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Equity & Diversity

Could School Resegregation Drive White Students to Become Democrats as Adults?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 04, 2021 6 min read
Image of diverse hands in a team huddle.

When courts end mandatory school desegregation efforts, and those schools subsequently resegregate, what happens to the political outlook of white students from those schools when they reach adulthood?

Research released earlier this year that focused on school districts in six Southern states could provide some clues. It indicates that in such situations, those white students who entered high school right after their districts were dismissed from court-ordered desegregation plans were 3.8 percentage points more likely to align with the Democratic Party as adults in 2020 than their white peers who either graduated from those districts before those dismissals, or who were in districts that remained under those orders from 1990 to 2014.

Addressing school segregation and its effects on everything from education funding to students’ life outcomes is a key issue for many political leaders and others in the education world; the number of districts under court desegregation orders has declined in the last few decades, although exact and consistent information about those orders is hard to pin down.

The study doesn’t get into the details of why different districts had the court orders lifted. School districts can show they’ve achieved desegregation in order to have court orders lifted, although there’s also some evidence that lax enforcement and oversight of such orders has led to a decline in their influence.

The way teachers as well as district leaders talk about race in the classroom has become a polarizing national political issue in recent months. And more broadly, even small shifts in partisanship in the states included in the study, like Florida and Georgia, can have immense political consequences.

In her working paper, which is undergoing peer review, Taylor Mattia, a Ph.D. candidate in politics at New York University, wrote that her findings corroborate a theory that white peoples’ increased exposure to other racial groups leads them to see a threat to their own identity, and to respond negatively to those other groups. “In the context of educational settings, exposure alone may generate backlash,” wrote Mattia, who’s also studied the effect of education spending on voter turnout and is an affiliated researcher at NYU’s Public Safety Lab.

Noting that the Democratic Party attracts more people of color than the Republican Party, Mattia also wrote in her paper that: “These findings [are] potentially troubling. They imply a higher likelihood of identification with the Democratic Party among whites due to increased social distance between whites and students of color.”

However, a different theory holds that contact and interaction with different racial groups reduces negative stereotypes and leads to greater affinity and cooperation between people in those groups. And it’s important to note that other recent research about this general topic has resulted in findings substantively different than Mattia’s.

For example, a study of white men who were bused to predominantly Black schools in Louisville, Ky., in the 1970s found that those men were more likely to be registered Democrats four decades later.

And a study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina found a correlation between an increase in schools’ enrollment of students of color and a decrease in students’ subsequent likelihood of registering as Republicans, a correlation largely driven by white students’ partisan affiliation as adults.

While court-ordered desegregation efforts have often played a big role in debates about diversity and race in education, those aren’t the only efforts by policymakers and educators to enhance things like the socioeconomic diversity of their schools. Some districts have undertaken a variety of integration efforts voluntarily.

Recent polling data indicates that while parents from different racial and political backgrounds tend to say they’d prefer for their children to attend racially and economically integrated schools, their decisions about their children’s schooling often don’t match those stated preferences.

A federal watchdog’s report from 2016 found that that the share of racially and economically isolated schools was on the rise, although claims that the report showed an increase in school segregation were disputed.

Links between teenagers’ experiences and their adult politics should be studied closely

In an interview about her study, “Resegregated Schools, Racial Attitudes, and Long-Run Partisanship: Evidence for White Backlash,” Mattia noted that the research encompasses a much larger number of schools, districts, and students than the studies of Louisville and Charlotte-Mecklenburg mentioned above.

Mattia said she took an interest in the topic because many studies focus on parents’ influence on their children’s political outlook, but fewer look at schools’ impact on things like partisan affiliation.

“If I know that you’re a Democrat when you’re 25, there’s a really high chance you’re going to be a Democrat when you’re 50,” Mattia said in an interview. “We know that adolescent experiences are important to the formation of partisanship.”

For her research, Mattia focused on public high schools in districts in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and sorted districts by whether court-ordered desegregation was kept in place or dismissed between 1990 and 2014; Mattia chose these states because of their relatively robust data on voters’ racial identity and partisan identification.

It’s not just safe to assume that numeric diversity will translate to positive outcomes.

Mattia also replicated previous research to show that dismissals of court desegregation led to actual resegregation by race in the high schools she studied. She then gathered data on individual students from schools’ presence on Classmates, a social-networking site, and linked that data to information about their race and partisan affiliation.

She also didn’t find a meaningful link between the dismissal of court-ordered integration in a district and a subsequent migration of white parents into that district.

The link between white students in resegregated schools and their future affiliation as Democrats was strongest among those who already attended predominantly white high schools when their districts’ court-ordered desegregation was dismissed. When Mattia looked at whether the dismissal of court-ordered desegregation had an affect on the adult partisan affiliation of Black and Latino students, she found none.

The idea that desegregation policies can provoke a threatened response is a real concern for schools and others, but it’s also on a complicated spectrum of reactions and not “insurmountable” for such efforts, said Peter Piazza, a researcher at the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, who studies school integration efforts.

If people focus too heavily on white students’ potential negative responses, Piazza said, “I’d be worried that people would say, ‘Well, what’s the point of integration?’” He also pointed to research showing benefits that white students in diverse schools report when it comes to issues like engagement, safety, and civic participation.

In an Education Week story about schools named for segregationist politicians, Willie Bright, a Black member of the South Carolina community served by Strom Thurmond High School—named for the long-time U.S. senator—said that, “Just because they go through the same door doesn’t mean it’s integrated. The school’s just as segregated as it ever was.”

Beyond school-level enrollment figures, issues like racial disparities in participation in advanced coursework have also garnered attention.

Ultimately, Mattia said, schools should work to create opportunities for students of different races to forge friendships and (as she put it in her working paper) other “close, meaningful, and cooperative” relationships in schools themselves.

“There’s a lot of other research showing that, at least at the classroom level, there are actions that teachers and administrators and even school districts’ elected officials can take in order to ensure that racial diversity leads to more positive outcomes,” Mattia said in the interview. “It’s not just safe to assume that numeric diversity will translate to positive outcomes.”

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