Race and Education, 1954-2007
reviewed by ZoŽ Burkholder - May 22, 2009
Advertised by the University of Missouri Press as a bold challenge to political correctness in education and a wake-up call to citizens concerned about the future of Americas schools, Race and Education promises to challenge the academic orthodoxy that racial integration in American public schools is necessary to achieve educational equality for all students. Emphasizing his scholarly neutrality, Wolters outlines what he sees as the complete failure of racial integration in American schools since Brown v. Board of Education. Not only has racial integration failed to improve the academic achievement of African American students, but according to Wolters, attempts at compulsory inclusion through programs such as forced bussing have had a detrimental effect not only on white academic achievement, but moreover on the quality of public education in terms of student discipline, attitudes towards education, interracial relations, and classroom behavior.
In the preface Wolters insists that it would be impossible to fully understand the failure of racial integration in American public schools without accounting for the inherent racial differences between African Americans and whites. While Wolters views his unfettered engagement with the possibility of African American racial inferiority as a much-needed remedy to liberal, politically correct historical scholarship on school integration, readers of Teachers College Record will find his assessment of social science theories on race to be completely inaccurate. As an historian of race and as an anthropologist, I can say that Wolters descriptions of contemporary scientific theories on race differences are outdated and patently untrue according to major social science associations.1 He asserts, wrongly, that scientists have not come to any solid conclusions about the question of racial differences, especially intellectual equality between blacks and whites. Dismissing the dominant theoretical conception of race as a social construction, Wolters complains that while scientists continue to assert that biological race is significant, most academics are either seduced by liberal civil rights rhetoric or fearful that it would be in bad taste or out of fashion to express a belief in innate racial differences (pp. ix-x, pp. 99-102). Positioning himself as the voice of reason, Wolters clarifies that he agrees with social scientists who, writing more than forty years ago, found that the average Negro is significantly less intelligent than the average White (p. x).
Distinguishing between the Brown ruling in 1954 that required desegregation and later court rulings and civil rights laws that required integration, Wolters predictably concludes that desegregation has been problematic, and integration a failure (p. vii). Drawing from both secondary sources and his own previous publications, Wolters critiques judicial rulings that compelled schools to begin the process of racially integrating schools and then lambasts the civil rights activists, social scientists, and educators who spent decades struggling to improve educational equality in America. According to Wolters, the extremism of the civil rights enforcers (p. 143) was in part motivated by a wish to retaliate against the white South (p. 134).
Chapters One through Four explore the history of social science, educational reform, and judicial rulings that informed school desegregation in the 1950s. Chapters Five and Six investigate changes in civil rights strategy, legislation, and judicial rulings that began to require more effective plans of racial integration a decade later. The final chapters offer sensationalized accounts of school integration, drawn largely from white teachers, parents, and students along with occasional references to black parents and students who also had negative experiences with school integration. Examples from New York, Delaware, Texas, Oregon, and Illinois are meant to illustrate that once orderly and high-quality white schools were besotted with crime, sexual deviance, vandalism, and violencenot to mention a profound decline in academic qualitywith the arrival of anything more than token numbers of black students. Wolters lingers more than once on the finding that interracial dating was in fact taking place in integrated schools, as many whites had feared. The author declares that these ruinous school integration efforts were forced onto local communities by activist judges who were duped by a combination of faulty social science and political pressure inspired by the civil rights movement.
