Commentary | Education

Lessons—When Tried, Real Integration Provess Worthwhile

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


When Tried, Real Integration Provess Worthwhile

By Richard Rothstein

Boston — The Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, discarding its 1896 ruling that had provided the legal rationale for “separate but equal” education.

In the South, where segregation was the norm, black students now often attend schools with whites. But Northern students are more separate than ever. Racial isolation is most severe in Michigan, Illinois and New York: in each of those states, more than 60 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are white. (The nationwide figure for such black students is 37 percent.)

Tired of fights about mandatory busing, even many black leaders have given up on integration, saying a black child does not need white classmates in order to learn. So policies now aim to raise scores in schools that black children attend.

But that effort will be flawed even if it succeeds. The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling was not about raising scores but about giving black children access to majority culture, so they could negotiate it more confidently as adults. In fact, there remain programs – in Boston, Hartford and St. Louis – that show us how much integration has to offer, test scores aside.

In those cities, some urban black children are bused to mostly white suburban schools. Participation of the black families and the suburban districts is entirely voluntary. One of the volunteers was Katani Sumner, now at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, where she trains teachers and child-care providers to use educational TV.

Growing up here in the 1960’s, Ms. Sumner knew no white children or adults (except for her kindergarten teacher) until her mother had her bused to the affluent suburb of Lexington for the first grade. She graduated from Lexington High School and then, in 1985, from Brown University, took a management job at Procter & Gamble, and got a graduate degree as a reading specialist. None of that would have been possible, she says, had she not gone to integrated schools.

“There,” she said, “everyone talked about college, so I just assumed I would go, though my parents did not have college educations. I had never heard of Brown, but a student two years ahead of me went there, and I admired her, so I decided I would also go.”

In Lexington, Ms. Sumner was in student government, played basketball and made the honor society.

“Going to a suburban school enabled me to succeed in college and the corporate world,” she said. “I had already sat next to white students. I had been on teams and in student politics with them. So at Brown I could deal with the academic part and not have to spend time stressed about the social part.”

In her senior year, Lexington High got Ms. Sumner an internship at a TV station. To find such opportunities, the school was able to use parent contacts that schools in poorer communities cannot easily duplicate.

A book by Susan E. Eaton, “The Other Boston Busing Story” (Yale University Press, 2001) demonstrates that Ms. Sumner’s experiences were apparently typical of black students in the voluntary integration program (not to be confused with Boston’s court-ordered busing of white students to mostly black schools, a plan that caused turmoil and even violence until it was ended in 1989).

Ms. Eaton’s interviews with 65 graduates of the program show that most participants were better prepared to succeed in the majority society: they had better college-going rates, jobs and adult incomes than they could have expected by staying in all-black neighborhood schools. Her findings confirm academic research that shows better outcomes for black students with integrated educations.

Consider the problems of young adults who seek good jobs that require interaction with the public. They are hampered if they speak only their own dialect. Teachers in all-black schools may demand standard English in class, yet in all but exceptional cases, cafeteria and playground cultures undermine that effort. As Ms. Eaton shows, however, the balance of influences can shift for students in integrated schools, where white peers help reinforce standard language.

One of Ms. Eaton’s interview subjects noticed that white high school students got interesting summer jobs through their parents’ friends, and that those experiences helped on college applications. Another graduate put it this way: “Networking is white people’s affirmative action.”

For African-Americans to have equal opportunity, higher test scores will not suffice. It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught, no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience.

The Supreme Court was right in 1954, but we are not now headed toward the integrated education that its reasoning demanded.

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