Still Separate and Unequal: Examining Race, Opportunity, and School Achievement in "Integrated" Suburbs

Article excerpt

Recent research examines the Black/White achievement gap in integrated, affluent suburban schools. This gap is particularly vexing more than 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision emphasized creating educational equity through school desegregation. Drawing on a case study of one suburban school district, this article details the structural, institutional, and symbolic inequalities that characterize such settings and contribute to educational inequality. The case reveals that, even in ostensibly integrated suburbs, Black and White students navigate a racialized educational terrain that provides cumulative advantages for Whites and disadvantages for Blacks. Implications for the future of race and educational achievement are discussed.

More than 50 years after the Brown decision (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), African Americans have made substantial gains in educational attainment. In 1940, only 12% of African Americans had graduated from high school and 2% had graduated from college (Bowen & Bok, 1998). According to 2000 census data, 72% of the Black population over 25 years old has graduated from high school and 14.3% have graduated from college (Baunman & Graf, 2003). However, despite these achievements, racial disparities between Black and White students in educational test scores, outcomes, and attainment remain (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Lee, 2002). While racial achievement gaps on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP, the only nationally representative assessment of student achievement) closed substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, they have widened over the past decade and a half (Lee, 2002). In light of the Brown decision and its focus on creating equality of educational opportunity through school integration, racial gaps are particularly troubling in integrated suburban school districts (Ferguson, 2002; Ogbu, 2003). On the surface, these schools seem to be the fulfillment of Brown's goals-racial integration coupled with high achievement. However, underneath the surface, a persistent pattern of racial inequality remains.

While Black students in integrated, affluent suburbs often outperform Black students in urban schools and less affluent suburbs, wide gaps in grades, test scores, and course-taking practices exist between Black and White students in these contexts (Noguera & Wing, 2006; Ogbu, 2003). This has been raised as a vexing problem in recent research (Ogbu, 2003) and among practitioners in some of these districts. In fact, concern for this issue led to the founding of one national and several regional school district consortia focused on challenging racial achievement gaps.

Some scholars and practitioners wonder why racial gaps persist in communities in which Black and White students attend the same schools and come from families with similar social class characteristics. While some see affluent suburbs as bastions of racial integration and progress, racial separation and inequality are still prevalent in such locations. However, in the contemporary context, this separation is maintained through much more subtle processes of exclusion than in the past. In this article, the ways in which race, class, and educational opportunities intertwine to reinforce racial achievement gaps are examined. In particular, in the contemporary U.S., students navigate a racialized educational terrain in which structural, institutional, and symbolic advantages and disadvantages are distributed unequally based on race. The concept of the racialized educational terrain draws on Bonilla-Silva's (2001) racialized social system framework, which will be discussed in greater detail later in this article. The racialized educational terrain focuses on the ways that multiple disadvantages accumulate within the racialized terrain specific to education. African Americans are disadvantaged in these three ways: (a) structurally by having limited access to valued resources outside of schools, (b) institutionally by being positioned systematically in the least advantaged locations for learning inside schools, and (c) ideologically by having their intellectual capacity questioned and their cultural styles devalued both within schools and in the broader social discourse. …