Refusing to Leave Desegregation Behind: From Graduates of Racially Diverse Schools to the Supreme Court
by Amy Stuart Wells, Jacquelyn Duran & Terrenda White - 2008
Background/Context: In light of the June 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Louisville and Seattle voluntary school desegregation cases, making it more difficult for district officials to racially balance their schools, this article presents an analysis of prior research on the long-term effects of attending racially diverse schools on their adult graduates as well as new data from interviews with graduates of desegregated schools in Louisville and Seattle. Although the bulk of research on school desegregation examines what is happening to students while they are still in school and their immediate academic outcomes, the growing body of research on the long-term effects of attending racially diverse schools on adult graduates is powerful and significant and, thus, should play a central role in public debates about the future of racial integration in American schools following the Court’s ruling in these cases, referred to as Parents Involved.
Taken together, findings from this research on the long-term effects of school desegregation speak to both of the central themes to emerge from the larger body of research on racial integration within public schools or universities: 1. the “legacies of structural inequality” theme, which addresses the need for race-conscious policies to overcome decades of perpetuated racial inequality and 2 the “diversity rationale,” which focuses on preparing young people for a diverse society. The new interview data from Louisville and Seattle confirm these prior findings and add new insights.
Purpose: Knowing that prior research on the long-term effects of school desegregation spoke to the central legal issue in the cases before the Supreme Court in the Parents Involved cases, we wanted to explore the two prominent themes from that literature — “structural inequality” and the “diversity rationale” — as they related to the life experiences of Louisville and Seattle graduates of racially diverse schools.
Participants: We interviewed 42 graduates—classes of 1985 and 1986—of six high schools: Central, Fern Creek, and Louisville Male high schools in Louisville, and Franklin, Garfield, and Ingraham high schools in Seattle. These six schools were selected because in each city, they represented a wide range of student experiences given their different geographic locations within their districts, their curricular programs, and the social class and racial make-up of their student bodies by the mid-1980s. Still, in each of these schools, no one ethnic group made up more than 75% of the student body at the time these graduates attended them.
Research Design: Qualitative, in-depth interviews with a random sample of adult graduates (graduating classes of 1985 and 86) from six racially diverse high schools, which were purposively sampled to reflect the different experiences of student who went to public high schools in Louisville and Seattle at that time.
Data Collection and Analysis: Using a semi-structured, open-ended interview protocol, the authors interviewed a total of 19 graduates from the three Louisville high schools and 23 graduates from the Seattle high schools. In terms of the racial/ethnic identities of these 42 graduates from the six high schools across the two cities, 22 identified themselves as White, 14 as African Americans, 4 as Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 2 as mixed race, including one who was half Latino and half White.
Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes—although they varied in length from 20 minutes to more than an hour—and was tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were coded for themes that emerged from the interviewees’ responses across schools and context, and the following findings emerged as the most salient experiences of graduates across the six schools.
Findings/Results: 1. Graduates of racially mixed schools in Louisville and Seattle said they learned to be more accepting of and comfortable with people of other racial backgrounds.
Like their counterparts in the six cities of the Wells et al. (in press) study, the Louisville and Seattle graduates we interviewed said they believe that their day-to-day experiences attending diverse public schools as children and adolescents did indeed change them, making them more open-minded and thus more accepting of people who differ from them racially and in terms of their background and culture.
2. Louisville and Seattle graduates and the diversity rationale: Desegregated public schools prepared them for a global economy and society.
Preparation for working in a diverse setting—the “diversity rationale”—was, for these graduates, by far the most obvious and pragmatic outcome of their experiences in desegregated public schools. The vast majority of graduates we interviewed in Louisville and Seattle said that at work in particular, they draw on the skills they learned in their desegregated public schools, skills of getting along and feeling comfortable with people of divergent backgrounds and cultures.
3. Overcoming structural inequality: Without diverse public schools, most graduates would have grown up in race isolation.
In a society in which housing patterns, places of worship, and social circles are often segregated by race, diverse public schools have been, for many students, the only institutions in which cross-racial interaction and understanding can occur. They have also too often been historically the only institutions in our society in which students of color can gain access to predominantly White and prestigious institutions—in K–12 schooling or higher education.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We argue, based on our research and that of many others, that in an era when technology and free trade are breaking down physical and economic barriers across cultures and traditions, to not prepare our children to embrace and accept differences to the extent possible—the diversity rationale—is shortsighted and irresponsible. But even more important, we need to question how we can maintain a healthy democracy in a society so strongly divided by race, social class, and ideology now that the Supreme Court’s decision has made it increasingly difficult to challenge such structural inequality, in spite of a compelling rationale for greater school-level diversity.
We have rid the world of Jim Crow, but in its place we have produced a new world of inequality. And we have created an elaborate system of doctrines in order to rationalize and justify it as being entirely consistent with everyone being equal before the law.
Balkin, Plessy, Brown and Grutter: A Play in Three Acts, p. 1729
In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two casesParents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson Country Board of Educationchallenging the constitutionality of local school districts voluntary efforts to racially balance their schools. In June 2007, a 54 majority of the Supreme Court declared these integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, unconstitutional based on the districts use of racial classifications as one factor in assigning students to schools in a parental choice program. The ruling, therefore, significantly narrowed the options officials have to integrate schools and left educators, parents, and students across the country wondering what impact this decision will have on public education in our increasingly diverse society.
In the year between the Courts decision to hear these cases and its ruling, hundreds of social scientists and lawyers presented evidence to the nine justices on the harms of racial segregation and the benefits of integration. Indeed, the research-based evidence supporting the Louisville and Seattle officials pursuit of greater racial balance across their schools is strong and credible (Brief of 553 Social Scientists, 2006; Lynn & Welner, 2007), even if it was eventually ignored or dismissed by four of the five Justices who comprised the majority in this decision.
The last of the five-justice majorityJustice Kennedywrote a separate opinion that acknowledged the implications of some of this research and was thus supportive of the districts compelling interest in fashioning racial diverse schools. Still, Kennedy concluded that school officials must use more limited measures than Louisville and Seattle did to achieve their integration goals. Such possible measures, he wrote, include locating new school sites between racially distinct neighborhoods, redrawing school attendance zones, or targeting recruitment of students or faculty to schools of choicemeasures that social science research suggests would be far less effective in overcoming racial segregation than the plans that were struck down.
In short, the reams of social science research supporting the two school districts policies in these cases (known as the Parents Involved cases) did not play as central a role in the final outcome as many would have hoped, even though Justice Breyers impassioned dissent relied heavily on research. Given the makeup of the Court and the evolution of its rulings on race-conscious policies, we should not be surprised. Still, we argue that researchers must continue to inform the debate on how we move forward as a nation from this decision. In fact, as school officials and communities across the country decipher their options, we think they ought to at least consider the evidence presented to the Court. This research can both help explain the costs of this decision and fuel the search for viable alternatives.
In this article, we present one important segment of the vast body of social science evidence made available to the Court via Amicus, or friend of the court, briefs. Here we focus on the research assessing the long-term effects of attending racially diverse public schools on adults years after they have graduated from high school. This long-term effects of school desegregation literature provides a window into the kind of long-range impact this decision could have on future generations and the broader society.
Yet perhaps what is most significant about this body of research on the long-term impact of attending racially diverse schools is that it speaks to two significant themes that have emerged from the social science research on racial segregation (in schools and the communities that surround them) and cut through the central legal issues in these cases. These two themes are:
Racial discrimination and its legacies still exist in the form of structural inequalitynamely, segregation and unequal opportunities in housing, income, wealth, health, and education. Race-conscious policies, such as school desegregation, are often needed to overcome these legacies, which are often perpetuated across generations even if the majority of Whites do not harbor overtly discriminatory views.
The diversity rationale, or the argument that racial integration in schools and universities helps prepare future generations for a more diverse society, a global economy, and more racially/ethnically integrated adult lives.
Not only does much of the social science research support one or both of these themes, but some of this research, especially the work described in this article, demonstrates the ways in which these two themes are intertwined. For instance, we know the benefits of racial integration would not be so great if the legacies of racial discrimination were not so acute. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his opinion, That the school districts consider these plans to be necessary should remind us our highest aspirations are yet unfulfilled (Kennedys Opinion, Parents Involved, 2007, p. 1). In other words, that housing segregation remains a prominent feature of our society means that inequality across separate communities and thus public schools is perpetuated from one generation to the next unless some policy or program breaks that cycle. Meanwhile, the research suggests that efforts to overcome this segregation often have profound effects, in part by dispelling stereotypes and myths on both sides of the color line. The so-called diversity rationale, therefore, is not only about students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds learning to get along, but it is also about a more hopeful future in which the structures of racial segregation and inequality can be dismantled by more enlightened voters, parents, and home owners.
