AMERICANS today often look at the racial structure of their
society with the same sense of inevitability that southerners
shared before the civil rights revolution. There is a very strong
tendency to assume that nothing can be done to change the basic
structures of racial inequality and that existing efforts have
failed. Decades of political leadership have exploited racial fears
and constantly criticized civil rights policies. Yet that sense of
changelessness is as wrong in America's case as it has been in
South Africa's. No one predicted that the Southern schools in the
United States would become the most integrated in the country a few
years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that
educated African-Americans would begin migrating back into the
South, but that has happened. We therefore should entertain the
possibility that the common wisdom - that American schools and
neighborhoods cannot be integrated - may be equally wrong and may
be blocking critical initiatives.
The deep pessimism about the future of school integration is
based on several widely accepted - and incorrect - notions:
* Americans no longer want integrated schools, and minority
families now prefer segregated neighborhood schools.
* There is no evidence of gains from integration.
* Whites have abandoned public education because of
desegregation and are fleeing to private schools.
* Much more money and effort has been put into integration than
into educational improvement.
* Communities must choose between desegregation and educational
* Whites would return to urban schools if the neighborhood
school system were restored.
* There would be high levels of parent involvement in schools if
neighborhood schools were restored.
These assumptions are widely accepted because, since the
mid-1960s conservatives usually have won the fierce political
battles over civil rights issues, particularly school
desegregation, affirmative action, and integrating subsidized
housing. Determined opponents of urban school desegregation have
won five presidential elections; Southern moderates who have said
very little on the issue have won two others. As a result, the
critics have defined the language used to discuss the issue; it is
about "busing," not "integration." Many arguments from
conservative critics are widely accepted as facts; but they are
The vast majority of Americans support integrated schools. The
division comes over means, particularly mandatory busing. Most
Americans say they oppose busing, especially when the issue is
detached from integration. But when asked in a 1992 national survey
whether they would support busing if if was the only way to
integrate schools, 48 percent of whites, 76 percent of
African-Americans, and 82 percent of Latinos said yes. In several
national Harris surveys conducted since 1980, large majorities of
white and minority parents whose children have been bused said that
the experience was good. In a new statewide survey of Indiana
college students, more than two-thirds of white and minority
students support busing; both groups believe that students
attending integrated schools had an advantage.
Certainly many people are disappointed over poorly designed or
implemented plans, and opinion always has been divided within
minority communities. But overall, the high level of support for
integrated education and the increased acceptance of busing have
not declined. At the same time, plans adopted in the last 15 years
have placed much less emphasis on mandatory reassignments and much
more emphasis on choices that students and parents of each racial
group often see as beneficial. …