Writing in The Atlantic, Sarah Garland says that American public schools are re-segregating, and few people seem to think it’s a problem, or at least a problem worth doing much to address. Excerpts:

Nevertheless, in most communities forced to try desegregation, the sacrifices weren’t worth the benefits. Parents of all races complained about the hassle of busing and the loss of neighborhood schools, but for black families the burdens were often heavier: Their children tended to spend more time commuting, their own schools were closed to make desegregation more convenient for whites (and prevent their flight to the suburbs or private schools), and their teachers were fired when white and black schools were merged.

In the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions made it much easier for school districts to get out from under court supervision. During that decade, school districts and groups of parents both went to court to fight desegregation orders. In a few cases, including in Louisville, the main parties fighting busing were black. “It’s not surprising,” said Michael Petrilli, author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that advocates for school choice. “These court orders are by and large unpopular with parents, both white and black.”


Since 1990, when schools began re-segregating in large numbers, black gains on NAEP have slowed.

The next question Reardon plans to look at is whether re-segregation led to a widening of the achievement gap. Whatever he finds, it’s unlikely that desegregation–at least in its forced-busing form–will ever experience a resurgence. A new generation of reformers has begun looking for ways to create voluntarily integrated schools in order to harness the benefits of racial and other kinds of diversity. “For the people who care about integration, we need a new set of strategies,” Petrilli said.

Perhaps just as importantly, the demise of desegregation offers lessons about what not to do in order to improve outcomes for minority children. In black communities, desegregation lost support when thousands of teachers and principals lost jobs, schools were closed, and people felt that they lost power over their schools. For the same reasons, some of the intended beneficiaries have not wholeheartedly embraced–and even protested–aspects of the current education reform movement.

As Fran Thomas, one black activist in Louisville, Kentucky, said of her decision to fight the district’s desegregation system: “I can see why everybody was excited when the law came down that we were integrated. They thought this was utopia, and that everything was going to be all right. We got a new school. We got a swimming pool and trees. Everybody was happy and ecstatic. But they didn’t know what the integration really meant–the harshness.” Thomas says she stopped believing in the promises of desegregation when she saw “the destroying of schools under the name of education.”

This reminds me of Stuart Buck’s book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy Of Desegregation (Yale, 2010), which is a truly remarkable document. I did a long e-mail interview with Stuart a few years ago, when the book came out. The striking thing to this reader about the book was that it took the point of view that segregation was evil and had to end, but that ending segregation in schooling took a tremendous toll on black Americans.

Here’s a lengthy excerpt:

Over and over in “Acting White,” you make it clear that you are not supporting segregation, or trying to minimize its moral horror. It’s clear to the reader that you fear being misinterpreted. Why?

People are very one-sided in how they approach political issues. For example, people who support universal health care will tend to argue that we’ll both cover 47 million more people and save money at the same time, while people who oppose universal health care will argue both that it costs too much money and that it will diminish the quality of care so much that it won’t benefit anyone.

Few political writers take a nuanced view of their subject: “This policy would deliver substantial and meaningful benefits, but the cost is even higher,” or “the costs of this policy will be brutal, but the benefits are great enough to be worth it.”

As a result, whenever readers come across someone who claims that a particular policy (say, desegregation) came at a substantial cost, many will immediately assume that the writer is an opponent of the policy. I therefore took pains to ensure that no reader could possibly make such an assumption. This was particularly necessary given that race can be a third rail of policy discussion . . . no matter what you say, someone will find a way to demonize you for it.

I would put it like this: Segregation was like a cancer. But a powerful anti-cancer drug may have side effects — such as crippling nausea. You have to try to address the side effects, not sweep them under the carpet simply on the ground that anything is worth it to fight cancer. At the same time, I didn’t want any reader to think that because I pointed out a side effect, I was somehow in favor of cancer.

Rest of interview is below the jump. You’ll really want to read it.

What first interested you, a Southern white man of the post-integration era, in the “acting white” phenomenon? And why should people care about it?

I first got interested in the “acting white” phenomenon when my wife and I adopted a black baby boy six years ago. In our readings on interracial adoption, many children adopted by white families were later accused of acting white or trying to be white.

