Race and Education

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Race and Education


Race and education becomes a social issue when educational opportunities are differentially available to members of diverse racial groups within a society.

Educational discrimination has a variety of effects that often lead to interracial conflict. Because education is a major means of social mobility, discrimination in this domain forces less-favored racial groups to occupy lower-status jobs and receive less income. Such results form a vital component in a wider system of racial oppressionas in the former apartheid policies of South Africa and state-mandated segregation in the U.S. South. But educational segregation by race also operates to limit the life chances of discriminated racial groups in nations without such formal systems of oppression, such as Brazil. And in countries where social class and race are highly intercorrelated, as throughout Latin America, racial segregation in schools results directly from intense patterns of residential segregation by class.

Racially segregated schools are the hallmark of racial discrimination in education. Separate schools allow for vastly fewer resources to be provided for the oppressed race. Indeed, racially separate schools are so central to systems of racial oppression that they are tenaciously maintained in the face of efforts to end them. The protracted and only partially successful efforts to end segregated schools in the United States provide a striking illustration.

Public schools did not emerge in the U.S. South until late in the nineteenth century, and these early schools were for whites only. Black schools came later, after formal state laws for racial segregation had been sanctioned in 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Although the case involved segregated railroad seating, its decision establishing the formula of separate but equal was promptly applied by the white South to schools, which became extremely separate and unequal.

It was fifty-eight years before the High Court overturned Plessy. By 1950, in two graduate education cases, the meaning of equal went beyond mere parity in brick-and-mortar terms to include such intangibles as faculty reputation and general prestige. The decisions prepared the ground for Brown v. Board of Education four years later to hold separate facilities to be inherently unequal. But implementing this unpopular decision has proven difficult.

Critical to the acceptance of mandated social change that runs counter to dominant public opinion is the perception of inevitability. The responses of the white South to the varying firmness of the High Courts rulings illustrate the point. With an uncompromising, nine-to-zero decision in Brown, the Court in 1954 generated a strong sense of inevitability. But in 1955 the Supreme Court retreated in its implementation order to a vague all deliberate speed formula (Brown II ). This formula returned the enforcement of desegregation back to southern federal district courts without guidelines. Only when this weak order undermined the sense of inevitability did southern politicians become uniformly defiant and prosegregationist organizations gain momentum. Then the opposition believed Brown could be effectively opposed. Brown II is not solely responsible for the violent opposition that followed, but its vagueness contributed to the resistance by eroding the strong sense of inevitability that had prevailed.

Consequently, the regions school desegregation did not take hold until the federal courts lost patience between 1968 and 1973 (Orfield and Eaton 1996). This brief period saw court orders achieve sweeping gains especially in the recalcitrant South but also in the cities of the North and West. By the 1970s the South had more racial desegregation in its public schools than any other region. But this process ended abruptly in 1974 when the Supreme Court reversed direction. In Milliken v. Bradley the Court by five to four struck down a metropolitan solution ordered by a district court to remedy the intense racial segregation of Detroits public schools. What made this decision so regressive is that such remedies were the only means available to desegregate the public schools of many of the nations largest cities (Orfield and Eaton 1996; Pettigrew 1981). Moreover, segregation between city and suburban districts is now by far the major component today in metropolitan school segregation (Clotfelter 2004). Decisions of the High Court from 1974 into the twenty-first century continued this trend, and allowed racial segregation of the public schools to return not only in the South but also throughout much of the United States.

Thus, Brown was largely reversed without the High Court ever stating that it was overturning the famous decision. By 2000 black children were more likely to be attending majority-black schools than at any time since the 1960s; 70 percent went to predominantly black schools and 37 percent to schools with 90 percent or more black students. The greatest retrogression during the 1990s occurred in the South, the region that had previously witnessed the greatest gains (Orfield 2001). And Latino school children became more educationally segregated from white children than African American children (Orfield and Eaton 1996).

Supporting this retreat from desegregated schools, the sociologist James Coleman (19261995) claimed in a highly publicized speech that urban interracial schools were impossible to achieve because desegregation causes massive white flight. Desegregation led, he claimed, to whites fleeing to the suburbs and leaving minority concentrations in central city cores. This research had serious weaknesses, and its policy recommendations ignored metropolitan solutions (Pettigrew 1981).

The white flight thesis is far more complex than Coleman claimed (Pettigrew and Green 1976). Some whites did move from large cities when school desegregation began, but this movement was neither universal nor permanently damaging. Some cities without any school desegregation also experienced widespread white suburbanization. Other cities experienced little such movement at the time of desegregation. And where so-called white flight to the suburbs did occur, it constituted a hastening up process; within a few years the loss was what would have been expected without desegregation (Farley, Richards, and Wurdock 1980).

