How Much We Have Backslid

The nation has made great progress in race relations in the last 50 years. But in some respects, we’ve gone backwards, and we continue to do so.

A case in point is a Wednesday interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.

Host Susan Page asked the secretary about his views on racial integration. I was a panelist on the program, and was asked to comment.

Ms. Page’s specific question concerned a lawsuit in Louisiana. This is what Secretary Duncan said about the broader issue of racial integration:

“I fundamentally think the need for integration and more integrative schools is very real, and there are things that we can do. Obviously, there are housing patterns that present challenges.… But I was fortunate to go to an integrated school, you know, all the way through K-12.

And I don’t think I could do a job like this was I not, you know, didn’t have that kind of opportunity. And far too many children today are denied that opportunity. So, yes, we want to do everything to make sure they’re, you know, getting rigorous course work and have great teachers and are academically prepared for college. But you want children to grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them.

And if they don’t have those opportunities—not that you can’t learn it as an adult, but it’s much harder. So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things—we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.”

It was a shocking statement in two respects, but typical of how even many liberals who claim to support racial justice today think of integration.

First, Secretary Duncan supports integration because it enables children to “grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds.” This is the “diversity” argument for integration, initially promoted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1978 Bakke (University of California, Davis, medical school admissions) decision and subsequently enshrined in its 2003 Grutter (University of Michigan law school admissions) and recent 2013 Fisher (University of Texas undergraduate admission) decisions. These court opinions mostly justified integration because it benefits white elites. As briefs by major corporations and the military explained in Grutter, it will be harder for commanders and executives to manage diverse workforces if these leaders had not been exposed to minority students in school. The briefs also argued that black leaders should have had experiences in school getting along with whites, and it would also be beneficial if soldiers and employees were comfortable in their units with others of different racial and cultural backgrounds. This is the theory of integration to which Secretary Duncan subscribes.

Indeed, Secretary Duncan’s first reaction to the question was to say that having gone to an integrated school makes it easier for him to lead U.S. education policy. As the Grutter briefs argued, integration is important mostly because diversity benefits the white managerial class.

But this is not the most important reason why school racial integration is imperative. Integration is necessary for the success of black students, even if they never have the opportunity to command white soldiers or hold jobs in predominantly white enterprises. When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods, exposed only to other students who also come from low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods and from homes where parents have low educational levels themselves, the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming. In racially isolated schools with concentrations of children from low-income families, students have no models of higher academic achievement, teachers must pitch instruction to a lower academic average, more time is spent on discipline and less on instruction, and the curriculum is disrupted by continual movement in and out of classrooms by children whose housing is unstable.

Social science research for a half century has documented the benefits of racial integration for black student achievement, with no corresponding harm to whites. When low income black students attend integrated schools that are mostly populated by middle class white students, achievement improves and the test score gap narrows. By offering only a “diversity” rationale for racial integration, Secretary Duncan indicated that he is either unfamiliar with this research or chooses to ignore it.

His response was especially troubling because the segregation of black students is increasing, not decreasing. In 1970, the typical black student attended a school that was 32 percent white. By 2010 it had fallen to 29 percent. The typical black student still attends a school that is majority low-income. In places where black student achievement is most in crisis, the numbers are much worse. In Detroit, for example, in 2000 (the most recent year for which such data have been calculated) the typical black student attended a school where 2 percent of students were white, and 85 percent were low income.

Secretary Duncan’s comment on integration was even more shocking for another reason. He stated that we should “increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things.” Secretary Duncan is young (only 48 years old) and may not realize that in 20th century discussions of integration, “voluntary” was a code word for massive resistance to desegregation, and saying you can’t “force these kind of things” was the most common rationale for maintenance of black subjugation. We have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that the March promoted. The argument that Lyndon Johnson confronted most frequently when he pressed for passage of the Civil Rights Act was that segregation resulted from racial prejudice and that change could only come from a change, as it was said, “in men’s hearts.” Johnson was, segregationists claimed, trying to “move too fast” by trying to force these kinds of things.

