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  • STEPPING OVER THE COLOR LINE: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools , by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert Crain. (Yale University Press, New Haven; $35.)
  • BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION: The Challenge for Today's Schools , edited by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and LaMar Miller. (Teachers College Press, New York; $17.95.)
  • SILVER RIGHTS: The Story of the Carter Family's Brave Decision To Send Their Children to an All-White School and Claim Their Civil Rights , by Constance Curry. (Harcourt Brace, San Diego; $13.)

In the 1980s, a somewhat peculiar mix of African-American activists and white conservatives began to assert that school desegregation plans, specifically those that transfer black urban students to white suburbs, were failing. Their evidence was scanty, but that didn't seem to matter. Why, they indignantly asked, should black kids have to stand in the cold and dark to catch rides to distant and sometimes hostile schools? Why not take the millions spent on transportation and give it to parents in the form of school vouchers?

The answer Wells and Crain give in their important new book is, in a word, education. Busing may make us uncomfortable, may chafe against our notions of self-determination and local control, but it succeeds in moving many black city kids out of the underclass and into the American mainstream.

In St. Louis, which the authors use as the basis for this painstakingly detailed 400-page study, African-American kids attending mostly white suburban schools complete high school and college at a rate twice that of those remaining in segregated city schools. This is due to both enhanced academic opportunities and the acquisition of cultural capital: The suburban schools these city kids attend carry clout with colleges and employers. In these schools, Wells and Crain note, black students learn that "they can make it in a white world, where students' futures are highlighted by real job opportunities and college preparation."

Many critics of city-to-suburb desegregation plans claim that a majority of blacks and whites are now opposed to them, but the authors clearly demonstrate this is not the case. In St. Louis, many parents of black transfer students overwhelmingly support school desegregation, as do, somewhat surprisingly, white suburban students and their parents. In fact, most white suburban parents say that integration has benefited their own children, whose early experience of the world was made far wider than it might otherwise have been. And as the volume Brown v. Board of Education makes clear, support for transfer plans is not just a St. Louis phenomenon. The editors of that book include an essay by desegregation expert Gary Orfield who, summarizing a panoply of polls, writes that the American public supports busing as long as it is voluntary.

This is not to suggest that the decision by black parents to send their children to suburban schools is an easy one. Their children, they know, will have long and exhausting days and may very well encounter racism in its most subtle forms. But these parents, Wells and Crain report in Color Line, feel they have little choice. They understand all too well the deficiencies endemic to city schools: mediocre teaching, negative peer pressure, and chronically low expectations.

So why not, as critics argue, use the desegregation moneys to improve these inadequate schools? Wells and Crain strive for diplomacy, but their message is clear: Additional financial resources wouldn't do much good. Since the 1993-94 school year, they point out, St. Louis has had higher per-pupil expenditures than all but the wealthiest suburbs, and yet "the graduation and college-going rates for students in the St. Louis public schools are not increasing."

The problems in the city schools, as the authors enumerate them, are intractable. New funding disappears into the bureaucratic abyss; instructional coordinators spend more time dealing with administrative trivia than working with classroom teachers; dispirited teachers do little more than disseminate mimeographed worksheets. All these problems are subsumed under a much larger problem--namely a concentration of poverty that breeds hopelessness and extremely difficult conditions for schooling.

In very real ways, whites contributed to--even created--these conditions. In St. Louis and other cities, blacks were typically denied mortgages in suburban neighborhoods even as some of the city's biggest employers moved into those areas. And until 1954, blacks paid taxes for all-white schools they could not attend. Hence Wells and Crain are incredulous and even angered when they hear resentful whites suggest that the desegregation plan is but a handout to a black community that cannot take care of itself.

The significance of 1954, of course, was the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which finally extended to blacks the right to attend white schools. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ordered desegregation of all public schools receiving federal aid. But blacks who took their rights seriously, who dared to enroll their children at white schools, did so at great personal risk, especially in the Deep South.

In Silver Rights, former civil rights worker Constance Curry relates the story of Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter, Mississippi sharecroppers who sent seven of their children to then all-white Drew County schools despite constant threats and intimidation. They persevered in part because they realized that only through education could their children escape lives of toil. Unfortunately, a good education was not available at the black schools in Drew County: Teachers were poorly prepared, textbooks were scarce, and as late as 1937 there was not a single black high school in the entire county.

"I'm glad I went to the white school at a young age, in spite of all the bad times," says one of the Carter children, now a corporate office manager. "The black teachers at the black schools couldn't teach past a certain level. I remember when we first got to the white school, the teachers couldn't believe some of the things we hadn't studied."

The Carter experience of black schools, though, is far from universal. Many African Americans in the South found that black teachers taught them with a depth and personal commitment they never again experienced in predominantly white schools. And they note that the Supreme Court's Brown decision eventually precipitated the massive closing of black schools, including those most effective.

So now, more than forty years after the Brown ruling, can we say that school desegregation is a success in America? Several of the essayists in Brown v. Board of Education express doubts, noting that more black children are in virtually all-black schools today than in 1954. In large cities, such as St. Louis, segregation is the rule rather than the exception, even with the city's famous comprehensive transfer plan. "We thought we were at the end of a great moral journey," law professor Burt Neuborne writes of the Brown decision. "We now realize that we were merely at the beginning of a much more difficult moral journey."

That moral journey, whether in St. Louis or Drew County, cannot be led by lawyers and judges. It must be led by students, parents, and teachers of all races who have the vision to see desegregation not as a necessary evil but as an essential good.

--DAVID RUENZEL

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