A new study counters the prevailing wisdom that mixed-race classrooms made possible through desegregation automatically benefits the educational achievement of Black students.
“We actually find that black students who attended racially ‘balanced’ schools did worse than those who attended all-black schools in the immediate pre-desegregation period, says William A. Darity, a Duke University professor and coauthor of the paper, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? A Retrospective Analysis of the Racial Composition of Schools and Black Academic and Economic Success.”
In an email to the INDY, Darity said the authors were a “bit surprised” but “not stunned” by their analysis, which focused on how Black students fared across different demographic school settings.
“The key point is school desegregation, in and of itself, is not unequivocally beneficial to black students on a number of standard indicators used to assess the effects,” said Darity, a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “We have to make sure that black students receive fair treatment and quality instruction and curriculum once they are inside the door.”
For the study, the authors analyzed data from the National Survey of Black Americans, a nationally representative survey of Black Americans age 18 or older who attended school in the period from the 1930s through the early 1970s.
The initial interviews for the survey were conducted in 1979 and 1980, with follow-up interviews conducted eight, nine and 12 years later.
The authors looked at the experience of Black students who attended three types of schools: “mostly or almost all white,” “mostly or all black,” and “mixed-race” schools, where the student population was racially balanced.
Based on data from 1,121 respondents, the authors found that Black students fared worse in mixed-race schools, where the student population was about half Black and half White.
The authors report that Black students who attended racially mixed high schools were less likely to graduate, when compared with Black students who attended either predominantly White or predominantly Black schools.
Meanwhile, Black students who attended predominantly White high schools had higher graduation rates than their Black peers in either mixed-race or predominantly Black schools.
The authors explain the contrast by pointing to previous research suggesting mixed-race schools can create a culture of racial competition.
“[I]n a racially balanced environment, white students and their parents are likely to consider black students as serious competitors for relative access to resources,” the authors note.
Those resources include “teacher attention, seats in desirable classes, and positions of status in the school involving leadership, athletics, and academics.”
In racially balanced schools, the authors say, “competition for these advantages may lead to hostility and discrimination that undermines black educational achievement.”
At predominantly White schools, however, where “white students have only a handful of black peers, they will see their position of privilege as less threatened and engage in relatively less discrimination against their black classmates.”
The conceptual framework for the study was a 1935 essay by the intellectual giant, W.E.B. Du Bois, who, the authors say, “anticipated the hostility black youth might experience in integrated schools.”
“Ultimately, DuBois concluded that caring teachers, supportive peers, and exposure to the truth about black history would be more beneficial to black youths than education in ‘hostile’ integrated schools,” the authors note.
Aside from graduation rates, the study also looked at financial outcomes for Black students who attended racially balanced schools.
“Compared to their peers at mostly white or mostly black schools,” the study says, “Black men and women who attended racially balanced schools were less likely to go on to their own homes.”
However, the scholars did find that “employment outcomes were roughly equivalent for Black students regardless of the racial composition of the school they attended.”
The findings are consequential for education policy, the authors stressed, since integration has typically resulted in shifts from predominantly Black schools to mixed-race schools.
Yet, simply increasing the number of mixed-race schools, without eliminating discriminatory treatment, may not improve the performance of Black students, but may actually hinder it, the authors contend.
“School desegregation is desirable to produce a better America,” Darity said in a press release, “but we must be far more cautious about the benefits we ascribe to it.”
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