Around the same time, our nation observed the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and I came across a retrospective article by the journalist Jonathan Tilove. Tilove wrote of a perspective that I hadn’t heard before:

But to many, Brown – handed down May 17, 1954 – was also a dirge for something precious and irreplaceable: a network of black schools almost sacred to those they served and wholly devoted in their belief in black ability and pursuit of black advancement.
“Brown was turned against us. We lost our schools,” says Elias Blake Jr., who graduated in 1947 from Risley High School in Brunswick, Ga., and credits it with transforming him from an indifferent student, sights set no higher than a job at the local hotel, into someone who became valedictorian of his college class and ultimately president of Clark College in Atlanta.

Absent from the standard telling of Brown, the superior education that many black schools provided is a source of fierce pride for alumni, and the subject of a growing body of scholarship. . . . It is a remarkable tale of how black communities, under the thumb and under the radar of oppression, created schools that imbued black children with a sense of confidence and possibility in the very midst of a system determined to limit them.

. . . . Brown’s most profound irony may be that answers to closing the achievement gap lie buried in the history of the schools that Brown’s implementation destroyed. Glittering amid the ruins, the answers are straighforward: Dedicated teachers. Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High expectations. Community and parental support. What is astonishing, Siddle Walker says, is how many black children attended schools during segregation that delivered on these objectives, and how few do so now.

I started to put two and two together . . . . could it be, I wondered, that undermining the black school contributed to the feeling in some quarters today that education is “acting white”?

How do we know that the “acting white” phenomenon only arose during the integration period?

As I freely admit in the book, we don’t have perfect evidence here. No one was doing nationally representative surveys on “acting white,” and there could be lots of “acting white” sentiments that were uttered but never recorded.

All of that said, I think there’s a strong case that “acting white” began with desegregation. First, as far as I could tell, black people who went to school before desegregation have testified unanimously (whether in autobiographies, newspaper articles, or personal interviews) that “acting white” was a completely foreign concept in their school days. After all, why would a child whose most-admired peers and mentors within the school were black think of any type of school behavior as “acting white”?

Second, there are many personal stories of “acting white” occurring along with desegregation, as black children were put into an environment perceived as controlled by whites. Among many examples in the book, author Kitty Oliver notes that “there was a time when black students wouldn’t dare tease a student, but rather would applaud them for their achievements.” But then, “desegregation created a clearer division of white and black. Once black and white students started attending school together, the association shifted and black students began to tease one another by pushing their smart peers into the ‘white’ category.”

What I found fascinating and poignant was how many students on the front lines of desegregation faced criticism back home in their black neighborhoods. Leo Hamilton, one of the first to desegregate a school in Baton Rouge, says: “We were at a school where people didn’t want us there. But, you had a problem in the neighborhood because you didn’t go to school with these [black] people anymore, and there was a group of people . . . who resented the fact that . . . you were at school with those white folk. ‘What, you want to be white? You can’t come to school with us?’ So, you had to deal with these idiots at school. Then, you have to come home to deal with all these other idiots who were against you because you weren’t in school with them, and you were all of a sudden trying to be white.”

Ron Kirk, who later became the first black mayor of Dallas, was one of the first to integrate a junior high school in Austin, Texas. As he puts it, “After a day of all of us struggling to make this whole desegregation thing work, we would walk home and run into neighborhood friends, and they would ridicule us and want to fight us because we were going to school with white kids. So in the course of a single day we might get beat up because we were black, then get beat up again because we weren’t black enough!”

It was remarkable to me, reading your book, to come across the testimonies of African-Americans who had gone to segregated schools, and who remembered with great love the institutional role their schools played in their communities — something that disappeared with integration. And some of the stories blacks quoted in your book tell about how emotionally searing it was to have those schools destroyed or otherwise taken away from them, were not only surprising, but also heartbreaking. Why have these stories been suppressed all these years — and what can we learn from hearing them today?

