Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Reaction to Lafayette Parish School Desegregation Order: From Delight to Disenchantment

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Reaction to Lafayette Parish School Desegregation Order: From Delight to Disenchantment

Article excerpt

In May 2000, the Lafayette Parish School Board, in southwest Louisiana, was found in violation of a 1967 federal court order to desegregate, was ordered to close two predominantly African American elementary schools, and bus those children to five predominately White schools on the other side of this city of 100,000. Additionally, the judge ordered the transfer of 12 principals based on race and the construction of a new magnet school. The present study examines questionnaire responses from middle to upper middle-class African Americans at three different times: (a) just after the court decision, (b) 1-2 months after the decision was implemented, and (c) 5 months after the court order. This study also explores the gradual shift in the responses from Lafayette's African American community.

The United States embarked on a massive social and educational experiment in the latter half of the 20th century when it began the process of racially desegregating its public school systems. Before 1954, virtually all Southern schools-including the district under study, Lafayette Parish, Louisiana-were racially segregated by law. Following the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), school desegregation underwent several "phases," which we briefly outline in the following section.

Black and White reaction to school desegregation varied considerably across the United States, depending upon the timing, demographics, circumstances, location of the integrating system, and actual details of the desegregation plan. In the early days, White reaction ranged from reticent to outright violent. Black reaction was initially more hopeful, but it too has not been monolithic, and has changed over time. This paper focuses on how a sampling of Black middle and upper middle-class residents reacted to a recent federal court order in May 2000 to more coercively desegregate schools in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, 33 years after the first desegregation court order. We surveyed three groups of African Americans. One group was questioned almost immediately after the judge declared that the system needed to more fully desegregate. A second group was surveyed three months later, after the court order was implemented in the public school system. A third group was surveyed approximately five months later to determine their agreement with each of the five desegregation measures which the court had ordered to be implemented. We found that African American reaction grew decidedly more negative after these largely coercive measures were implemented.

Black and White Reaction to School Desegregation

The majority of the most violent reaction from the White community to school desegregation occurred in the first decades of this great national experience, and spread from southern school districts like Little Rock to northern school districts such as Boston. In the Louisiana school district of New Orleans, which was the first in the state to desegregate, White reaction in 1960 ranged from hurling eggs at Black students to a near total boycott by the White community of the public school system (Liver, 1996). In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, initial reaction from the White community in the mid-1960s was much more subdued, with virtually none of the resistance demonstrated in New Orleans (Courville, 1978).

Black reaction to school desegregation has typically been more hopeful. Efforts to racially desegregate schools often have been viewed as a long overdue effort to undo and reverse decades-indeed centuries-of racial discrimination against African Americans. Blacks often saw desegregation as opening opportunities to send their children to better funded schools and to educational milieus where their children could integrate with mainstream middle-class White students. Indeed, social science in the 1960s justified the integration of poor Blacks with middle-class Whites on the thesis that desegregation would raise the academic performance of African American students (Coleman et al. …

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