This article, then, is part review of prior research and part presentation of new data collected for an Amicus brief we wrote for these two cases. In both the prior and the new research on the long-term effects of school desegregation on the people who lived through it those who refuse to leave desegregation behindit is clear that these two central themes are strong and interrelated, even as judges have tried to separate and distinguish them while relying more heavily on the diversity rationale and increasingly ignoring the historical and structural view of race in America today. In an effort to create a dialogue between these themes spelled out in the research and the jurisprudence in the area of racial segregation and inequality, we begin with a brief overview of the legal background of the Parents Involved cases and then discuss the relationship between the law and the evidence.
THE LEGAL BACKGROUND OF THE LOUISVILLE AND SEATTLE CASES
More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state and district policies segregating children based solely on their race violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of African Americans to equal protection under the law. In 2007, the Court ruled in the Parents Involved cases that the decision of school officials to use race as one factor in their voluntary efforts to create more integrated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of White students who did not get into their first-choice school assignments. According to the majority opinions written by Justices Roberts and Thomas in the Parents Involved cases, their ruling on the rights of White plaintiffs was wholly consistent with the spirit of Brown, which, they say, is about separating opportunity from race. The dissenting justices strongly opposed this argument and regarded the majority opinion as antithetical to Browns vision of allowing for the use of race to remedy structural or systemic racial inequality resulting from not only de jure or state-sanctioned segregation but also the legacies of such segregation as well as other ongoing forms of discrimination an argument that carried no weight with the majority.
How and why the majority of Supreme Court justices came to see the rulings in Brown and the two current cases as in sync with one another is the story of the evolving conservative jurisprudence in American lawan evolution that does not bode well for the role of research-based evidence in pivotal court cases in the near future.
FROM MILLIKEN TO GRUTTER: NARROWING WHAT COURTS CAN REMEDY IN TERMS OF RACE
For the last three decades, the Supreme Court has stated in a series of rulings on race-conscious policiesincluding school desegregation, affirmative action, or set-aside programs for minority contractorsthat the research on structural inequality (i.e., housing discrimination and segregation, income and wealth gaps by race, or the lack of infrastructure and supports in high poverty communities) and its intergenerational effect does not carry much legal weight. Absent a specific and blatant act of de jure or state-sponsored discrimination tied directly to the institution or persons involved in the court casesnamely, a university, municipal government, or public school board (Balkin, 2005)the courts are unwilling to consider the broader effects of historical and societal discrimination on students of color who are applying to universities or trying to gain access to more integrated K12 public schools.
The logical conclusion to such an interpretation of discrimination is an understanding of the U.S. Constitution as colorblind, meaning that once state-imposed segregation has been eliminated and remedied, the government must not use racial classifications at all (see Balkin, 2005; Lindsay, 2006; Verdun, 2005). Such an interpretation implies that any effort to classify people by race for any reasoneven to prepare children for a diverse society (the diversity rationale) or to assure that children of color who have had limited educational opportunities in our society gain access to better schoolswill be unconstitutional.
This journey toward a colorblind argument, which is all but complete with the Parents Involved decisions, began in earnest in 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that suburban Detroit school districts could not be forced to participate in a metropolitan-wide school desegregation remedy unless it was established that school officials in these districts and not the housing market that envelopes the districts -- had conducted racially discriminatory acts that then led to the pervasive cross-district segregation. Furthermore, the Court ruled in Milliken that Black plaintiffs, who had already proved that both the Detroit Public Schools and the state of Michigan had discriminated against Black children for years, would have to prove that the suburban school district boundary lines had been deliberately drawn on the basis of race.
In other words, despite ample evidence of racial discrimination on the part of government and private entities in the suburban housing market in Detroit and elsewhere, the burden placed on the African American plaintiffs after Milliken was far too onerous. They would need specific, well-documented proof that each and every suburban district in a metropolitan area had purposefully discriminated against Black families and their children in order to gain a metropolitan-wide remedy. And by 1974, such urban-suburban desegregation plans were necessary to achieve any meaningful integration because race was such a salient factor in deciding where people would live and who would be kept out via zoning ordinances, steering. or intimidation.
Thus, the first powerful theme from the research evidencethe legacies of prior discrimination and how they maintain structural inequality and disadvantages for Black childrenwas soundly rejected by the Supreme Court in Milliken as a Constitutional claim to a meaningful desegregation remedy. Still, since then, many federal judges have supported the second research-based theme by ruling that universities and school districts have a compelling state interest in promoting racial integration or the diversity rationale. (NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 2005).
One of the most notable post-Milliken race-conscious policy cases was the 1978 Regents of University of California v. Bakke higher education affirmative action case involving the University of California at Davis medical school. In this case, the Court rejected the use of race-conscious preferences as a means of remedying the past societal racial discrimination that had compromised the educational opportunities of students of color for generations. Instead of supporting a racial equality goal in this case, the Court relied almost solely on the diversity rationale when upholding the limited use of racial classifications in higher education admissions policies.
Twenty-five years later, the Courts majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, written by Justice OConnor, reaffirms that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a public university from employing race-conscious means for the purpose of promoting racial equality, and insists that the universitys interest in attaining a diverse student body rests exclusively in its First Amendment right of educational autonomy (Lindsay, 2006, p. 136).
The Grutter case, therefore, established that the university has a compelling interest in admitting a diverse student body that is supported by its First Amendment right to further its educational mission and goals. Policies to accomplish that goal are OK as long as they are devised narrowly enough to achieve only that particular goal.
Thus, the central legal issue had shifted from what it was in Brownnamely the Fourteenth Amendment rights of African Americans who had suffered the consequences of racial discrimination in our societyto the First Amendment rights of the universities. This evolution of case law regarding race-conscious policies has been criticized for ignoring or denying the ongoing racial inequality in the United States. According to Lindsay (2006), the Grutter majority refused to afford any formal legal status to the goal of remediating historical discrimination that still exists today, albeit often in more subtle forms, and instead relegated all critical issues to the netherworld of the diversity rationale. In doing so, it relieves the Court, and the rest of the nation, from having to confront directly the question of why, fifty years after Brown and forty years after the 1964 [Civil Rights] Act, race-conscious public policy remains necessary to attain meaningful racial integration (Lindsay, pp. 140141).1
Yet as problematic as the Grutter decision may be in its failure to acknowledge the ongoing racial inequality that is well documented in the research literature and that makes policies such as affirmative action still necessary, it is not nearly as problematic as the majority opinion in the Parents Involved cases. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Louisville and Seattle cases in the summer of 2006, the post-Grutter case law suggested that in order to uphold the use of race in a student assignment or admissions policy, a majority of justices had to find that (1) the goals of such a plan comprised a compelling state interest that could be justified via one or both of the research-based themes described above and (2) that the means of achieving the goals are narrowly tailored enough to achieve only the compelling-interest goals. Given this legal precedent at the time, we and hundreds of other social scientists thought that perhaps our Amicus briefs describing the body of research supporting local school districts compelling state interest in avoiding racial segregation could make a difference in these cases.
FROM GRUTTER TO MEREDITHMOVING CLOSER TO COLORBLINDNESS
By the early 2000s, the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville and the Seattle Public Schools had both shifted from old-fashioned desegregation policies that assigned students to schools to achieve racial integration to newer, choice-oriented policies that allowed parents and students to apply to their favorite schools. The districts then considered applicants race as one factor in assigning them to one of their top-choice schools. This practice allowed local officials to maintain some degree of racial balance within specified guidelines that reflected the makeup of the district as a whole, while still providing families school choices (Greenhouse, 2006; NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 2005).
Both court cases were initiated when parents of White students denied their first-choice schools under these policies sued the school districts, claiming that the use of race as a factor in assigning students to schools was discriminatory. The districts responded to these claims by presenting evidence that, among other things, the vast majority of students of all races got their first- or second-choice schools (93% in Louisville) and that school officials had a compelling state interest in assuring that the public schools remained racially integrated after years of school desegregation efforts had yielded many positive results.
