I’m in favor of desegregation. I live in a community, however, in which I am the integrator. Integration here would mean more White people, and more middle class families. I often surprise people when I tell them that there is more diversity in the suburban school where I teach than in the urban schools which my daughters attend; they stare at me in disbelief. It takes some people quite a while to understand that by “diversity” I mean actual diversity, and not “diversity” as the code word for brown people. There are more Black and Hispanic students at my suburban school than there are White students at my daughters’ schools.
In a sense my entire blog is dedicated to desegregation. I tell people, and cite the data to demonstrate, that White students will achieve just as well in classrooms sitting next to Black students as they will sitting next to other White students. But it is important to distinguish what we want to be true from what is true. To understand that anecdotal evidence and even one’s own personal experience do not make for conclusive arguments is to take the first step on the road to serious erudition.
A recent episode of the radio program “This American Life” errs on both counts in making the claim that forced desegregation “worked” in improving academic performance among poor minority students.
In the key moment of the entire broadcast the host of the show and the reporter combine to say that integration “worked” because the achievement gap between Black and White students dropped by half between 1971 and 1988. The host then states, as if it supported the argument, that the scores to which he is alluding were not, in fact, the scores of those students who participated in desegregation, but rather the scores of Black students as a whole, nationwide, whether or not they were in desegregated classrooms.
It is one of the best examples of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy I have ever heard. It would be like publishing data from a medical study in which patients in the control group and the main group showed no statistical differences in recovery rates, but still claiming the medication in question was efficacious. In published peer reviewed work the data shows exactly that:
In a separate peer reviewed paper from a different author we read:
The reporter on the program later reveals that she believes that she was a student who benefitted from “busing”. I believe that she believes that the opportunity of going to a “good school” changed her life. The problem is that the data does not support the conclusion that her academic success was due to being bused from what she defines as a bad school to a so-called good school. What the data supports is the idea that the kind of family which would be willing to both investigate educational options and put forth the tremendous effort necessary to take advantage of them, as her story illustrates, is the kind of family which produces successful students.
She should take pride in HER achievement and not conclude that attending a white school rescued her.
Beyond this there is an enormous elephant in the room which this radio show references, but doesn’t fully flesh out: White flight. The data is absolutely conclusive on one thing, the White middle class will leave communities which integrate for those which do not:
This requires what is called dynamic analysis. To explain what that is I use the following example. If, as a teacher, I am allowed to “tax” students who wear blue jeans $10 a class penalty and on average 25 of my students per day wear jeans then how much will I take in? $250? Wrong. Once I begin charging students for wearing jeans fewer students will wear jeans to class. It’s stupid to analyze things statically when you know that what you are analyzing will have dynamic effects.
With that in mind, the most paradoxical impact of desegregation was that it may have lead to greater segregation overall due to white flight. If, therefore, one sees social benefits in integrating White and minority students beyond the non existent academic improvements, then eliminating forced integration could well be the best means by which to achieve that end.
In other words, given that forced integration lead to greater segregation in the long term, it is possible that eliminating it will have the opposite effect.
Every analysis of the data demonstrates that the experience of forced integration in my home town is representative. The city and the school system were overwhelmingly White into the 1970’s. At that point minorities and Whites did live in separate neighborhoods in general, but neighborhood school districts did not conform precisely to those racial districts. Parents obsessed with keeping their children away from children of different racial groups could do so if they desired, even at what were then the junior high and high school* levels, but parents less concerned about race could also find their children attending more or less integrated schools.
*(In high school, under what what once called the “Springfield System” students selected their school based theoretically on academic interest resulting in very different levels of segregation)
In the end, as uneven as integration was in the city there was certainly more diversity in the urban district than in its surrounding suburbs. As parents lost control of the process, which has been demonstrated to exacerbate white flight, they moved to communities outside the city where the schools were even more segregated than the most segregated city schools had been. Over a period of 30 years the percentage of White students in the city declined to the point that the system broke down and was finally eliminated with the permission of the courts, allowing the city to return to the neighborhood school model.
In Hartford, a similar city 20 miles south of Springfield, this same process resulted in a school system which during some years had a White student population below 1%. The level of segregation, resulting from forced integration, lead to the Sheff v O’neill decision creating various programs integrating the city with its inner ring suburbs. Can you guess what has happened? The number of White students available to “integrate” in the suburbs are diminishing to the point that there aren’t enough to do the integrating:
It will be interesting to watch the Hartford and Springfield experiences continue to play out and study the data to see which path is more effective. While even the Hartford system is less coercive than the busing of the 1970’s, it has also created not only an enormous bureaucracy, but a belief that fully 50% of the students in the system are going to “inferior” schools. Springfield is going with the attitude that every school should be excellent, and that minority students should expect excellence from the system whether or not they share classroom space with White students.