A Closer Look at Desegregation Efforts to Integrate Public Schools Need Another Push

By Gary Orfield. Gary Orfield is a professor Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1994 | Go to article overview

A Closer Look at Desegregation Efforts to Integrate Public Schools Need Another Push


Gary Orfield. Gary Orfield is a professor Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation., The Christian Science Monitor


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 improvement.

* 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 not.

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. …

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