Will We Ever Get Past Race and Class?

By 07/27/2010

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For the better part of a week, Washington has been consumed by the Shirley Sherrod pseudo-scandal, leading many pundits to ponder race relations in America circa 2010. A better indicator, however, might be the goings-on in Wake County, North Carolina, where civil rights advocates are angrily protesting the decision of a newly elected school board to end the education system’s long-running busing program.

This story has it all: civil disobedience, allegations of “carpet-bagging” Yankees, super-charged emotions, and the highest of stakes: our children. Unlike the Sherrod dispute, which is mostly a symbolic proxy war, this one is fundamental to our self-definition as a country. Do we believe in raising our children together, with kids of other races, cultures, and economic backgrounds, or not?

Yet, as an ABC reporter said to me last week, it also sounds like a throwback to the 1970s. Isn’t busing something that came and went? We tried it, and it didn’t work, right? Wake County was one of the last hold-outs; perhaps now we’re finally looking at the end of an era.

Perhaps. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? Should we be glad that we’re “moving on,” focusing instead on improving our schools regardless of their demographics? A new Education Next forum titled “Is Desegregation Dead?” sheds light on this question. Susan Eaton of Harvard Law squares off against Steven Rivkin of Amherst College. Though they differ in their interpretation of the “success” (or not) of desegregation, they agree on the fundamentals: Integration helps to raise minority student achievement, but it’s not nearly a strong enough intervention by itself to close achievement gaps. As Rivkin explains:

Research, includ­ing 2008 and 2009 studies by Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and me, and a 2000 study by Car­oline Hoxby that account for both observed and unobserved factors that could affect outcomes and contaminate the results, sug­gests that African Americans, particularly higher achievers, do benefit from attending schools with a higher proportion of white students. It is likely, though, that the ben­efit depends on how school integration was achieved. The relationship between achieve­ment and the demographic composition of the classroom is not well understood. What drives higher achievement? Is it peer influ­ences? Better teachers? Teacher behavior? Clearly, both the student population and the quality of instruction affect student out­comes, and policies should take both factors into consideration.

Conventional wisdom says that integration is impossible now that our neighborhoods are so racially and economically isolated. But there are pockets where that’s changing: in suburbs and exurbs experiencing an influx of minority families, especially immigrants; and cities experiencing rapid gentrification as white families return, and stay for the long-haul. Today’s generation has another shot at integrating our schools—a shot that the research indicates is worth taking.

NB: Marty West of Education Next interviews Steve Rivkin (“What Has Desegregation Accomplished?”) and Susan Eaton (“Desegregation: Down but Not Out”) in videos now posted on the Ed Next website.

Comment on this article
  • Kenneth says:

    “Will We Ever Get Past Race and Class?”

    If all the IQ tests since WWI mean anything, the answer is “no.”

  • Marktropolis says:

    Mike, I think you may be missing some fundamental connections between Sherrod and Wake County. In both cases y0u have individuals using race for their own purposes: With Sherrod, you’ve got a conservative activist (Breitbart) playing fast a loose with the facts to make someone who isn’t a racist look like one, all in the interests of trying to prove that the Tea Party isn’t racist but the NAACP is (gotta love that logic). With Wake County, you’ve got a conservative school board – some with ties to (at least sympathy with) the Tea Party – pretending that racism doesn’t exist and integration (as a tactic) is therefore irrelevant. In both cases, you’ve got individuals (white men) using race and racism to further their (arguably racist) agendas.

  • mark says:

    Proponents of the Wake County debacle miss an important point as well: the district’s busing scheme was poorly administered. Opponents of the plans aren’t all racists, many have legitimate complaints about the system, like having to change schools every year, being unable to attend schools within an hour of their homes.

    The knee-jerk reaction exhibited by proponents of the Wake County plan has done nothing the address these concerns. And by doing so, has made it less likely for the district to keep the system in place.

    For the record, I hope we keep the integration plan.

  • Marktropolis says:

    I’m not suggesting that Wake County’s plan was well implemented. And the issues in Wake County are clearly pretty complicated – and go back more than a few years. On the other hand, I don’t think I would call what the proponents are doing “knee-jerk” given that the current issue has been bubbling for more than a few months. It’s knee-jerk only in the sense that there are those in the community who feel that the board isn’t representing their wishes.

    The issue for me is that in both the Wake County situation, and Sherrod, you’ve got individuals trying to score political points at the expense of others. Not cool. And racially tinged (if not outright racist).

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Mike, I offer two stories from my tiny but mixed-race (30% African-American), upstate New York school district.

    1. I ask Billy, a black man, whether, if he had a choice, he would send his kids to a mostly-white school where test scores were lousy or to a mostly black school where test scores were great. And he answers: the white school. Moral: There is still a belief in education circles that it matters more WHO you know than WHAT you know. It is the challenge of our education system to rid it of such anti-intellectualism;

    2. My friend Stacy grew up in North Carolina when schools were segregated and remembers having rocks thrown at him every morning when he walked to his African-American school. He recalled, after Brown v. Board of Ed, “waking up and finding out I had to go to the same school with those mother-f—-rs.”

    There are many morals here, but one is that we need to offer Billy and Stacy as many educational options as we can give them. Over time, Billy would send his kids to the better school instead of the white school and Stacy might like the white school if the kids stopped throwing rocks at him.

    If busing were part of the choice matrix, then bring it on.


  • Howie Schaffer says:

    I’d love to see you post a blog acknowledging that structural inequality exists. I think people from all kinds of viewpoints need to be reminded that structural inequality exists. We can all disagree on the remedies. We can all disagree on whose fault it is and what we should do about it. What gets lost in media circuses and debate over segregation, is the reality and impact of the continued perpetuation of inequality and its impact on human potential, economic prosperity, and global peace.

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