For instance, the Seattle School Board argued that diversity in public schools fosters racial and cultural understanding, which is particularly important in a racially and culturally diverse society such as ours (Parents Involved v. Seattle, 2005, p. 21). The Jefferson County Board of Education provided extensive evidence of the positive correlation between school desegregation and better student outcomes (Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 2006). Because neither Louisvilles nor Seattles student assignment plans were court-ordered remedies (although Louisville once had such an order), the central issue for the Supreme Court to decide in these two cases was whether locally elected school boards are allowed to racially integrate schools on their own accord, absent a court order or recent evidence of state-mandated or de jure racial segregation.
In other words, the question answered in this ruling was whether school officials had a compelling state interest to voluntarily address the legacies of prior discriminationstate-sanctioned or notwhich continue to shape housing patterns and thus school enrollments. Furthermore, the Court was asked whether the race-conscious student assignment plans were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling interest.
The answer from the Court was complicated on the first compelling interest issue because of Kennedys separate opinion. But on the second issue, on whether the Louisville and Seattle plans were narrowly tailored to accomplish that goal without infringing on the rights of White students, the majority of the Court, including Justice Kennedy, clearly said no.
Furthermore, the Parents Involved decision was striking in its shift toward a colorblind interpretation of the Constitution, rendering any race-conscious policy problematic. Taking the conservative legal argument about race described above to its logical conclusion, four of the justices implied that race-conscious policies are permissible only as a short-term remedy to dismantle de jure or Jim Crow segregation and not as a remedy for the legacies of that entrenched segregation or other forms of discrimination. In fact, except for Justice Kennedys effort to keep the compelling interest window open slightly via the diversity rationale, the majority of the Court appeared ready to dismiss it in the K12 context.
Obviously, when the Supreme Courts jurisprudence moves so far away from the social science evidence on the issues at hand, which in this case not only strongly supported the compelling state interest argument but also the tailoring of the Louisville and Seattle plans, researchers have to wonder what our role can and will be in critical court cases. In the following section of this article, we speak more broadly about the connections between the evolving legal issues in these cases and the social science research. We then consider these issues more specifically in reference to the growing body of research evidence on the long-term effects of school desegregation as it becomes increasingly clear just how large the rift between the research and the recent Supreme Court ruling is.
LEGAL QUESTIONS AND SOCIAL SCIENCE EVIDENCE
The research evidence on racial segregation and desegregation provides complicated answers to a complicated set of questions about ongoing racial inequality in the United Stateshow it came to be, why it is perpetuated, and how to interrupt it. Indeed, as we noted above, when we examine the research on both the causes and consequences of racial segregation, we see two important themes emerge from the analyses.
1. Racial discrimination and its legacies still exist in the form of structural inequalitynamely segregation and unequal opportunities in housing, income, wealth, health, and education. Thus, thus race-conscious policies, such as school desegregation, are often needed to overcome these legacies, which are often perpetuated across generationseven if the majority of Whites do not harbor discriminatory views.
2. The diversity rationale, or the argument that racial integration in schools and universities helps prepare future generations for a more diverse society, a global economy and more integrated lives.
There is a body of solid research that strongly suggests that ongoing racial segregation, especially in housing and thus public schools, has not happened by accident; there are structural or societal reasons why they still exist (Sethi & Somanathan, 2004). In fact, for the last century, many public policiesfederal, state, and localhave facilitated the development of separate and unequal neighborhoods and schools, and many current policies maintain this inequality. For instance, although we no longer have Jim Crow laws or blatant mandated separation of the races, we do allow local communities, homeowners, realtors, and lenders to maintain a great deal of control over who has access to what neighborhoods. The vast majority of poor people and people of color still lack access to the most desirable neighborhoods and thus the most desirable public schools (Drier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom, 2004). Furthermore, Blacks and Latinos who have faced such discrimination firsthand or know of family members or friends who have had such experiences are less likely to try to move into predominantly White and more affluent communities. They may lack information about such communities and their better resourced public schools when looking for a place to live because of their segregated social networks (de Souza Briggs, 2005)
This complicated web of factors is the present-day legacy of historical racial discrimination and its intergenerational effect on poor students of color. According to the Amicus brief filed in the Louisville and Seattle cases by the Caucus for Structural Equality, Racial inequality is perpetuated by the interaction of numerous institutions, and does not require purposeful racism or malicious state action to continue. These dynamics, undisturbed, will persist because they operate in a vicious, reinforcing circle of causation (Brief for the Caucus for Structural Equality as Amici Curiae, 2006).
Research on school desegregation strongly suggests that these policies help break that cycle of segregation and create greater social mobility for African Americans by allowing them access to more prestigious schools (see for example, Wells & Crain, 1994, 1997). Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the Black-White achievement gap closed more quickly during the years of racial integration of public schools than during any other period in the nations history. This strongly suggests that providing Black and Latino students greater access to predominantly White schools helped to dismantle part of that structure of racial inequality (Grissmer, Flanagan, & Williamson, 1998).
Social science research strongly supports the conclusion that racial integration is better than racial segregation for the society as a whole. Overall, it improves intergroup relations and cross-racial understanding and acceptance. It also is more likely to reduce racial prejudice and fear or distrust of people from different backgrounds by enabling students to understand people of different races. Therefore, the research findings consistently demonstrate that racial diversity in K12 public schools helps to prepare children of all racial backgrounds for our increasingly diverse society and global economy (Brief of 553 Social Scientists, 2006; Wells, Holme, Revilla, & Atanda, in press). Research evidence such as this constitutes what some legal scholars have dubbed the diversity rationale in cases regarding affirmative action and school desegregation (Balkin, 2005; Lindsay, 2006).
In other words, the research to date on school desegregation clearly supports the efforts of the two school districts in these cases. Research findings on both structural inequality and the diversity rationale demonstrate that these school districts not only had a compelling state interest in implementing their voluntary desegregation plans, but also that they needed to tailor the plans the way they did to achieve their goals and stabilize each school in the district over time (see Wells and Frankenberg, in press) . What is more, this evidence suggests that these two research themes structural inequality and the diversity rationale -- are not distinct or separate, but intertwined and connected and that giving credence to both would imply a different interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment than that of the colorblind perspective. The Amicus brief that we filed with the Supreme Court for these two cases presented new social science evidence from graduates of diverse schools in Louisville and Seattle and a brief review of prior research on desegregations graduates. In refusing to leave desegregation behind, adult graduates of school desegregation speak to the central legal issue in these cases namely the districts compelling state interest as it is reflected in both of the intertwined research themes discussed above -- the diversity rationale and structural inequality as a legacy of prior and on-going racial discrimination. In the following sections of this article, we illustrate these themes across the prior and current research on the generation of Americans who experienced school desegregation firsthand.
WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW: AN OVERVIEW OF THE LONG-TERM-EFFECTS RESEARCH
The research literature on the long-term effects of attending a racially mixed public school suggests that many of the effects of such an experience are not realized until long after students have graduated from high school. As adults, former students can better assess ways in which their school experiences influenced their lives as employees, homeowners or renters, parents, and friends (Eaton, 2001; Wells, Holme, Revilla, & Atanda, 2004, in press). Therefore, although the bulk of research on school desegregation examines what is happening to students while they are still in school and their immediate academic outcomes (see Crain & Mahard, 1978; Wells, 1995), we believe that the long-term-effects literature is also highly significant, especially as it speaks to the two intertwined research themes discussed above.
Indeed, these studies on adult graduates of racially diverse public schools reveal the many ways their experiences speak to both the diversity rationale and the structural inequality findings that have emerged from other research on racial inequality and school desegregation. In terms of the diversity rationale, for instance, one of the strongest findings to emerge from research on graduates of desegregated schools is the extent to which their school experiences prepared them to be better citizens, workers, and community members in an increasingly multiethnic society. In terms of the structural inequality, it is clear that the school desegregation plans that these adults participated in as children provided the one, and often only, opportunity for them to cross the color lines that divided their neighborhoods and perpetuated the racial inequality in their communities. Thus, it also increased the likelihood that they would cross these boundaries as adults even as the structures remained in tact.
The following section of this article describes the theoretical framework, originating in the 1950s, that explains why integrated schools should, in theory, have a lifelong impact on students and the inequality in which they grew up. This is followed by a description of the original research on the long-term outcomes of racially mixed schools, which is primarily survey based and focused almost exclusively on the life opportunities of African American graduates of diverse schools. The second body of research on the long-term effects of desegregation is more recent and is a mixture of quantitative and qualitative work that examines how attending a diverse school changed peopletheir racial attitudes and understandings, and, in some cases, their life opportunities.