But does school desegregation improve the life chances of African Americans? From the 1970s to the 1990s, black high school completion rates rose sharply. Although less than half finished high school at midcentury, by 2000 the figure approached that of white Americans. During these same years, the mean difference between black and white achievement test scores steadily narrowed (Neisser 1998). White scores were improving, but blacks who entered school during the late 1960s showed especially strong gainswhen extensive school desegregation began. Mean racial differences in achievement tests were not eliminated, but they began to close. However, these positive trends stalled and were even reversed by the late 1990s once the federal courts allowed resegregation. Yet these trends are only suggestive, because other factors were also influentialnotably, rising black incomes and such effective national educational programs as Head Start.

More to the point, did school desegregation expand opportunities for African Americans in the long term? An array of sociological studies tracked the products of desegregated schools in later life to find answers (Pettigrew 2004). With social class controlled, black children from desegregated schools, when compared with black children from segregated schools, are later more likely:

  1. to attend and finish majority-white colleges;
  2. to work with white coworkers and have better jobs;
  3. to live in interracial neighborhoods;
  4. to have somewhat higher incomes;
  5. to have more white friends and contacts and more positive attitudes toward whites.

Similarly, white products of desegregation have more positive attitudes toward blacks than comparable whites from segregated schools. In short, desegregated education prepares black and white Americans for an interracial world.

These positive lifetime effects of desegregation are not limited to test score gainsmore important is the fact that desegregation enables African Americans to break through the monopoly that white Americans have traditionally had on informational flows and institutional access. Sociologists have identified several interrelated processes underlying this phenomenon (Pettigrew 2004). These processes mirror the harsh fact that life chances in America flow through white-dominated institutions.

Desegregation involves interracial contact. Intergroup contact is one of social psychologys best-established theories. A comprehensive meta-analysis found that 95 percent of 714 independent samples with 250,000 subjects show that intergroup contact reduces prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp 2006).

Desegregation teaches interracial interaction skills. Given the nations racist past, neither black nor white Americans are skilled in interracial interaction. The products of desegregated schools have the opportunity to learn these skills. Their anxiety about such interaction is reduced. This is highly useful for both blacks and whites, for it contributes to their willingness to enter biracial environments and their acceptance in these situations.

Desegregation erodes avoidance learning. After long facing discriminatory treatment, some black Americans learn to avoid whites. But this reaction has negative consequences. It closes off for ghetto dwellers the better opportunities that exist in the wider society. And, like all avoidance learning, it keeps one from knowing when the situation has changed. Desegregated schooling overcomes such avoidance.

Desegregated blacks gain access to formerly all-white social networks, such as those that share information about colleges and jobs. This process does not require personal friendships: Weak interpersonal ties are the most informative, because close friends are likely to possess the same information (Granovetter 1983). Interracial schools allow black students to gain access to these networks.

Thus, although it is not a popularly recognized fact, the racial desegregation of Americas public schools has led to positive outcomes. But the resegregation of the nations schools in the twenty-first century threatens to reverse these beneficial processes.

Although the racial scene in the United States has many unique features, social research in other nations suggests that similar intergroup processes operate in schools throughout the world. Additional research is needed, but the separation of groups in schools and other societal institutions, whether the groups are racial or not, appears to have comparably negative effects. Indeed, in some interracial nations such as Brazil, the deleterious effects of separate education may be even greater than in the United States. Educational differences between Brazilians of different skin colors explains much of the nations variation in racial occupational inequality and its racial gap in white-nonwhite mobility (Telles 2004).

In addition to thwarting beneficial intergroup contact, intergroup separation triggers a series of interlocking processes that make group conflict more likely. Negative stereotypes do not just persist but are magnified; distrust cumulates; and misperceptions and awkwardness typify the limited intergroup interaction that does take place. The powerful majority comes in time to believe that segregated housing, low-skilled jobs, and constrained educational opportunities are justified, even appropriate, for the minority. In short, racially segregated schools reproduce racial inequality. Intergroup schools have proven one of the needed antidotes for combating these negative processesfrom Northern Ireland to South Africa.

SEE ALSO Colorism; Cox, Oliver C.; Park, Robert E.; Park School, The; Race; Race Relations; Racism; Sociology


Clotfelter, Charles T. 2004. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Farley, Reynolds, Toni Richards, and Clarence Werdock. 1980. School Desegregation and White Flight: An Investigation of Competing Models and Their Discrepant Findings. Sociology of Education 53: 123139.

Granovetter, Mark S. 1983. The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory 1: 201233.

Neisser, Ulric, ed. 1998. The Rising Curve: Long-term Gains in I.Q. and Related Measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Orfield, Gary. 2001. Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Civil Rights Project.

Orfield, Gary, and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1981. The Case for Metropolitan Approaches to Public School Desegregation. In Race and Schooling in the City, ed. Adam Yarmolinsky, Lance Liebman, and Corinne S. Schelling, 163181. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 2004. Justice Deferred: A Half Century after Brown v. Board of Education. American Psychologist 59 (6): 521529.

Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Robert L. Green. 1976. School Desegregation in Large Cities: A Critique of the Coleman White Flight Thesis. Harvard Educational Review 46: 153.

Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda Tropp. 2006. A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90 (5): 751783.

Telles, Edward E. 2004. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thomas F. Pettigrew

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