Equity & Diversity

Black Students’ Exposure To Whites Found Waning

By Caroline Hendrie — January 21, 2004 2 min read
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Black students’ exposure to white classmates has dwindled in many districts that have been released from court orders to desegregate over the past decade, Harvard University researchers say in a new report.

Timed to coincide with the Jan. 19 holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the report says that the continued prevalence of schools with high concentrations of minority students from poor families shows that the civil rights giant’s hopes for a colorblind society have yet to be fulfilled.

Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?,” is available from the Harvard Civil Rights Project. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“When we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, children in our schools often recite the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech as if it were a reality,” says a draft version of the report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. “Students are rarely told that Dr. King also had a nightmare, ... King saw the ghetto and its schools as a nightmare for black society.”

Brown Districts Profiled

Co- written by Civil Rights Project co-director Gary Orfield and researcher Chungmei Lee, the report offers trend data on school integration at the national, regional, and state levels.

The report also points out that the districts involved in the cases that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954—a watershed decision nearing its golden anniversary—vary widely in the racial composition of their schools.

“The legacy we are celebrating is mixed and the future is uncertain,” the report says.

In light of the trend toward ending long- standing desegregation orders, the report examines changes in schools’ racial composition in 35 districts freed from court supervision since an important U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1991.

The high court justices approved Oklahoma City’s return to neighborhood schools in that ruling, and made clear that lower courts should release from oversight districts that had complied in good faith and remedied past discrimination as much as is practical.

In the districts studied, the researchers calculated the change in the percentage of white students in the school of the average black student from 1991 to 2002. They found that only four saw gains in that measure of interracial exposure. Twenty- two of the districts saw drops of 10 percent or greater.

Some researchers have questioned Mr. Orfield’s portrayal of drops in black students’ exposure to white students as evidence of resegregation.

The report acknowledges that the situations in the 35 districts varied. Some had kept their desegregation plans despite the end of court supervision; others scrapped those plans even before a judge had declared them unitary.

Overall, the report stresses that much has changed since 1954, when 17 states and the District of Columbia had state- sanctioned school segregation.

Yet it also cautions that the gains may be slipping away. “We are celebrating a victory over segregation that is being abandoned,” the report says.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Black Students’ Exposure To Whites Found Waning

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