WHY GOING TO SCHOOL TOGETHER SHOULD MATTER: THE CONTACT HYPOTHESIS
In 1954, just months before the Supreme Courts ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Harvard University psychologist Gordon W. Allport published a groundbreaking book titled The Nature of Prejudice. His basic premise was that one reason people become and remain prejudiced against those of different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds is that they lack meaningful contact with such people. Allport described various forms of contact and how they affect peoples thinking about members of out groups. He concluded that certain forms of intergroup contact are far more effective at helping people overcome their stereotypes than other forms. More specifically, Allport challenged the notion that simple encounters among different people would be sufficient to reduce prejudice (see Nagda, Tropp, & Paluck, 2006, p. 440). Instead, Allport (1954) wrote, contact must reach below the surface in order to be effective in altering prejudice. Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes (p. 276).
Allport (1954) noted that contact in schools or on athletic teams, for example, engenders solidarity and allows people to overlook differences and eventually overcome stereotypes. Schools, teams, and activities in which students of different races come together from separate and unequal neighborhoods and are asked to work cooperatively across racial and ethnic lines, Allport stated, can foster similar understandings and lessen prejudice. In particular, he noted that intergroup contact for children at a young age would be most helpful in overcoming prejudice because children are more impressionable than adults and have not yet formed static views. Such experiences early in life, he argued, would lead to lifelong comfort levels with people of different backgrounds.
Allports theory about the optimal conditions of intergroup contact became known in the social science literature as the contact hypothesis (see Pettigrew, 1998). The basic tenets of this hypothesis are that prejudice reduction across groups is most likely to happen when intergroup contact is marked by the following four conditions: (1) participants have equal status, (2) a set of common goals transcends groups, (3) intergroup cooperation instead of competition is fostered, and (4) the contact has the support of authority, law, or custom (Pettigrew). Allports contact hypotheses, therefore, provided the central argument for the creation of more integrated public schools, where, it was believed, such conditions could more easily exist than in other settings (Aronson, 1954; Towles-Schwen & Fazio, 2001).
At the time that Allport wrote The Nature of Prejudice, his contact hypothesis was a well-reasoned theory, but the research evidence on what happens to people who actually experience such intergroup contact, particularly in schools, was sparse. Fifty-two years later, social scientists have documented the veracity of Allports hypothesis, particularly as it pertains to the long-term effects of attending racially diverse public schools, where, in most instances, at least some of the four conditions exist in one form or another. For example, on the athletic teams or other extracurricular activities in diverse public schools, students of different racial or ethnic groups often find themselves working together cooperatively toward a common goal while maintaining fairly equal status for all group members (see Wells et al., in press). This was not always the case in the academic realm of such schools, however, where students of color were often designated to unequal tracks and classrooms that reflected the larger inequality in the society (see Oakes, 1985; Wells & Serna, 1996; Wells et al., in press). Thus, the public schools and the desegregation orders that they faced provided some of the best settings for testing the contact hypothesis and its limitationsboth in terms of the diversity rationale and structural inequalities that were sometimes reproduced within the schools.
EARLY RESEARCH ON THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF RACIALLY DIVERSE SCHOOLS SUGGESTS INTERGROUP CONTACT INCREASED THE OPPORTUNITIES OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
The original body of research examining the long-term effects of racially diverse schools comprises several quantitative studies analyzing survey and other outcome data from African American graduates of desegregated schools. Conducted mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, this work explored the ways in which the racial balance of a graduates school correlated with various postsecondary variables such as aspirations, expectations, college attendance, and career and housing choices. Overall, this body of research demonstrates that once Black students become accustomed to racially diverse settings in school, they have far more confidence in their ability to navigate and succeed in such settings as adults, leading to greater social mobility. In other words, the evidence from this literature strongly suggests that African Americans experiences in racially diverse schools help them to navigate some of the structural barriers that perpetuate racial inequality. In this way, this research provides an excellent example of how the diversity rationaleor the benefit of learning to get along with people of different backgroundsis intertwined with individual efforts to overcome structural inequality and the impact school desegregation can have on that complicate process.
The theoretical framework that best explains this process is called perpetuation theory, derived by sociologists Braddock and McPartland as a way of explaining how Black graduates from desegregated schools moved into more racially integrated adult settings. Drawing in part on Allports argument about the significance of interracial contact in overcoming prior attitudes (see Braddock, 1980; McPartland & Braddock, 1981), McPartland and Braddock added a structural element to perpetuation theory to explain how segregation tends to repeat itself across the stages of the life cycle and across institutions when individuals have not had sustained experiences in desegregated settings earlier in life (p. 149).
In fact, much of this early long-term-effects research focused on whether African Americans were more likely to choose, when available, more integrated environments as adults. Such findings could infer the extent to which African Americans with desegregated school experiences had learned not to overestimate the degree of hostility they would encounter in such settings or underestimate their skill at coping with strains in interracial situations (Braddock, 1980). Overall, the research showed that Black graduates of integrated secondary and elementary schools were more confident in their ability to navigate and succeed in racially diverse settings (Braddock; Braddock, Crain, & McPartland, 1984). Thus, as adults, they tended to challenge the structural barriers to mobility by attending predominantly White colleges, moving into more racially integrated neighborhoods and accessing jobs in diverse settings that few Blacks had occupied in the past (Braddock, Crain, McPartland, & Dawkins, 1986; Braddock & McPartland, 1987; Dawkins & Braddock, 1994; Wells & Crain, 1994). These findings and the perpetuation theory that supports them suggest that attending a desegregated school is highly correlated with African American graduates ability to overcome both some of the structural inequality in the society by gaining access to higher status schools and thus better jobs and so on, and to become more comfortable in interacting with Whitesfindings that support both themes discussed above (see Wells & Crain, 1994, for a review).
Wells and Crain (1994) concluded that much of the long-term outcome data on Black graduates of racially mixed schools suggest that they are much more likely than their segregated counterparts to have access to, and to make choices that place them in, integrated and more advantageous environments for the rest of their lives. Overall, this early body of research on the long-term effects of desegregation on Blacks empirically supports the argument that interracial contact in school helps Blacks to overcome perpetual segregation (Braddock, 1980; McPartland & Braddock, 1981).
MORE RECENT RESEARCH ON GRADUATES OF RACIALLY MIXED SCHOOLS DEMONSTRATES GREATER CROSS-RACIAL UNDERSTANDING AND FEWER STRUCTURAL BARRIERS
In just the last decade, a small but growing body of social science research has questioned the relationship between racially diverse school attendance and adult attitudes toward members of other racial groups. This work draws heavily on Allports (1954) theories of contact as it has broadened the focus of the long-term-effects research from African American mobility and life opportunitiesimportant structural issuesand racial attitudes to the impact of diverse schools on adults of all racial backgrounds, especially as it relates to the diversity rationale. Indeed, as many researchers have noted, there is now a large body of psychological and social psychological research that supports the legitimacy of the contact hypotheses in predicting the type of conditions that lead to more positive racial attitudes and a reduction in prejudice (see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000, for a meta-analysis). What had been missing from the literature until recently was solid evidence of the long-term effects of such interracial interactions in childhood on adults of all races and ethnicities who experienced them many years prior. This more recent researchboth quantitative survey studies and qualitative interviewsstrongly suggests that such contact in schools has a long-lasting positive effect on former students racial attitudes, making them less prejudiced, on average, than adults who did not have such experiences.
Recent survey-based research on long-term effects of desegregation on adults of all races
Two quantitative survey-based studies that examined the long-term impact of desegregated school experiences concluded that adults of different racial backgrounds who experienced intergroup contact in childhood have more positive racial attitudes. The first such study, by Wood and Sonleitner (1996), examined the impact of White childrens interracial contact in desegregated schools on their adult stereotype adherence and traditional anti-Black prejudice. They set out to question whether Allports equal-status contact in a school environment, particularly during the formative years, would engender more positive racial attitudes among young persons that would endure into adulthood (Wood & Sonleitner, p. 1).
Analyzing survey data from 292 White adults in Oklahoma City, Wood and Sonleitner (1996) found that childhood interracial contact in schools and neighborhoods not only disconfirmed negative racial stereotypes, but had a direct, significant effect on levels of adult antiblack prejudice even controlling for other relevant factors (p. 1). These findings are especially significant because the sample of White adults who were surveyed included those who had had very little exposure to Blacks as children, thus providing a control group for the purpose of comparison. Even after controlling for many other factors, including family income and education level, Wood and Sonleitner (1996) found that childhood contact with Blacks in their schools or neighborhoods appeared to have the strongest effect on the White adults attitudes.
