Equity & Diversity Opinion

Dis-Integrating American Public Schools

By Richard M. Merelman — February 06, 2002 14 min read
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Racially integrated public schools have not become embedded in the foundation of American public policy.

Two massive domestic social experiments were undertaken by the American federal government in the 20th century. The first—the establishment of a modern welfare state—succeeded. Although never attaining levels found in most European states, entitlements to health care for the elderly, Social Security, unemployment compensation, a minimum wage, and even some form of monetary support for the needy are now accepted parts of American life. Arguments continue about the appropriate scale and shape of these programs, but not about their existence. Powerful constituent groups now guard these programs against their most vociferous opponents; political suicide awaits any politician who advocates eliminating any of these programs.

By contrast, the second social experiment—the racial integration of public schools—has failed. Racially integrated public schools have not become embedded in the foundation of American public policy. Nor do powerful claimant groups protect integrated schools. Indeed, even the policy’s intended beneficiaries—African-Americans—no longer press energetically for it. In fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which designed and executed the arduous legal strategy that won school desegregation in the courts, now has difficulty maintaining a public posture favorable to it against an indifferent and sometimes hostile membership.

Consider this brief comparison: Despite the ascendancy of anti-welfare-state conservative Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan, welfare-state expenditures continue to increase incrementally from one government budget to the next. By contrast, according to the Harvard University researcher Gary Orfield, the major scholarly expert on school desegregation, there were more black students in schools whose student populations were more than 50 percent minority in 1991 than in 1971, several years before most busing for integration even began. The proportion of black students in entirely segregated schools increased in the late 1980s and 1990s, despite the Clinton administration’s supposed friendly stance toward African-American interests. In the Reagan administration’s early legislative blitzkrieg, Congress repealed the Emergency School Aid Act of 1972, the principal federal law used to spend public money on school desegregation. Can one imagine a comparable fate for, say, the Social Security Act of 1935, or even the much less popular Federal Housing Act of 1949? The question answers itself.

Of course, no one needs a flurry of statistics to prove the obvious. A day’s drive around any major metropolitan area will readily reveal the dearth of white faces at recess in inner-city public schools, and the dearth of black faces at recess in outer- ring suburban public schools. The hope 10 years ago that increasing black flight to inner-ring suburbs would integrate suburban schools has now proven abortive. Residential and public school segregation in suburbs remains the rule. For example, Prince George’s County, Md., a Washington suburb that received much national publicity not so long ago for its supposed residential and school integration, contained 17 public schools (outside of its magnet school programs) which were 90 percent African-American in 1993. The ambitious magnet school program it installed in 1985 has not stymied the tide towards segregation. Overall, white enrollment in Prince George’s County has continued to decline despite the widely touted, innovative, well-funded, and high-quality magnet school program.

Curiously, the failure of school integration has been met with deafening silence in the media. Even The New York Times’ highly praised series on race relations in America, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, had little to say about integrated schools. It is a maxim of science that failed experiments teach us as much as successful experiments. Of course, politics isn’t a laboratory science; still, it is surprising how little discussion and how few public intellectuals have taken on the topic of school integration’s failure. Surely the most ambitious and idealistic domestic political undertaking of the last 50 years deserves better, at least a decent public burial, an autopsy, an obituary, even a eulogy, perhaps even a national requiem mass.

Many Americans apparently believe integration will inevitably and naturally occur even though people actually prefer segregation!

No doubt the press can be faulted for ignoring the demise of school integration. But does the press bear a responsibility for the actual demise of integrated schooling? Many think so, including Mr. Orfield, who writes, “Nationally, the media have given tremendous attention to the worst cases of school desegregation and to the best cases of compensatory education in inner-city schools.” According to him, the media have created a climate of opinion hostile to integration and favorable to the resegregation of public schools, a process that began with the Milliken I U.S. Supreme Court case in 1974, which effectively exempted suburban districts from enforced desegregation orders involving adjoining inner-city districts.

To buttress his case, Mr. Orfield cites the heavy attention newspapers gave to the bitter struggle over desegregation of the Boston public schools. By emphasizing the failures and conflicts of school desegregation, this argument goes, the media encouraged the public to resist and try to escape school integration.

However, the evidence does not support Gary Orfield. The fact is that newspapers (I can’t speak for television) have generally portrayed racially integrated public schools positively. Having shared Mr. Orfield’s skepticism, I was surprised by my careful examination of the way major national newspapers have portrayed integrated schools over the last 10 years. On the whole, these newspapers have strongly defended integration; certainly they cannot be blamed for school resegregation. In fact, if there is one thing to be learned from my examination, it is humility about the power of the press to dampen the American ardor for racially segregated public schools.