Of course, ultimately racial integration must be “voluntary.” Nobody proposes picking up black families and forcibly depositing them in white suburbs. But no education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives—both carrots and sticks—to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary. There are, for example, laws prohibiting the federal government from mandating national curriculum standards. States can only sign on to Secretary Duncan’s preferred standards (called the “Common Core”) voluntarily. But this has not prevented him from conditioning waivers from the most unworkable aspects of the No Child Left Behind law on states’ agreement to adopt the Common Core standards. The federal government has no authority to require states to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores. States can only adopt such policies voluntarily. But this has not prevented the secretary, in his Race to the Top program, from awarding desperately needed federal stimulus funds during the depths of the recent recession to states conditioned in part on states’ willingness to move towards evaluating teachers based on student test scores. In other areas as well—early childhood education and after-school programs, for example—Secretary Duncan has tried to force these kinds of things by using federal funds to get states and districts to adopt policies he favors.

But not in the case of racial integration. Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks, and he has ignored opportunities to promote racial integration. Many states, for example, permit all-white suburbs to maintain zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing. State legislation to prohibit such ordinances could have been rewarded in Race to the Top funding competitions, or in waiver grants for No Child Left Behind requirements. Other states permit landlords to refuse to rent to families who benefit from the federal housing voucher program, resulting in low income families’ concentration only in low-income communities. Banning such discrimination could also have been a condition of federal education funds or NCLB waivers. Adoption of such “voluntary” policies could make a contribution to narrowing the academic achievement gap that is so much a focus of Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric.

It is hard to fault Secretary Duncan too much for thinking that integration is desirable only because it is good for students to experience diversity, or thinking that unlike so many other policies, integration can’t be “forced.” His views on racial matters only reflect conventional thinking, including that of most liberal policymakers. As a society, much as we celebrate the achievements of the civil rights movement 50 years ago, we have abandoned racial integration as a goal and not only maintain segregation but have taken steps towards re-segregating children and communities. That is why the Economic Policy Institute has published a series of papers on the Unfinished March, describing how the goals of the March on Washington have been unfulfilled, in education and other policy areas, and what we can and should do to fulfill them.


  • ccb30

    Thank you, Richard, for your unwavering courage to speak the truth. I think you are being extraordinarily kind to Mr. Duncan. First, I was shocked by the lack of command of language in the entire Duncan quote….”more integrative schools”? Between the “you knows” and the pattern of avoidance on the issue, well, let’s just say that I am embarrassed that he is our nation’s Secretary of Education.
    In the summer of 2011, he called me after I wrote an open letter to him regarding the evaluation of teachers by test scores. I told him about my school, which is integrated, and how students of poverty can do well when they are in well-resourced, integrated public schools like mine. He told me “integration was hard work”. Since that time, I have repeatedly heard him tell teachers and principals that the Common Core is “hard work”. Apparently hard work is for us, but not for him. What a disgrace. He sounds like George Wallace.

  • jloewen

    Was integration “voluntary” at Ole Miss in 1963? across Mississippi in January, 1970? Of course not! There is a constitutional imperative that students CANNOT be kept out of a school because of their race. Unfortunately, the Milliken decision in Detroit was wrongly decided because the court claimed “unknown and perhaps unknowable” reasons made Detroit’s suburbs all-white. They were sundown towns, and remained sundown until about 1995-2005, depending on the ‘burb, and their exclusion of blacks was informal city policy, backed by actions when African Americans did manage to gain a toehold. Rothstein is right: Duncan’s rhetoric is absolutely a throw-back to before 1970. Sigh.

  • Jere

    Voluntary is tough, but it works. Tens of thousands of African-American students in cities have voluntarily chosen to attend schools in suburbs. Few white students volunteered to go to the cities. Some claim it hurt neighborhoods, understandably. Educationally, however, tens of thousands more success stories than had the student remained in their neighborhood schools. And, no, not success defined by “can’t we all get along?” and “being diverse.” Is it / was it 100% successful in terms of test scores and closing the gap? No. But again, tens of thousands of success stories, high school diplomas, college entrance, access to an array of courses, and more.