In another recent study of adult racial attitudes in relation to childhood contact with members of other racial/ethnic groups, Towles-Schwen and Fazio (2001) found that for college undergraduates of different racial backgrounds, racial attitudes were correlated with their intergroup contact when they were children. They found a significant relationship between White students positive interactions with Blacks in school and more positive racial attitudes once they were in college. Towles-Schwen and Fazio also asked these undergraduates about their parents racial prejudice and found that early positive experiences with Blacks are critical to overcome the awkwardness and anxiety felt by people whose parents are prejudiced (pp. 170171). Indeed, it was the nature and quality of the interaction that mattered, and not just the frequency. This theme is also present in the more recent, qualitative research on the long-term effects of desegregation.
The findings of these two studies on the long-term effect of racial integration on adults racial attitudes speak most directly to the diversity rationale themes in the research, and yet, they also suggest that important structural changesfor example, greater housing integrationmay be more likely to occur in a society populated by adults who have had such intergroup experiences as children.
Qualitative research on the long-term impact of desegregation on adults
As helpful as the quantitative research findings are, this mostly survey-based research tells us very little about how or why these outcomes occurred among graduates of desegregated schools. Two additional studies of the long-term effects of school desegregation employed qualitative methodsin-depth interviews with graduates of racially mixed public schoolsand thus produced more detailed findings on how these adults school experiences shaped and influenced their lives. The first such study was conducted by Eaton (2001) and entailed in-depth interviews with 65 African American graduates of an urban-suburban voluntary transfer program in Boston known as METCO. These adult graduates of the METCO program had, as children of color growing up in Boston, chosen to attend predominantly White and mostly affluent suburban schools. This study explained, through the eyes of the adults who lived through it, how and why this educational journey from Boston to the suburbs was meaningful and why it resulted in them leading more integrated lives.
Eatons (2001) findings echoed and extended some of the central tenets of perpetuation theory and the earlier long-term-effects literature described above. For instance, she found that METCO graduates felt far more comfortable in racially diverse and predominantly White settings than their friends and family members who lacked such desegregated experiences. She also found that the METCO graduates tapped into powerful social networks in their suburban schools and that information about postsecondary school experiences, including the college application process and job opportunities, flowed through these networks.
The African American graduates in Eatons (2001) study also talked about the downsides of participating in METCO, including the racial discrimination they faced in the suburban schools, the assumptions many White students and educators made about their families and backgrounds, and a sense of disconnection from their own communities. Still, overall, only 4 out of the 65 adults interviewedor 6%said that they would not repeat their METCO experiences if they had the chance. Such decisions, Eaton (2001)wrote, were influenced by their discoveries that the exposure they had in suburbia comprised fair approximations and decent preparation for life as blacks in white-dominated America (p. 21).
Once again, we see how the effects of school desegregation on structural inequalityaccess to institutions and networksand on the racial attitudes and outlook of those who lived through it are intertwined and not either-or. In fact, this more in-depth, qualitative analysis of how desegregation changed the people who lived through it strongly suggests that attitudes change only as the structural inequality shifts in a cyclical manner. Thus, to suggest, as the Supreme Court has done, that we can separate the ongoing structural inequality from the diversity rationale, seems, as Allport (1954) himself realized, quite at odds with how people experience race in our society.
The second major qualitative study that informs the long-term effects literature within school desegregation research was conducted by Wells et al. (2004, in press) from 1999 to 2004. This study entailed in-depth case studies of six high schools within school districts that had undergone some form of desegregationeither voluntary or court orderedby the late 1970s. It explored how African American, White, and Latino members of the class of 1980 from these six schools understood their school experience and its effect on their livestheir racial attitudes, educational and professional opportunities, personal relationships, and social networks. As far as we know, this is the first comprehensive qualitative study of White graduates view of school desegregation.
Wells et al. (2004, in press) conducted nearly 550 interviewsbetween 80 and 100 per sitewith graduates from each school and with the educators and policy makers who worked in or with the schools at that time. Clearly, one of the most powerful themes to emerge was that, looking back as adults, the 1980 graduates all valued their experiences in racially mixed schools more so than they realized when they were still in high school (see Holme, Wells, & Revilla, 2005). As adults, these graduatesWhite, Black, and Latinorealized that getting along with people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds was essential to their success in a global economy and increasingly diverse society. For instance, one graduate interviewed noted, I just learned a lot by being around so many different kinds of people . . . you learn something different from them without them teaching it to you in a book or writing it down, you just absorb so many different things (see Wells et al., in press).
Still, the ways that the graduates made sense of desegregation and how and why it was worth it differed somewhat across racial lines. White graduates tended to emphasize an Allport-like view of how their experiences in racially mixed high schools had made them more open-minded and more accepting of people of other racial/ethnic backgrounds than other White people they knew. As for the graduates of color, African American graduates in particular, they noted that their experiences validated perpetuation theory because racially mixed schools made them feel less intimidated by, fearful of, or subservient toward Whites (see Holme et al., 2005).
In addition to the findings on changes in racial attitudes, the Wells et al. (in press) research also provides powerful evidence of the ways in which structural inequalitynamely, racial segregationwas challenged and how this process was, in turn, affected by the shifting racial attitudes and perceptions. As the Wells et al. (in press) book, Both Sides Now, demonstrates, the promise and possibilities of this structural change were curtailed abruptly in the 1980s when political priorities shifted abruptly. Still, Wells et al. (2004; in press) argue that the potential for greater change remains in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of graduates of desegregated schools. For instance, one of their findings was that many, but certainly not all, White graduates of the six schools they studied said that they were more empathetic with the disadvantages many people of color face in a society with such pervasive structural inequality. In other words, these findings provide clear examples of how the research themes abovestructural inequality and the diversity rationaleare intertwined and interconnected.
The studies discussed in this section are part of a second wave of long-term-effects research that continues to grow as more researchers embark on similar research projects. For instance, in our research in Louisville and Seattle, we discovered both new and old themes and much support for the theories of Allport and Braddockboth the diversity rationale and issues of structural inequality.
GRADUATES OF RACIALLY DIVERSE SCHOOLS IN LOUISVILLE AND SEATTLE: WEAVING THE DIVERSITY RATIONALE AND STRUCTURAL INEQUITY TOGETHER ACROSS THEIR LIVES
Knowing that prior research on the long-term effects of school desegregation spoke to the central legal issue in the cases before the Supreme Court, we wanted to explore the two prominent themes from that literaturestructural inequality and the diversity rationaleas they related to the life experiences of Louisville and Seattle graduates of racially diverse schools.2 Thus, we interviewed 42 graduatesclasses of 1985 and 1986of six high schools: Central, Fern Creek, and Louisville Male high schools in Louisville, and Franklin, Garfield, and Ingraham high schools in Seattle. These six schools were selected because in each city, they represented a wide range of student experiences given their different geographic locations in the districts, their curricular programs, and the social class and racial make-up of their student bodies by the mid-1980s. Still, in each of these schools, no one ethnic group made up more than 75% of the student body at the time these graduates attended them.
Because of the short time frame of this research (August and September 2006), we were not able to conduct the type of purposive sampling for diverse perspectives that was employed by Wells et al. (in press). Instead, graduates from Louisville and Seattle were sampled randomly in two different ways in the two sites because of differential access to listings of high school graduates in these two cities.
In Louisville, we had access to lists of all the 1986 graduates from these three high schools through the 20th reunion organizers. This allowed us to sample the graduates randomly from each list. In Seattle, the reunion organizers either did not respond to our numerous requests for class lists or would not give us the lists of their classmates. We ended up working with members of the alumni associations for each school. They agreed to send out messages about our study on the e-mail lists for the classes of 1985 and 1986, asking who would be willing to be interviewed. From the many respondents to those e-mails, we randomly sampled people to interview and ended up talking with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Still, the reality is that the Louisville graduates we interviewed were sampled and contacted out of the blue, having no idea who we were or what we were doing. The Seattle graduates we interviewed had all agreed beforehand to be interviewed for this study and had volunteered their contact information.
