School desegregation is misconstrued as being about academic achievement, but it's a much bigger issue that has to do with what kind of society we want to have and how we can get along."

Making Headlines

Orfield has managed to keep a high profile on school desegregation in part because of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. The project grew out of a graduate class conducted collaboratively by Harvard's graduate school of education, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard Law School.

As part of the study, students were divided into groups to research a particular issue. The aim of the dozen or so students in Orfield's school-desegregation group was to analyze the status of desegregation efforts in a handful of school districts.

Among the sites chosen for their uninvited scrutiny were: Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Austin, Tex.; Prince George's County, Md.; and Montgomery County, Md. Small grants to Harvard from the Spencer Foundation and the Mellon Foundation helped pay for students' travel to those locations.

The resulting reports carried the names of their student authors; Orfield wrote the introductions. They were invariably critical, frequently caused a splash in local newspapers, and often were attacked by school administrators from the targeted districts.

Even districts noted for their progressive efforts in this area came in for criticism from the Harvard group. One recent example was Montgomery County, an affluent Washington suburb with a rapidly growing minority population. The district had never been forced by a court to integrate its schools, but it had, nonetheless, taken some steps in that direction by creating magnet schools and allowing children to transfer to schools outside their neighborhoods. The district had also boasted over the years that the achievement gap between its African-American and white students was narrowing.

Despite those efforts, however, Orfield and his students, in a report released this summer, concluded that African-American and Hispanic students had become increasingly isolated in the county's schools. Moreover, the county's policies had been ineffective--and even counterproductive--in reducing segregation there.

And while the researchers conceded that the gap between the achievement of African-Americans and whites has indeed narrowed, a similar gap between Latino and white students has grown. Both groups still lag well behind white students in test scores.

Those conclusions produced a bitter back-and-forth debate that was played out over the summer on the pages of The Washington Post. Responding to a preliminary version of the report, district school officials called the Harvard team's work "advocacy research" and said it was full of inaccuracies.

And although district school officials are still reviewing the final report, they said they stand by their earlier characterization of the work.

Part of the problem, some of Orfield's harshest critics say, is that he misses the point: Integration doesn't automatically improve academic achievement.

Boston University's Rossell says most disparities in student achievement can be explained by differences in students' social class or family background--and not by their racial group. But she says Orfield fails to control for such demographic characteristics in his studies.

"If a graduate student had given me some of these studies, I would flunk him," says Rossell, who frequently testifies opposite Orfield in school-desegregation cases.

Orfield's critics also say some of the studies fail to explain the cause for the racial isolation they document. Was the community geographically isolated? Was there "white flight," and how much of it was caused by the district's desegregation policies?

And school administrators often accuse Orfield of being a closet advocate for court-ordered busing. (Orfield denies this.)

Moreover, critics contend that their districts are not given enough credit in the Harvard team's reports when, as was the case in Montgomery County, their minority students have made some academic progress.

The bottom line, some of these critics say, is that for many communities, the problem of segregation is simply bigger than the schools. And Orfield's pointed criticisms, they charge, seemingly heap unfair blame on them.

Responding to Critics

Orfield argues that his critics have reversed the equation. Race is inextricably linked to social class. Intensely segregated minority schools are 14 times more likely to be predominantly poor. "High-poverty schools have more dropouts, less success in college preparation, fewer well-prepared teachers, and less advanced curriculums," he writes in a newspaper editorial.

Moreover, he says, "I've never presented myself as a statistical person." The goal of the Harvard reports, in contrast, was to describe what students' actual experiences were like in the schools they attended.

Orfield also insists that he recognizes that schools can't solve the problem on their own. Yet, he says, schools can do more. They can, for instance, work with other agencies to make changes in local housing policies that promote integration. "Why should the schools let somebody else undo all their hard work?" he asks.

Orfield's admirers, however, suggest that reactions to his scholarship may also have something to do with the way it is presented.

"He comes on very strong, but his scholarship is very sound," Gerald Sroufe, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association, says. "The fact that he pursues it with this great intensity once it is completed is probably what's getting him into trouble now."

"Part of it is the question of how far you can take the issue," adds Willis Hawley, the dean of the University of Maryland's school of education. "Gary's view is if you say it is difficult to achieve the goals, and you've done the best you can under the circumstances, then [districts officials think] that is justification for inaction."

What no one seems to doubt, however, is that the Harvard professor's motives are pure.

As a parent, Orfield, who is white, led an effort to integrate a predominantly black elementary school in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. And his daughters attended public schools in Chicago when he taught at the University of Chicago.

And, unlike many academic experts who serve as witnesses in civil-rights cases, Orfield accepts no fees for testifying on behalf of disputing parties.

Orfield's stiff moral backbone has, in fact, generated headlines as well. He resigned in 1985 from a national school-desegregation study sponsored by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under the Reagan Administration after concluding that that the effort was "flawed and biased." Angering the panel members further, he wrote to school districts participating in the study and urged them to drop out, too.

The steady drum beat from the Harvard project is expected to continue for awhile. Orfield and the students plan to issue several more reports on individual school districts, write a book on their findings, and produce a report on Asian students. And Orfield says he expects the Harvard team's future reports will be as critical as the earlier ones.

"It's like giving a checkup to a patient who has a terminal disease," he says. "The healthy thing is to expose and resolve problems. The unhealthy thing is to cover them and let them fester."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented