Equity & Diversity

Harvard Study Finds Increase in Segregation

By Caroline Hendrie — June 23, 1999 3 min read

Black and Hispanic students are attending schools with increasingly smaller proportions of whites, making it more likely that members of those minority groups will be educated amid concentrated poverty, a report concludes.

The study, issued last week by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, found that Hispanic youngsters are most cut off from white students, and that fewer blacks attend majority-white schools than a decade ago, especially in the South. Using data collected by the federal government through the 1996-97 school year, the report updates a similar analysis released two years ago. (“U.S. Schools Lapsing Into ‘Resegregation,’ Orfield Warns,” April 16, 1997.)

For More Information

“Resegregation in American Schools” is available on the World Wide Web at www.law.harvard.

“As the new century approaches, we have become a far more racially and ethnically mixed nation, but in our schools, the color lines of increasing racial and ethnic separation are rising,” says the report, co-written by the Harvard desegregation researcher Gary A. Orfield and a doctoral candidate at the university, John T. Yun.

The researchers concede that some of the changes they describe--especially pertaining to Hispanics--result from demographic trends, including the drop in the proportion of white students and the growth in Latino enrollment in the nation’s schools. Still, they argue that the shifts matter even if they do not stem from deliberate attempts to segregate blacks and Hispanics, in part because of the higher incidence of poverty among those groups.

“The educational consequences for the kids are the same,” said Mr. Orfield, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education and a longtime advocate of integrated schools.

Comparison With NCES Data

In the South, the authors decry a “process of resegregation” that they say is eroding the dramatic gains in integration made between the mid-1960s and late 1980s.

In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared intentional school segregation unconstitutional, almost no Southern blacks attended predominantly white schools. By 1988, that figure had risen to 43.5 percent. But by 1996, the report says, it had dipped to 34.7 percent.

A recent analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, looking at the data in a different way, found that the percentage of white students in the typical black student’s school had indeed dropped in the South between 1987 and 1996. The analysis found that the fall-off was slight, however, and that some of the decline was explained by an overall drop in the proportion of white students.

On a national level, the NCES analysis concluded that the average percentage of white students in minority students’ schools had edged down only slightly in that nine-year period, after taking into account that whites had become a smaller portion of total enrollment.

“When you control for whites, there’s basically no change,” said Martin E. Orland, an associate NCES commissioner.

But Mr. Orland agreed that the result was the same regardless of the cause: a decrease in minority students’ exposure to whites. “There are different reasonable ways to look at this,” he said of interpreting the data.

Isolation of Whites Cited

The Harvard report notes that 74.8 percent of Hispanic students attend schools with a majority of nonwhite students, compared with 68.8 percent of blacks.

On average, black and Hispanic students attend schools in which their own group constitutes a slight majority. But the typical white student’s school is more than 80 percent white. “Whites remain by far the most segregated population in terms of schooling in the country,” Mr. Orfield said.

Blacks and Hispanics in the suburbs go to school with more whites on average than their urban counterparts. But the report says that the typical African-American or Hispanic student in the suburbs attends a school in which at least six in 10 students are nonwhite.

“One of the most important questions for the next generation will be whether or not the suburbs will repeat the experience of the central cities or learn how to operate stable integrated schools,” the Harvard report says.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as Harvard Study Finds Increase in Segregation


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