Racial integration has fallen off the table of “education reform” offerings. Yet racial integration is a moral imperative, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. And it is even more of an imperative than when he said it since our society is now so much more diverse than it was in the 1960’s. It’s a paradox. We are more and more diverse overall, yet our neighborhoods and our schools are less and less diverse, and increasingly segregated by wealth and race.
Why is school integration a moral imperative? First, only if people of different races and ethnicities interact with each other as young people can they learn the habits of respectful interaction with those who are different. Only then will they gain empathy from learning about the distinctive experiences of people who are different from them. Only then will they learn to see people who differ from them racially and ethnically as equals and fellow citizens. Only then will they be able to participate knowledgeably in democratic deliberation that seeks a common good. Only if young people routinely encounter and learn from those who are different will they be able to build a harmonious society out of their differences.
Racial integration is also a moral imperative because it is the only road to social justice, especially in education. Separate can never be equal. Only if students of different groups attend the same schools can they consistently receive equal educations. And the classes in those schools must also be integrated. Re-segregation inside desegregated schools won’t do. The research is clear that one of the surest ways to diminish the racial achievement gap is through integration. There can be no equal opportunity in education until we have shrunk this gap, between white students on one side and blacks and Latinos on the other.
If racial integration is so vital, why isn’t it happening? It did happen for a while. From 1968 until 1980, there was a strong push to integrate schools, all over the country and especially in the South. This movement was driven partly be judicial mandate, but also by a widespread recognition, at the school district level, among the general populace, that racial integration was better education and was better for society too. And it shrunk the achievement gap too.
But by the late 1980’s, this progress started to be turned around. Why? For a few reasons. One is that over the past twenty years or so, courts have released school districts from mandates to integrate. The nadir of judicial retreat from integration was the 2007 “Parents Involved” case. There the Supreme Court went even further than previous decisions, and said that districts could not integrate if they achieved the integration by using students’ racial identity to assign them to schools (by making sure that schools did not become too segregated). Since race-sensitive assignment policy has been the main way districts have achieved integration, this decision presented a serious obstacle, although it built on previous court decisions that released our society as a whole from rectifying its legacy of racial injustice and segregation.
Another reason for the retreat from integration is that the field of “education reform” is crowded with all kinds of other initiatives which do not include integration, yet have no proven record of improving education for the most disadvantaged students of color—reforms such as paying teachers for improved test scores of their students, opening more charter schools, closing schools whose students score below some defined standard, weakening teacher protections and unions, and constant reliance on test scores to measure students’ educational progress. The evidence shows that school integration, along with funding preschool education and equalizing funding disparities are much more reliable ways to reducing achievement gaps.
The deeper problem here is the failure in most current reform to foreground the civic purposes of education mentioned above—training a new generation in the virtues of civic engagement and understanding for a diverse society. Education is not only to provide individual students with the tools of social mobility and economic viability. It is also to serve a social good, to realize ideals of social justice, mutual respect across differences, and democracy.
One ray of hope on the horizon is a set of guidelines that the federal Departments of Justice and of Education issued in December of last year. The guidelines instruct school districts in steps they can take to achieve integration in their schools, within the constraints imposed by the judiciary, especially in the Parents Involved decision. For example, a district can use residence in a black neighborhood as a basis for student assignment, even though it cannot use the student’s actual race. The guidelines interpret the Parents Involved decision as allowing for a good deal more integrative efforts than did the Bush administration’s guidelines. The Obama guidelines are a ringing assertion of the civic purposes of integrated education: “Racially diverse schools provide incalculable education and civic benefits by promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial and other stereotypes and eliminating bias and prejudice.”
Lawrence Blum is the Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the author of the forthcoming High School, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us about Morality, Diversity, and Community.