We interviewed a total of 19 graduates from the three Louisville high schools and 23 graduates from the Seattle high schools. In terms of the racial/ethnic identities of these 42 graduates from the six high schools across the two cities, 22 identified themselves as White, 14 as African Americans, 4 as Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 2 as mixed race, including one who was half Latino and half White.
In each of these cities, students who graduated from high school in the mid-1980s first experienced desegregation when they were in elementary schoolfor most, beginning in the fourth or fifth grade. From that point on, until they graduated from high school, these students were either reassigned to schools outside their neighborhoods or attended schools in which other students were bused in from other parts of the city or metro area.
Seven of these interviews were conducted in person in Louisville, and the rest were conducted via telephone. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutesalthough they varied in length from 20 minutes to more than an hourand was tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were coded for themes that emerged from the interviewees responses across schools and context, and the following findings emerged as the most salient experiences of graduates across the six schools.
GRADUATES OF RACIALLY MIXED SCHOOLS In LOUISVILLE AND SEATTLE SAID THEY LEARNED TO BE MORE ACCEPTING OF AN COMFORTABLE WITH PEOPLE OF OTHER RACIAL BACKGROUNDS
Like their counterparts in the six cities of the Wells et al. (in press) study, the Louisville and Seattle graduates we interviewed said they believe that their day-to-day experiences attending diverse public schools as children and adolescents did indeed change them in an Allportian way, making them more open-minded and thus more accepting of people who differ from them racially and in terms of their background and culture.
Louisville and Seattle graduates of all racial/ethnic backgrounds said that going to school with people of different races allowed them to dispel negative racial stereotypes and realize the similarities across groupsthat people are peoplewhile at the same time appreciating and enjoying the cultural difference. This was clearly the most powerful and overwhelming theme to emerge from this systematically collected interview data, and it speaks directly to the diversity rationale of Bakke and Grutter. Yet, as we illustrate below, it also speaks to the theme about structural inequality and how separate and unequal the lives of these graduates were before their schools brought them together and provided a space in which they could cross significant boundaries.
For instance, a White graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle noted that if he had not gone to a racially diverse school,
I just think that I wouldnt be as comfortable as I am with people of a variety of races. Thats just plain and simple. I think that growing up, going to schools, high school and before, that were racially diverse, helped you to be comfortable with people of different backgrounds, and makes you more accepting of differences in the world.
What is most compelling about this finding as it relates to public K12 schools is that the graduates of these schools and others like them explained that they had to be therethat what they learned about getting along with people of other backgrounds could not be learned from textbooks or films. They said they had to be in these schools on a daily basis, walking through the halls and experiencing the kind of intergroup contact that Allport wrote about.
For instance, echoing many of the other former students we interviewed, a White male graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle described his involvement in extracurricular activities as a place where equal-status interactions would occur and thus where racial stereotypes were dispelled and meaningful friendships developed. He said that activities such as band, drama, and any kind of sports team provided the settings in which students came together across racial lines and it didnt matter where you come from.
He explained, based on his own experiences and those of his classmates, that
theres a camaraderie that builds rather quickly when you play sports or if youre part of a band or whatever. That seems to be the tangible thing that really breaks down the racial barrier because if you can hang on the field or in the band room, you definitely can hang with those different backgrounds, and I think that was probably why, or probably how that all worked out.
This Garfield graduate spoke for virtually every Louisville and Seattle graduate we interviewed when he explained how these contacts in his public schools changed him:
I think it was very, very, very influential and very important, and I think Im a stronger person for having dealt with such a diverse background and having friends of all different backgrounds. I think I just feel more well rounded, I feel stronger as an individual, and I feel definitely more confident every day that I walk around in any kind of area.
Feeling stronger, more confident, and more comfortable in an increasingly diverse society was a powerful theme across these interviews. Yet, as with the Wells et al. (in press) research on graduates from six high schools, these experiences did play out somewhat differently across racial lines; African American graduates in particular explained their increased sense of efficacy when they found themselves in predominantly White settings. This finding resonates with the perpetuation theory described in the first section of this article and in the survey-based research on African American graduates of racially diverse schools. It reiterates the prior findings from other studies showing that African American graduates of diverse schools stated that they learned to feel more comfortable in predominantly White settings because they knew they could compete in such settings. In this way, the Louisville and Seattle data also imply the ways in which school desegregation policies begin to chip away at more entrenched structural inequalities that were developed and maintained over years of racial inequality. In other words, by crossing the color lines that were clear and rigid in these two cities, these students gained access to different networks and opportunities as they learned to be more comfortable outside their own segregated communities.
As an African American graduate of Fern Creek High School in Louisville explained, the beauty of attending desegregated schools is that it taught him about different cultures and how to be a chameleon. He said,
I think if youre able to deal with it positively, it makes you a much more well-rounded person, because you learn about other people and . . . I think, I think it makes you a really strong person. And the great thing now is that I can, Im really, I have friends from so many different cultures, and I could just about talk to anyone and I have no fear.
Some racial separation still apparent but not predetermined
The strong positive reactions that these graduates had to their experiences in diverse schools should not imply that their experiences were always easy or ideal. In fact, some of the same complications that we see emerge from the literature on desegregated schools across the country were woven throughout these graduates stories, including the logistical challenges of attending a school far from their homes, occasional racial tensions, and some degree of resegregation of students across classrooms because of tracking practices, although this varied tremendously across the schools. These challenges of being the first generation to live through desegregated schooling led to personal hardships and sacrifices.
Furthermore, graduates from these and other racially diverse schools were quick to point out that in most instances, there were some social divisions by race, with cliques and close friendships at least loosely shaped by racial differences. However, it is also true that at all the schools attended by the graduates we interviewed, cross-racial friendships were not uncommon and that diverse cliques did form on a regular basisespecially those related to certain activities, such as athletic teams or clubs.
As one African American woman who graduated from Franklin High School in Seattle explained it, I think most of my real close friends were Black, but I mean, I think people had no problems getting together during lunch time or doing projects together because they would try to get you into different groups, and I dont remember it ever being a big problem.
In fact, for the most part, 20 years after they graduated from high school, these adults see the barriers and challenges as lessons learned and remain more focused on the long-term benefits of attending diverse schoolsbenefits they say they did not fully realize until they graduated from high school and entered the workforce.
LOUISVILLE AND SEATTLE GRAUDATES AND THE DIVERSITY RATIONALE: DESEGREGATED PUBLIC SCHOOLS PREPARED THEM FOR A GLOBAL ECONOMY AND SOCIETY
Preparation for working in a diverse settingthe diversity rationalewas, for these graduates, by far the most obvious and pragmatic outcome of their experiences in diverse public schools. We learned that as adults, the graduates work environments tend to be the most diverse settings in which they find themselves on a regular basis. Thus, the vast majority of graduates we interviewed in Louisville and Seattle said that at work in particular, they draw on the skills they learned in their desegregated public schools, skills of getting along and feeling comfortable with people of divergent backgrounds and cultures.
According to another African American male graduate of Fern Creek High School in Louisville,
Being with people, once you do get out into the real world, you know, the work world, being able to like to know that you grew up with different cultures and know how people interact and how they think and feel and so forth, versus . . . say if I were White and worked around all White people, and then went to an environment that was predominantly Black, it would beI would feel uncomfortable and wouldnt know how to interact with them and . . . comfortable on my job and so forth.
Another way that graduates understand the relationship between their school experiences and their ability to navigate diverse and complex work environments is to talk about how their intergroup contacts as young people changed their worldviewtheir outlook on how to interact with members of different races, and the parts of the city, country, or globe where other racial groups live. White graduates, for instance, talked about being comfortable in jobs that take them to places where few White people frequent.
As a White woman who graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle and now works as a social worker in that city explained,
I definitely think that being at Garfield, in a very racially diverse school, impacted my whole sort of worldview, and its something I look back at all the time, and I feel like it, um, gave me lots of benefits that people I know who were in, um um, racially less diverse schools dont have.
Her distinct worldview, this graduate explained, had a strong impact on the choices she has made since. For instance, she said that her high school experience influenced her decision to become a social worker and has made her more effective in her profession. She explained,
I think it impacted what I chose and I also think that because as a social worker, Ive worked with a lot of African American families, I felt like that was an easier adjustment to me than a lot of my colleagues. It felt comfortable and I sort of understood the culture in a different way than people who just maybe had read about working with African Americans.