I examined 375 newspaper articles and editorials under the heading “integrated schools” in the Lexis/Nexis newspaper archive between 1991 and 2001. Overwhelmingly, these stories described integrated schools favorably. To be sure, newspapers might be faulted for not having printed more such stories; in few large dailies was there a continuous series of favorable articles. Moreover, anyone who has ever attempted to do field research on integrated schools knows how difficult it can be to gain access to such schools. Superintendents, principals, and teachers often resist opening their racially mixed schools to scrutiny, fearing to upset the delicate political balance they must strike. As a result, it may be that only success stories get reported in the press. Nevertheless, the point remains: Major newspapers have generally portrayed integrated schools in positive ways. This fact makes all the more revealing the failure of school integration.

Let’s look at some examples of this positive coverage. A number of stories publicized major social science research on the benefits of integrated public schools. The Chicago Sun- Times, for example, reported on a study showing that school integration before the age of 10 reduces racial conflict (Jan. 13, 1993). The Minneapolis Star Tribune detailed studies demonstrating that school integration improves academic achievements for blacks (Feb. 4, 1995).

In other articles, research findings were given life through the telling of schools’ experiences. Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., for example, described in a May 17, 1994, story how Farmville, Va., a bastion of opposition to school desegregation in the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, has created a successful integrated school system, thanks in large part to an innovative superintendent and an excellent academic program that lured whites back from private academies. Newspapers argued these points editorially as well. For instance, in a Sept. 28, 1997, editorial, The Buffalo News in New York said that only through integrated schools can blacks get the money they need to school their children effectively.

Stories favorable to integrated schools appeared in such cities as Denver; Omaha, Neb.; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Oklahoma City; and Atlanta, all of which were at the time considering policies that would have effectively resegregated public schools. Only in a few cities that have abandoned desegregation efforts, such as Cleveland, did news stories portray integrated schools as a failure. Even in Milwaukee, among the most segregated metropolitan areas in America, the local newspapers portrayed school integration as at least partly beneficial.

The brute fact is that white parents have more money than black parents to pay for schools, public or private.

A few newspaper articles either highlighted innovative programs for achieving school integration or actually proposed new ones. For example, an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for June 26, 1998, described a successful regional integration plan spanning several Connecticut towns and school districts—and suggested that such an alternative be considered in lieu of declaring Pittsburgh a “unitary” school district and abandoning integration. The Washington Post proposed (Nov. 16, 2000; Nov. 30, 2000) that the Prince George’s County schools that accomplish integration be rewarded financially, thus providing new incentives for integration.

Of course, many news stories do blast school integration. These cite persistent inequality in the academic achievement of blacks and whites, the purported virtues of neighborhood schools that preserve racial cultures, the evils of white flight, and the pervasiveness of black disenchantment. Some stories specifically advocate unitary status for districts (meaning a legal finding that they’re free of the vestiges of school segregation), compensatory education programs in resegregated schools, and even resegregation itself.

But these negative stories are a minority; major newspapers are simply not responsible for the failure of school integration.

A complete postmortem on the demise of school integration would examine other likely causes of death, such as persistent residential segregation; the adroitness of conservatives in discrediting integrated schools; the unpopularity of busing; continuing white flight; “identity politics"; white racism; black disillusionment; and unfavorable Supreme Court decisions.

While the debate about causes will occupy an army of social scientists over the next generation, an equally important topic that begs discussion is the consequences of school integration’s death.

The chief consequence, I believe, is that Americans have adopted a series of comforting illusions—social myths, if you will—to rationalize the dismantling of their ambitious but deeply conflicted experiment. These myths now dominate what passes for public policy on school integration. Because these myths are essentially psychological camouflage, they bear little relationship to facts. Indeed, they prevent our facing facts. Ultimately, they are the latest version of the chronic American refusal to confront race honestly.

One popular myth held by many conservatives and some liberals is that voucher programs can deliver integrated schools to inner-city children. This is nonsense. There are far too many poor black inner-city children for any foreseeable voucher program to absorb. Moreover, most white suburban parents—who control the purse strings of state-financed voucher programs—have no reason to support a large voucher program. These parents are generally quite happy with their overwhelmingly white public schools. Why then should they wish to pay for a school voucher program that will mainly benefit poor black children?