    And, there’s voluntary and there’s voluntary. In some instances, it was “volunteer or else…” and the suburbs opened their doors. D.C. could learn much from Federal judges and lawmakers who really opened the doors that today D.C. seems satisfied closing.

    Today the federal message is segregation is ok, especially in charter schools, as long as students are succeeding – succeeding defined by memorization, good behavior and attendance, and test scores almost as good as the students who remain. How do they rationalize they are moving kids forward when they write policy, fund non-publics and charters, and institutionalize holding them back?

  • Patricia Hale

    The paragraph about the lives of children in poverty is not limited to African American children. Regardless, the lives of those in poverty and how it effects children’s learning are what Mr. Duncan does not understand.

  • Patricia Hale

    The paragraph about the lives of children in poverty is not limited to African American children. Regardless, the lives of those in poverty and how it effects children’s learning are what Mr. Duncan does not understand.

  • Patricia Hale

    The paragraph about the lives of children in poverty is not limited to African American children. Regardless, the lives of those in poverty and how it effects children’s learning are what Mr. Duncan does not understand.

  • Karen Whisenant Walter

    Secretary Duncan is not an educator & does not have an educational background. No….attending school does not make you an expert! He has few people with educational expertise leading these venues, NCLB, RTTT. Instead, he’s relying on billion dollar enterprises to dictate policy, e.g. Walton Foundation, Gates Foundation & guiding it is Pearson ready to build it’s empire! High-stakes testing exacerbates social injustice especially in low SES & minority areas. So why is it still viewed as the “cure” for education? Follow the money & the motives.

  • Bill Heller

    The city of Buffalo used to have a wonderful integration plan with a host of magnet schools for which selection was based on a lottery. A tenacious judge kept Buffalo under a court order for years until they took meaningful action. Each magnet offered the students an opportunity to study one discipline in depth in addition to getting a general education. Vocational programs flourished and attendance was good. Once NCLB came into play and the testing numbers shuffle began, magnets were closed because the district couldn’t afford to have too many students likely to score lower on the limited range of knowledge covered on the tests that “counted” in one place. Schools that would attract students who had potential to be gifted in the trades, wouldn’t score high enough on English tests and the school would end up not meeting AYP. So, school boundaries were gerrymandered to distribute the scores more evenly. A few schools became dumping grounds, a consequence that will lead to “reconfigurations” and “restructuring” and lots of other nice sounding measure that will accomplish nothing in solving the problem of socioeconomic and racial segregation. Many magnets disappeared except, of course, for City Honors.

    The election of the Machiavellian Andrew Cuomo and the selection of his hand picked Broad Academy stooge, John KIng, combined with Duncan’s ridiculous “Race to the Top” beauty contest, have only exacerbated the problem, creating crises that allow them to force through an agenda driven by political ideology to address symptoms rather than tackling problems.

    I’ve said many times that Arne Duncan is no more qualified to be Secretary of Education than Michael “Heck of a job, Brownie” Brown was qualified to be the head of FEMA when Katrina hit during the Bush administration. In both cases, their incompetence has left disaster in its wake.

  • Jose Vilson

    I would also add that your article speaks to a new paradigm when it comes to the education politic. We can no longer stand by the bi-party lines of “liberal” and “conservative” to describe educational equity. If anything, we might have four separate parties, each of whom have strange bedfellows: the Tea Party right, the neo-conservatives, the neo-liberals, and the actual progressives. For instance, when it comes to Common Core, the lines seem to align the Tea Party with the progressives and the neo-conservatives with the neo-liberals, even when both teams have sociopolitical confrontations in other arenas. The idea of integration might be left to true progressives, however, because guys like Arne Duncan, who believes he’s celebrating MLK, Rustin, and Randolph, clearly espouses the same logic that people within that first decade after Brown vs. Board did. Sadly.

  • beth ward

    White flight is occurring at a rapid rate. Time magazine predicted that by the year 2030 the racial make up of the country will be brown. Get with the program Arne.