Former students say integration enriched their lives
Apr. 14, 2004
Students who attended racially integrated public high schools in the 1970s would do it again, says a study looking at racial attitudes a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation.
The study, based on interviews with 242 members of the Class of 1980 from six racially diverse high schools across the country, suggests there is "a silent majority" of Americans now in their 40s who say the experience made them more tolerant and comfortable with people of other races and ethnicities, says lead author Amy Stuart Wells, who studies the sociology of education at Columbia University's Teachers College. In many cases, their experiences in high school were the only chance they got to interact regularly with peers of different races.
Wells will discuss her team's findings Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego.
May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka." The 1954 decision outlawed separate public schools for black and white students.
The report, issued by Teachers College and the University of California-Los Angeles, found that many students in the Class of 1980, now in their early 40s, lead racially segregated lives.
Most of the participants (75 percent of whites and 60 percent of nonwhites) told researchers they live in segregated neighborhoods; nearly all attend one-race houses of worship and are the same race as their closest friends.
Virtually all say they want their own children to attend diverse schools but have difficulty finding them.
Other research has shown that in many communities, school districts today are becoming more segregated, even as minority children account for a larger proportion of students.
"Overall in this country, we're becoming a much more diverse society ... and yet our schools are more segregated than they were 20 or 30 years ago," says Wells.
In 1954, the high court ruled unanimously that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional; a year later, it demanded districts desegregate "with all deliberate speed." But it took many a decade or more to get started.
For the study, researchers interviewed 550 subjects from six racially mixed public high schools in Topeka; Austin; Englewood, N.J.; Pasadena, Calif.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Charlotte. The sample included 245 graduates (131 whites, 81 blacks and 21 Hispanic students) and 315 educators, officials and activists. Transcripts of the interviews were coded by central themes; major findings were determined based on issues that interviewees emphasized most.
Among the hundreds of white students assigned to West Charlotte High School in the mid-1970s was Hannah Monroe, who now says the experience made her more comfortable around people of all walks of life. "My husband and my children laugh at me because I talk to anybody, anywhere," she told researchers.
She now sends her three school-aged children to private schools, primarily for logistical reasons, but says she may move them to public schools as they get older.
Monroe recalled that West Charlotte's musical one year was "Godspell," while her old neighborhood school put on "The Sound of Music." "In a lot of ways it was a more sophisticated environment we were in, and it was more fun."
Life wasn't perfect, however. In several schools studied, minority students said they took fewer of the most challenging courses. And race was avoided as a conversation topic. One black student from Austin High School recalled that teachers didn't allow discussions of race in their classrooms because everyone was "still walking on eggshells" - teachers simply wanted everyone to "just get along."
Since the early 1990s, school districts have largely dismantled desegregation plans, with state and federal judges ruling that schools had succeeded in integrating schools. Today, Charlotte public schools are more segregated than in 1980.
"There's something wrong here. If we valued the idea of students going to school together to prepare them for living in a diverse society then, we should value it even more now," says Wells.
Schools, the report authors say, should be allowed to broaden their definitions of quality and accountability to include not just standardized test scores but also factors such as racial diversity.
They also say policies on school choice should encourage racially diverse schools, and that both federal and state governments should expand funding for school districts that are pursuing integration plans through magnet schools and transfer policies.
The full study is posted online at www.tc.edu/newsbureau.