Will We Ever Get Past Race and Class?

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 EdNext website.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College