At a more global level, this worldview of graduates who attended racially diverse schools allows those who work for international corporations to cross multiple cultural boundaries. The world, these graduates tell us, is getting smaller, and their jobs involve traveling that world and interacting with people of racial and ethnic backgrounds uncommon in the United States. The lessons learned crossing domestic U.S. racial and ethnic boundaries, even in schools that enrolled only Black and White students, serve these graduates well when they are called upon to cross other cultural divides.
A White male graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle explained his job for a global corporation as one in which he managed workers in 60 different countries. He said he would travel to these different countries, where he would have to supervise and train workers from a wide range of backgrounds. He said that it was hugely important for him to be able to understand and relate to cultural difference beyond the different ethnicities living in America.
And yet, he noted that attending Franklin High School, with its mix of Asians, Blacks, and Whites, still provided a step down that path of being comfortable with people of a variety of races.
OVERCOMING STRUCTURAL INEQUALITY: WITHOUT DIVERSE PUBLIC SCHOOLS, MOST GRADUATES WOULD HAVE GROWN UP IN RACIAL ISOLATION
In a society in which housing patterns, places of worship, and social circles are often segregated by race, diverse public schools have been, for many students, the only institutions in which cross-racial interaction and understanding can occur. They have also too often been historically the only institutions in our society in which students of color can gain access to predominantly White and prestigious institutionsin K12 schooling or higher education.
We know from social science research on segregation that U.S. housing patterns are, and have been for several decades, highly divided along racial lines, with African American residents the most segregated population (see Cutler, Glaeser, & Vigdor, 1999; Farley & Squires, 2005). These segregated patterns peaked nationally in the 1970s, as the class of 1986 entered the public school system. Since then, segregation in housing has decreased only slightlyfar less than would be predicted given the growth of the Black middle class over the last 40 years (Sethi & Somanathan, 2004). Furthermore, churches and other places of worship and social circles have also remained highly segregated over much the 20th century (Correspondents of the New York Times, 2001).
It is not surprising, therefore, that we learned from our research in Louisville and Seattle, as well as the six other cities examined in the earlier study, that the public schools were the onlyor almost the onlyinstitutions in which these former students had any meaningful interactions with people of other races. The public schools were often the only institutions trying to address the structural inequality along racial lines in the society.
A White graduate of Louisvilles historically Black high school, Central High, explained that if the Jefferson County Public Schools had not created racially diverse schools, she would have grown up in a virtually all-White environment, and she would have always thought of downtown Louisville as a crime-ridden place where White people did not go. Had she not attended her urban high school, she said, she
would have been much more apprehensive about people . . . not just African Americans, but of any other race. I certainly would have been much more sheltered because, you know, living in this area, everything that you need is right here, so there would never be any reason for me to have a lot of interaction with anyone who wasnt middle class and White.
On the other side of town, this White Central High graduates classmate, an African American woman, described the neighborhood where she grew up as almost exclusively Black. I think there was only one White [pause], there was one, an older White lady there. We talked to her, but there was only one. Of her interactions with people of other races, she said, mostly it was at school.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a White graduate of Seattles Ingraham High School explained that he would not have had any exposure to people of other races growing up if it had not been for the desegregation of the schools at the time. He reflected on the degree to which he learned to dismiss racial stereotypes in his high schools and noted, I would have had no other way of knowing. I wouldnt have had any, any uh, interaction. I mean, the whole north end of the city, even now, is still probably way more White than it is anything else.
An Asian American classmate of this Ingraham graduate said that if she had not been in a racially diverse public school,
I cant say I would have had a lot of Black friends because . . . I lived in a very White community and I had Asian American friends that lived in the south end, so I really probably would not have known that many Black people. And ironically, my closest friends at my own high school, Id say, were three quarters Black and one quarter White.
As an African American graduate of Garfield High School explained,
Overall, on a scale of one to a hundred, I would say attending an interracial school, a mixed school, 80% of it is . . . what helped me. Yeah. Because if I didnt have it coming up, I wouldnt have known how to handle it . . . getting along with people, understanding them and their culture, their ways, their style of dress, who they are, you know, whatever, whatever it was, it was definitely from my growing up, my schooling in Seattle.
These quotes represent a sample of what graduates shared with us in interview after interview, namely how their schools contrasted with other realms of their lives that were far more segregated. Recent research on these other realms of students lives todayfor example, housing and social institutionssuggests that the same is true for U.S. children growing up in the 21st century. Given the lack of public policies in place to address ongoing segregation in housing in the United States, efforts to allow children to cross racial boundariesstructural borders that grew out of a history of racial inequalityto go to school together have been, and continue to be, the closest we have come as a society to trying to break down these barriers.
Louisville and Seattle graduates also noted that it was important to have these experiences in diverse schools when they were young school-age children
It was not only the experiences in diverse public schools that changed these graduates, they will tell you, but it was also the timing of these experiences in their lives. Many of the graduates we interviewed were adamant that it was important for them to have the interracial exposure at a young, impressionable age. They needed to grow up in such a school environment; they needed for diversity to become their norm in order to enjoy the full benefit of the diversity rationale of desegregated schools.
As an African American female graduate from Seattle explained, her experience at Ingraham High School, because those were my formative years, was exceptional . . . it helped me to learn and deal with diversity and do it second nature, not as if I had to make a conscious effort or a focus. She added, I think to have a racially balanced makeup and life in your formative years is key to success in society as a whole.
Similarly, a White graduate of Louisville Male High School said that he was well prepared to work with his computer companys diverse clientele because of his exposure to African Americans at an early age. He noted, Its easier for kids to experience the diversity and accept it than it is to throw them in after theyre 20, 25 years old and say, Here you are! Now everybodys different, now deal with it.
In terms of public policy, one of the African American Franklin High School graduates quoted above stated firmly that she believes
it would help with racial relations if you start with kids when theyre young. So I think exposing kids when theyre young before they have the preconceived notions that we all develop as we get older, I think it would be a great thing and definitely something that I would advocate.
Louisville and Seattle graduates compare themselves with their parents or peers who did not have similar integrated experiences as evidence that their public school experiences shaped their worldviews
Some social scientists argue that much of the research on the long-term effects of school desegregation on adults racial attitudes is biased because of self-selection, meaning that only graduates who did not flee diverse schools are studied. In addition to the quantitative analyses cited above, which prove otherwise, and the less than voluntary nature of the desegregation plans that many of these graduates participated in, we add here a third form of rebuttal. The graduates we interviewed from Louisville and Seattle frequently compared themselves with other people in their lives who did not experience racial integration. These graduates, along with many others from Wells et al.s (in press) study, were quick to realize profound differences between their racial attitudes and those of their more segregated family members and peers.
Many of the graduates contrasted themselves with their parents who had led, in most instances, far more segregated lives. For instance, a White graduate of Ingraham High School in Seattle compared herself with her parents generation and to her own parents more specifically. She noted that although they are not racist in any way, they lacked the life experiences that she had attending racially diverse public schools. As a result, she said, they were far less comfortable than she in settings with many people of color. She said that her education
definitely expanded my sense of um, what my world is, and its still that way. Like I can travel up and down the Pacific Northwest into the Puget Sound Corridor and feel comfortable just about anywhere. Whereas, you know, if I ask my Mom to drive south of the major freeway, she freaks out.
This same White Ingraham graduate married a White man who grew up in a primarily White school district outside the city. She said he wasnt exposed to people of other colors until he joined the Navy:
And then he said he really put his foot in his mouth several times and [laughs] got in trouble a couple of times, unintentionally, trying to fit in with people of other colors, and not doing it skillfully because he had no, um, he had no roadmap for how to talk or how to act or what to say or what he shouldnt say or, he just washe said he just was not experienced at all.
A White Louisville Male graduate also married someone who had little experience in racially diverse settings. He explained that his wife had attended all-White private schools growing up as he was matriculating through desegregated public schools in Louisville. He recalled,
You know, when we first got married, she was scared to go downtown, and she still is, okay? She, you know, itsand its not that shes, its not that shes prejudiced against Black people, but theyre just different, and she doesnt, she doesnt know how to handle it . . . and I go down there today . . . I walk down any street downtown, and I feel fine because I know that theyre just different people, and I know how everybody is.
Even more casual acquaintances who are uncomfortable around people of other races lead graduates of racially diverse schools to recognize their own exceptional worldviews. For instance, an African American graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle commented that attending a diverse public school allowed her to have an open mind: Whereas I know some people who are African American, they just dont feel comfortable if they were going into a situation where there were all Asians.