Surely at least some of the Republican politicians who advocate voucher programs realize this fact, raising the question of whether their purported interest in improving education for blacks (who, after all, rarely vote for them) is anything more than cheap symbolism. Moreover, most of the schools which want to take part in voucher programs are financially strapped parochial or low-performing private schools. These schools want voucher students because they can’t compete against better public and private schools. So why should we assume they will help poor blacks? Unsurprisingly, there is no convincing evidence that school voucher programs have produced significant academic benefits for voucher students, white or black. Don’t expect any such evidence.

Surely the most ambitious and idealistic domestic political undertaking of the last 50 years deserves better, at least a decent public burial, an autopsy, an obituary, even a eulogy.

Another myth is that more standardized testing and serious “accountability” will raise black student achievement. Even if this were true, it would still not substitute for the imperfect but real racial interaction that takes place within integrated schools. In any case, Congress whittled down President Bush’s proposed penalties for low-performing, “unaccountable” inner-city schools. Just as well, for if poorly performing schools did indeed shut down, what would happen to the poorly prepared inner-city students in these schools? How would they be allocated among better schools? Wouldn’t these students feel stigmatized, dislocated, and intimidated? Should we expect other schools to welcome them with open arms? And will there be enough money to improve poor schools that don’t meet the new targets?

My guess is that sooner or later the usual testing charade will ensue: The performance standards ultimately adopted will be low enough to keep many schools from being punished. The result: little real educational reform.

Yet another myth is that resegregated schools are better for blacks than integrated schools. Legally, this argument is quite ingenious; it manages to reassert the logic of Plessy v. Ferguson without overruling Brown v. Board of Education. Sadly, many blacks have fallen for this myth, arguing that it demeans black children to believe they can learn only by sitting next to white children. Also, some black leaders argue, resegregation will protect black culture from the gradual eradication that would occur in an integrated setting. Moreover, resegregration relieves blacks of the disproportionate burden they have borne under most desegregation arrangements. Finally, some resegregation proponents claim that resegregated schools will lure white parents back to cities. No longer having to fear for the education or physical well-being of their children in integrated schools, whites will revitalize blighted city neighborhoods and revivify downtowns.

This myth too is easily and simply demolished. The brute fact is that white parents have more money than black parents to pay for schools, public or private. Parents are mainly interested in good schools for their own children, not for the children of others. It follows that whites will only support black students who happen to be in school with white children. Thus, only if they are sitting next to white children will black children benefit educationally.

By contrast, resegregation forces poor black parents, underfunded minority school districts, and low-tax-base, largely black cities to continue their losing struggle to come up with educational money they don’t have. Put differently, blacks who favor resegregation are doing whites the great favor of relieving both their guilty consciences and their pocket books.

Nor does evidence suggest that resegregation lures white families with young children back into cities. The economics and sociology of cities—not to mention the real estate market—increasingly favor affluent singles, couples without children, or “unconventional” households, such as gays. Most of these people believe they have no stake in a strong public school system.

Lastly, however we define black culture (rap? spirituals?), it doesn’t seem to improve the educational performance of black children in such indispensable skills as reading, mathematics, writing, and science. In any case, why should we believe that black culture is at risk in an integrated setting? Those blacks who hold this view sell their culture short. Black culture, like the culture of any group, is not fixed: It evolves over time. Indeed, it may undergo a renaissance as it comes into contact with other cultures. Surely this is one lesson of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mythology, of course, can support utterly contradictory beliefs. According to a USA Today poll on Jan. 1, 2000, 81 percent of whites and an amazing 69 percent of blacks believe that, given time, integration will take place naturally, a point of view amply unsupported by history. In fact, according to Harvard’s Mr. Orfield, many of these same people state that segregation is “natural” because people prefer to be “with their own kind.” In short, many Americans apparently believe integration will inevitably and naturally occur even though people actually prefer segregation!

This new racial mythology is tragic. It perpetuates the age-old racial divide that public school integration was intended to overcome. Sadly, Americans have apparently embraced these illusions despite reading a press that actually promoted the truth: Namely, that the much-maligned policy of enforced public school integration is the only educational policy shown to have narrowed ever so slightly the educational and social inequalities between whites and blacks.

So willful a flight from reality is breathtaking. It demonstrates the lengths we seem willing to go to make of our unfair and injurious racial order a perpetually renewed, self-inflicted wound.

Richard M. Merelman is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Dis-Integrating American Public Schools


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