Black and White in School
reviewed by Nobuo K. Shimahara - 1983
In the 1970s the National Institute of Education (NIE) sponsored a number of ethnographic studies of desegregated schools, and a fieldwork manual for investigators interested in research involving desegregated schools was published under the auspices of the N1E.1 Undoubtedly, this reflected increasing public interest in the effects of the desegregation in public schools implemented across the nation in the late 1960s and 1970s. The emphasis on ethnography suggested that it gained considerable attention in the social sciences as a method for studying schooling in a naturalistic setting.
Black and White in School, which resulted from Schofields NIE-sponsored research, is one of the latest publications focusing on the pattern of social relations in a desegregated school. To date, it is one of the better and more competent ethnographic studies on the subject. It is a cogently and lucidly written ethnography offering an in-depth insight into interracial relations.
Schofields findings are not particularly startling in view of the previous ethnographic and sociological studies conducted in the 1970s. Those studies often found varying degrees of resegregation in desegregated schools. Her research too reveals such a pattern.
Schofields work is an outcome of her intensive study of a large, modern, middle school enrolling roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks in a multiethnic industrial city in a northeastern state. This school was established in 1975 to develop a model for racial integration. The city had a large population of blacks concentrated in lower socioeconomic strata and experienced frequent racial unrest in the 1960s. Its board of education was under considerable pressure from the state to desegregate the school system. The central goals of the boards integration plan involving the new middle school were to achieve racial integration and to maintain academic excellence in order to attract white students.
The research reported here covered a period of three years from the inception of the school. The research setting was ideal for studying the development of interracial relations as influenced by the new institutional environment, tenacious folk beliefs about education and race relations, and the pedagogical orientations of the teaching staff. The study reveals the blatant dualism that evolved in the school. Despite the overt commitment to the integration plan to achieve better race relations, the majority of teaching staff employed instructional methods and a set of ideological assumptions countering the central goal of the plan, in which the administrators by and large acquiesced. White parents insistence on such methods was obvious and forceful.
Students were homogeneously grouped in large part according to academic criteria such as the scores on standardized tests and class performance. This contributed to racial separation, which impeded interaction between members of the two racial groups instead of promoting it, for most black students, who were from lower social strata, were placed in lower academic groups in which only a few white students were included. Furthermore, teaching staff encouraged academic competition rather than cooperation by various means, including the posting of test results (a practice discouraged by the principal). Racial separation in the classroom by ability grouping was further reinforced by whites fear of black students and also blacks fear of rejection and humiliation. Such fears were a particularly significant element, creating both psychological and physical division between blacks and whites in the first year. Hence, the closer interaction between the two racial groups that the school alleged to promote through cooperative projects and affective education programs was often minimized and frequently relegated to secondary importance.
Schofield examines teachers ideological assumptions in some detail. First, the natural progression assumption was commonly held and was based on the belief that racial interaction would improve through mere contact between the two groups in the new environment. Second is the assumption of a colorblind perspective, which views race as an insignificant factor in social interaction. It emphasizes interracial education as an opportunity for assimilation into a middle-class society. Yet most teachers viewed the classroom as a world in itself and regarded external events and problems as irrelevant. Another ideological stance is what Schofield calls a taboo: the belief that reference to race is illegitimate in dealing with childrens academic, social, and personal problems. She points out that these assumptions had a significant bearing on instructional methods and the development of social relations in the school.
Schofield also explores gender differences in interracial interaction. Boys tended to exhibit a greater degree of interracial activity than did girls by virtue of the fact that the former had more opportunities to participate in interracial group activities involving athletic talents and physical prowess. Another problem examined is interracial romantic relations.
During Schofields field study, she did not see major gains in interracial relations. Nor did she observe serious racial conflicts. However, her research suggests that interracial avoidance and whites fear of blacks typical in the first year gradually decreased. Also revealed is the fact that members of both groups began to see each other in terms of personal attributes and differences rather than group attributes.
Schofields work is characterized by careful scholarship. She uses a concretizing mode of description to shed light on the context of experience and events in the school. She interprets complex phenomena in terms of concrete examples; rich descriptions are presented in depth and concepts meaningfully constructed in relation to experience. She carefully avoids generalizations not supported by data. Meanwhile, she frequently relates her findings at the micro level of her case study to a macro perspective where her research is compared to a number of other relevant studies. The theoretical relationship she develops between her research and other related studies makes her work interesting and scholarly respectable. From both methodological and substantive standpoints, her work is an exemplary educational ethnography.