Let me give an example of what you’re talking about here. Second Ward school in Charlotte had been important to the black community there. A former student said, “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

That school was demolished during desegregation, as can be seen in this poignant picture:

Students were devastated by the closing of the school. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”

I’m not sure these stories have literally been suppressed as much as they’ve been ignored. I found plenty of such stories, but they tend to appear in relatively unnoticed local newspaper articles, interview transcripts from university “oral history” programs, and the like.

Why don’t we pay more collective attention to these stories? Probably because it upsets the traditional narrative wherein everything that happened under segregation was unremittingly evil while desegregation via Brown v. Board of Education was a national triumph. When we as a society have settled on a narrative with clear good guys and bad guys, we don’t like to be bothered by nuance and complexities.

It is an article of faith among many well-meaning liberals that black kids from impoverished backgrounds will do better in school when matched up with white kids from more privileged backgrounds. But your chapter on tracking cites research showing that the opposite occurred — that black kids tended to perform more poorly when mixed with whites. Explain why this is.

I’ll begin, as I do so often in the book, by admitting to the best evidence against my own argument: i.e., that there are good reasons to think that, because of the power of peer pressure, some ill-prepared children will do well when put in a classroom with better-prepared children.

At the same time, there are good reasons to think that simply mixing children of different abilities into the same school may not benefit the less-prepared children. I imagine myself placed in a classroom full of nuclear physicists analyzing the most complex topics in their field — would I magically rise to the occasion and start reciting equations that I cannot now even imagine, or would I start to doubt my very self-worth in the company of people who, at least in this particular subject, were so far ahead of me?

Even worse, what would happen if I were placed into the “slow” physics class that was obviously meant for beginners, while the real physics students were all down the hall? I would start to think that I didn’t really belong with the real physics students, that they were in a world separate and apart from me.

I would contend that this is exactly what happened during and after desegregation. It isn’t surprising that if you put most black students in a classroom that they all perceive as the “slower” classroom, and put many white students in a classroom perceived as “smarter” or “advanced” or “gifted,” then that will cause many of the black students to doubt their abilities and to perceive that academic achievement isn’t something that they are expected to achieve.
Moreover, what happens if you are sitting in a roomful of black students, and one of them leaves to go join the white class down the hall? People start to say, “Why is she leaving us behind? Does she think she’s white?” Just as with the elimination of black schools, the classification of white students as “smart” hammered home the message: “Academic pursuit is for whites, not for you.”
This isn’t just my own speculation. Out of many examples discussed in the book, a report on early desegregation in Louisiana noted, “Ability grouping ‘has knocked the ambition out of the children . . . When I try to tell some of my own children to work, they won’t, because they know they’re in the lowest sections and the school expects them to be bad.’ Black students themselves say they find being assigned to low sections so degrading that they would prefer outright segregation.”

The loss of social trust between black parents and students, and the integrated schools, brought to my mind the recent highly controversial research done by Robert Putnam, in which he found that the greater the ethnic and cultural diversity, the lower the social trust within a community. This goes against what many of us like to believe, but your review of research done on school integration would appear to validate Putnam’s insight. Right?

Putnam is to be congratulated for doing something that is extremely rare among social scientists: publishing work that he had hoped wasn’t true. [As an aside, readers should be wary of the fact that social scientists so often find that their own pre-existing beliefs just happen to be confirmed by the evidence.]
As to your point, it is a near-universal observation that black parents deeply trusted the black school. For example, at a black school described by Jerome Morris of the University of Georgia, one of the teachers was a godmother to certain students; other teachers lived in the black community and knew the “parents and grandparents on a personal basis,” thus making them “comfortable calling or visiting the families” if a student acted up at school.

This trust, however, began to break down once black children were in white-controlled schools. For example, if you’re a black parent, and you hear from a black principal that a black teacher has had problems with your son talking back, you have no reason to think that racism is involved. But if you hear from a white principal that a white teacher saw your son get in a fight, you may have more trouble trusting that the principal and teacher are being totally fair.