As one White graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle explained,
I dont know if I would be the same person if I did not have those experiences . . . that I had back then, I think Id be a completely different person. . . . And thats just my own kind of analysis . . . Ive just noticed that people who havent been exposed to that, theyre not as comfortable. . . . Thats just the thing I find now later on in life that has helped me deal with people of different backgrounds . . . its almost second nature just cause I grew up with it.
Clearly, this finding speaks to the diversity rationale theme that has so informed the Supreme Courts thinking about affirmative action in higher education. But it also speaks clearly to the ways in which life experiences tend to perpetuate themselves across the life course to either reinforce structural inequality and segregation along racial lines, or to begin to break it down. Graduates of desegregated schools in this and other studies believe that they are more likely to be racial border crossers than are other adults they know who grew up in more segregated circumstances. Their comfort levels within racially diverse spaces make them more likely to challenge the separate and unequal structures that perpetuate racial inequality. This analysis also relates to these graduates understanding of what is good for their own children and the boundaries they are willing to cross to accomplish their goals. In other words, the voices of these graduates help us see what the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to acknowledge: how intertwined the structures of inequality and the attitudes about diversity continue to be.
The Louisville and Seattle graduates, echoing national opinion polls, say they want their children to attend racially diverse schools and they want some degree of school choice
The graduates of racially mixed schools know firsthand what the short- and long-term benefits of such diversity are, and they tend to have very strong opinions, couched in their own experiences, about the importance of school diversity for their children. Thus, their opinions about what they want for their own children tend to be even more strongly in favor of school-level diversity than those of the public as a whole. Indeed, the vast majority of todays parents, no matter what their race or ethnicity, say that it is either very important or somewhat important for their children to attend racially diverse public schools (see Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, 2005). In one survey, the results showed that the vast majority of parents66% of White parents and 80% of Black parentssaid this (Public Agenda, 1998).
The graduates we interviewed reflected such sentiment, only more vociferously. For instance, the White Louisville Male graduate discussed above whose wife attended a mostly White school said that he would be uncomfortable if their children were in such an all-White school:
I want them to realize that there, you know, are different people . . . I want them to realize that everybody doesnt think alike, and everybody doesnt do things the exact same way . . . I dont want them to grow up to think that, well, see, you know, if you dont think like me, then youre not worth talking to, that kind of thing.
Echoing this sentiment and the views of many of the graduates we interviewed, an African American woman who attended Fern Creek High School in Louisville explained why she wanted her son to attend a racially diverse school:
Theres a mixture, and thats what they need. If you dont have that in a school, then that person is setting theirself up for the fall, cause theyre not learning nothing, theyre not learning to cope or deal with people in the long run. You kind of . . . you see where Im going?
Such a perspective often leads these graduates to critique other parents who place their children in more homogeneous school settings. As one black Ingraham High School graduate from Seattle explained,
I would like my child to have a real view of what the world isthe world is not really made of one race. And you know, I have friends whose kids do go to predominantly Black schools and they just dont, to me they act different, and, I shouldnt say act different, but theyre not really used to be being around other people of other races or other cultures, and theyre not being exposed to a whole lot. I think it makes for a more well-rounded child when they are exposed to different cultures.
And yet, these graduates are not naïve about the interaction between the ongoing structural inequality in our society and their longing for their children to learn to get along in a diverse society. They see the barriers they face in finding racially diverse schools in an era of fewer school desegregation polices and unceasing neighborhood segregation. In fact, one Garfield High School graduate, the White woman who is a social worker now, said that diversity is so central to what she wants for her own daughter that she and her husband moved from a predominantly White neighborhood to a more racially diverse neighborhood so that she could grow up in that environment. Thus, this couple was forced to address the structural inequalities in order to gain the benefits of diverse public schools for their child.
Furthermore, the White Franklin High School graduate quoted above who once oversaw workers in 60 different factories argued from his global corporate perspective that it is fundamentally important for his son to attend a diverse school:
I think its very valuable and its important, because the countrys not getting any less diverse too. So to wall yourself off in a high-end private community and private schools, so you dont see folks like there. If you want your child to be a leader in the world some day, they have to have those experiences.
In addition to this strong support for diversity for their own children, the graduates also agree that mandatory reassignment of students was far too problematic and that they wanted some degree of choice in terms of which racially diverse schools their children attend. Here, in the midst of these preferences, is where the ongoing structural inequality in our society makes things far more complicated. As a White Ingraham High School graduate explained, in the United States, everybody wants a choice for something.
A White classmate, also from Ingraham High Schools class of 1986, noted that in recent years, the debates have sometimes gotten quite heated on the north side of Seattle about which students will get to go to one of the neighborhood high schools. This graduate has a niece who went to high school at that time, and the graduate said that she was torn about what she wanted most for her niece. She admitted that she wanted her niece to go to school close to where she lived and that she would hate for that school to become an all-White north end school. In the end, she said, Im glad that she had a similar experience in high school where there was a wide range of diversity. So I guess thats a very long answer to say that, um, I hope they keep some kind of either choice or, you know, some type of desegregation program.
Thus, for the most part, this graduate and the others we interviewed do believe that the government has a role to play in creating policies that can both offer parents and students choices and assure that schools are racially diverse even as the neighborhoods are not. As one White Garfield graduate, echoing the sentiments of many of his classmates in Seattle and across the country, explained,
I think that if the government can do anything, thats the one thing they have to do, is create always a diverse society and have people of different backgrounds learn together, because obviously we dont get along with certain religions and obviously we dont get along with certain colors because were not diverse, we dont really understand things about other people, and its just kind of tragic actually. . . . I think growing up in Seattle, going through the educational system, that idea of being exposed to all these different groups, its just been the best lesson Ive ever learned in my life
This article is both about the role of school desegregationpast and presentin the United States and about the possible future of our increasingly diverse society under a legal precedent that mandates colorblind public policies and thus the end to many effective measures to achieve integration. The focus of the Wells et al. Amicus brief (Brief for Amy Stuart Wells et al., 2006) to the U.S. Supreme Court, which included the research from our Louisville and Seattle data collection described above, was designed to help convince the Supreme Court of the local schools districts compelling state interest in creating racially diverse public schools via voluntary, choice-oriented policies. Whether we examine quantitative studies of African American mobility from the 1970s or 1980s, or in-depth interviews with high schools graduates conducted in 2006, the social science evidence overwhelmingly supports the diversity rationale and thus the need for narrowly tailored race-conscious policies for public schools in the 21st century.
Beyond the diversity rationale, however, there is a historical legacy of racial inequality in our society that is still visible today in everything from census data and gated communities to school district demographics and the achievement gap. Although the U.S. Supreme Court strongly curtailed efforts to address this legacy directly a long time ago, there are many voluntary and unassuming ways in which school desegregation and affirmative action policies within educational institutions had been, since the 1970s, quietly chipping away at those structures. Although we are not naïve enough to suggest that educational policies will ever be enough to dismantle the larger inequality in our society, it is highly problematic that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to curtail this one countervailing forcevoluntary school desegregation. Although hundreds of local school district officials will continue to try and stem racial segregation in their public schools, their hands have now been tied considerably tighter than they were before this decision.
We argue, based on our research and that of many others, that in an era when technology and free trade are breaking down physical and economic barriers across cultures and traditions, to not prepare our children to embrace and accept differences to the extent possiblethe diversity rationaleis shortsighted and irresponsible. But even more important, we need to question how we can maintain a healthy democracy in a society so strongly divided by race, social class, and ideology now that the Supreme Courts decision has made it increasingly difficult to challenge such structural inequality, in spite of a compelling rationale for greater school-level diversity.
According to an African American graduate of Ingraham High School in Seattle, who was answering a question about the importance of racially diversity in public schools:
For me, I think that um, that is something that really needs to be [sighs] promoted, um, across the board in every city, in every state, as much as possible, so there wont be, you know, the individuals that are not necessarily accepting or understanding of the differences between . . . people.
1. In fact, Lindsay (2006) and others admitted that in the Grutter majority opinion, Justice OConnor did reintroduce the concept of racial inequality, not as an argument per se for the constitutionality of racial preferences, but rather as a valuable and relevant experiential aspect of our nations diversity (p. 138). In other words, Justice OConnor alluded to the disparate relationships that students of different racial backgrounds have with historical racial discrimination in this country. According to the ruling, however, such different experiences only add to the degree of diversity that they will encounter on a racially diverse college campus (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).
2. This work was funded by the Ford Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.
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