Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Continuing Significance of Desegregation: School Racial Composition and African American Inclusion in American Society

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Continuing Significance of Desegregation: School Racial Composition and African American Inclusion in American Society

Article excerpt

The observance of the 40th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision provides an occasion for examining the impact of school desegregation on individuals and the broader society during the four decades that have passed since the Supreme Court's ruling declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Much of the attention in the early post-Brown period, following the initial massive-resistance response, was centered around the question of whether school desegregation would have positive or negative effects on academic achievement, self-esteem, and interracial attitudes of Blacks and Whites. More recent attention has turned to an examination of desegregated schooling's impact on long-term outcomes, including its effects on career attainment and adult social roles. This focus has been especially important for African Americans and other excluded minorities in gauging the extent to which school desegregation has promoted the broader principle of minority inclusion.

Research on the long-term benefits of desegregated schooling such as success in college and the job market has recently entered legal and public policy debates over current desegregation issues (Coughlin, 1991). However, much of what is known has not been widely disseminated to the public or in scholarly circles (Braddock, 1985; Braddock & Dawkins, 1984; Braddock & McPartland, 1988). Consequently, this article summarizes research evidence on the long-term effects of school desegregation on educational and career advancement and adult social roles of African Americans.


Gordon (1964) delineates seven dimensions of assimilation to identify the mechanisms by which ethnic and racial minority groups are incorporated into society's mainstream. Additionally, he makes an important distinction between cultural and structural assimilation. According to Gordon, cultural assimilation is the process whereby ethnic and racial minority groups absorb the cultural and behavioral patterns of the dominant group. Structural assimilation is the process involving the entry of minority groups into the institutional activities of the larger society at both primary (e.g., religious worship, intermarriage, and recreational activity) and secondary (e.g., employment, politics, and education) levels. Gordon notes that cultural and structural assimilation are separate stages and may occur at different rates. Therefore, while the rate of cultural assimilation has been substantial for many minority groups, the pace of structural assimilation--especially entry into the critical institutions of education, politics, and employment--has been much slower for some groups (e.g., African Americans).

Despite its utility, Gordon's assimilation conceptualization is limited in its ability to describe the continued exclusion of African Americans from the mainstream of American society. First of all, it assumes that conformity to the cultural norms of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) has been the major goal in African Americans' desire for inclusion. Secondly, it assumes that structural assimilation will occur in due course for all minority groups as an outcome of the completion of this stage in the assimilation process. This ignores the possibility that exclusionary barriers such as institutional racism can exist within a society perceived to have achieved full assimilation, despite continued efforts to permanently exclude certain groups from full participation in the institutional activities of that society. Thus, from the assimilation perspective, American society can be characterized as one in which African Americans have adapted to the core WASP culture and made substantial progress toward entry into major areas of institutional life in the broader society.

An alternative conceptualization is to view minority groups' desire for inclusion as not necessarily an expression of a desire to embrace the dominant culture's norms and values and thereby reject their own, but rather as a means of realizing the principles of equal opportunity and access. …

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