It is a shame that Wolters could not offer an unbiased interpretation of the relationship between social science theories on racial prejudice, judicial rulings on school desegregation, and the personal experiences of teachers and students, because such a study would provide a useful contribution to the historical scholarship on school integration. Unfortunately, the conclusions Wolters draws here are poorly grounded in historical and social science data, and therefore this book is not in productive conversation with the increasingly sophisticated scholarship on the history of racial integration in American schools. Anyone familiar with educational history will find that Wolters cherry-picked the evidence he needed to argue that school integration was always a spectacular blunder. He also fails to provide the historical context readers need to understand the evolution of school desegregation policies. For instance, it makes no sense to laud Brown for ending desegregation and then to condemn later rulings that promoted integration without explaining that American schools desegregated at an imperceptible rate after 1954.2 Knowing that a vast majority of American schools continued to operate rigidly segregated and grossly unequal schools for whites and blacks is necessary in order to understand why legislators and the courts had to take stronger steps to integrate public schools. What is more, Wolters fleeting reference to these still-segregated schools as the accidental result of personal choices and socioeconomic factors (p. 189) belies the fact that racial segregation in housing, employment, and school attendance was consciously scripted through a variety of legal measures like racial covenants in real estate and gerrymandered school district lines, as well as extralegal factors such as white vigilante terrorism. By drawing selectively on the secondary scholarship by Vanessa Siddle Walker and David Cecelski as well as primary sources from both W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr., Wolters gives the faulty impression that black scholars, civil rights leaders, teachers, and communities were opposed uniformly to integrated schools. Wolters makes this claim not to complicate readers understanding of school desegregation, but to vilify the NAACP and other enforcers for trying to impose racial integration on unwilling black communities.
This book repeats the central theme and some of the data from Wolters 1984 book, The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation. David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King, Jr., concluded in his review of The Burden of Brown: In short, this book suffers fatally from a multiplicity of some of the most serious failings that a purported work of scholarship can offer.3 Similarly, Race and Education suffers from factual errors, the selective use of historical evidence, the misrepresentation of secondary scholarship, and problems with references. For example, New York City schools were centralized in 2002, not 1996 as Wolters claims on page 173. In another instance, Wolters draws on a 1972 publication to argue that the voluntary racial integration plan known as METCO in Boston failed to benefit participants, when recent scholarship notes tremendous gains for METCO participants including a 90% college attendance rate.4 The authors repeated tendency to cite his earlier work without pointing to additional secondary sources or revealing primary sources makes it difficult for readers to evaluate the veracity of his claims (e.g., pp. 201-3). Thus when Wolters writes, Some observers later concluded that the officials of the mid-1960s made a momentous wrong turn, (p. 130) and then cites himself, it is difficult to determine whether he is referring to himself in the third person plural as some observers or if he is trying to reference a larger body of historical scholarship.
While Professor Walters is hardly the first academic to publish a polemical book that fails to meet the standards of academic scholarship, I think the University of Missouri Press acted improperly and possibly unethically by publishing a book that suggests there is scientific proof for the racial inferiority of African Americans. The danger of an academic book that so disingenuously asserts the significance of racial difference cannot be overstated. This becomes clear in the interview that Wolters granted to a website which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a white nationalist hate website, vdare.com. The interview begins by establishing Wolters impressive academic credentials and then quickly moves into a discussion of supposed scientific evidence for African American racial inferiority. Insisting that educational problems do not stem so much from bad schools as from bad students, Wolters attempts to justify the continued existence of racially segregated and unequal American public schools.
While Wolters book distorts as much as it reveals about the history of racial integration in American public schools, Race and Education serves as a potent reminder that the stories we tell ourselves about our past are at once powerful, dangerous, and hotly contested.5 It is up to us as educational scholars to distinguish between academic books that we disagree with and those, like Race and Education, that deliberately manipulate the historical record.
1. See for example the American Anthropological Association Statement on Race May 17, 1998 http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm . Also see the web forum, Is Race Real hosted by the Social Science Research Council http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org.
2. Davison M. Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Clayborne Carson, Two Cheers for Brown v. Board of Education, Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 26-31.
3. David J. Garrow, Segregations Legacy Reviews in American History 13, no. 3 (1985), 432.
4. Joseph Marr Cronin, Reforming Boston Schools, 1930-2006: Overcoming Corruption and Racial Segregation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 120-121.
5. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past, Journal of American History, 91, no. 4 (2005): 1233-1264.