This opportunity for racial mistrust opened a gap between the school and much of the black community. As one teacher from Virginia put it, “The relationships between black teachers and parents and the support we used to enjoy aren’t like they used to be. And as a result children–black children– are suffering.” Or as a teacher in Chicago put it, “I can remember I made a stray mark on a test once. To the kids this meant racial prejudice. One stray mark on a piece of paper and three hundred years of discrimination comes up in your face. You’ll break your neck for those kids, but they’ll never really trust you. No matter what you do, to them you are still white.”

As ugly as the “acting white” slur is, you say it’s normal. Why? 

Human beings are usually tribal. We like to associate with people who are similar to ourselves. As Gordon Allport says in his classic work The Nature of Prejudice, “Everywhere on earth we find a condition of separateness among groups.” Thus, we have the proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together.” The entire history of the world shows that people of different races and nationalities are often hostile towards one another, even over cultural or ethnic differences that are completely imperceptible to outsiders.

Groups often enforce the boundaries between themselves and another group — especially one that appears threatening — by demanding that same-group members comply with the right social norms. If you belong to a group of hardcore punk rockers who think that mainstream music has sold out to corporate interests, and you start waxing eloquent about your love for American Idol or Britney Spears, you are in for some skepticism. If you attend a revival at a Pentecostal church wearing a perfectly modest swimsuit, people will not approve.
Why? Because by the way that you act, talk, and dress, you are signaling something to other people. By doing something that is contrary to the group’s typical behavior, you are signaling that you do not care about the group’s opinion, and ultimately that you do not care about belonging to the group. In fact, people usually resent the dissenting group member even more than a complete outsider. Heretics are more of a threat than non-believers.

For hundreds of years, blacks were forced into a position of subservience to white people — most dramatically in the case of slavery, but also in the years of legally-mandated segregation and Jim Crow laws. As a result, the black community in America has tended to be of two minds toward the white community. On the one hand, whites were viewed as the oppressors, as the slave-owners, as the privileged. On the other hand, whites were often envied for their superior wealth, clothes, education, station in society, and innumerable other advantages. This created a deep and historic antagonism towards those blacks who sought to advance their own privilege by associating with oppressive whites, such as “house slaves” or “Uncle Toms.”

The same antagonism was present at the time of desegregation, and lingers to some extent today. An integrated school can often appear to black students to be controlled by whites, or to be run in a way that benefits white students. Thus, the black student who tries to curry favor from the white authorities is seen as saying, “I’m better than you.”

Indeed, in one of the earliest scholarly accounts of “acting white,” one of the poorer black students was remarkably frank about how he viewed the more accomplished black students in his class: “There’re just a few of these Uncle Toms at school, these are the goody-goody guys. Maybe I say this, though, because they’re doing a little bit better than I am. And maybe I’m a little bit ashamed of myself because I’m not doing as good as they are in school, and I’m jealous. Maybe that’s why I think of them as Uncle Toms.”

The fear of trying to be “better” than your peers could cause an “acting white” effect even without express peer pressure. As Ronald Ferguson of Harvard points out, “students who have the skills to perform at high levels sometimes hold back [voluntarily] because their friends are struggling and they want to fit in. . . . Consider two friends walking on the street, urgently en route to an important destination. The slower walker is not in good physical condition. He does not appear to be able to keep up if the friend who is more fit were to accelerate. A decision by the faster friend to hold back in this situation–to keep walking slowly–would seem completely reasonable based on feelings of empathy and social attachment. Active peer pressure, stigmas, or stereotypes are not required for such voluntary inclinations toward accommodation to operate.”

As a result of white flight, many urban schools are now effectively 100 percent minority, usually some mix of black and Latino. Shouldn’t we expect minority students to do much better, then, in the absence of whites? But they are not. Why not?

Today’s inner-city black schools — such as in Washington, D.C. — often perform very poorly. But I am not arguing that any school that is predominantly black (or predominantly white, for that matter) will automatically be a good school. There are many other factors that affect whether or not a school achieves good results — the quality and experience level of the teachers, the quality of the principal, the curriculum, parental involvement, parental socioeconomic status, neighborhoods, and so forth. An impoverished and gang-ridden inner-city school in the 21st century is not going to be able to imitate the vibrant black community of the 1950s or 1960s, simply by virtue of having a student body that is mostly one race.