It’s the Economy, Stupid, Especially Now

The Times has run yet another piece on the issue of racial segregation in public schools. The author, David Kirp, comes down squarely on the side of desegregation as the best way to close the achievement gap:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

This seems like a quaint point to make in a post-racial society. By post-racial I do not mean that we have overcome racism, quite the opposite, but that the racial makeup of the country is very different now than it was in 1954 (the year of Brown v. Board of Education), or even 1974.

The New York Times ran an article last week saying that whites made up less than 50% of all births last year. To put it another way, the population is undergoing considerable browning. The Brown case took place in an America where racial lines were much more clearly drawn. The word “integration” back then had a hard-and-fast meaning. In 2012, the term “desegregation” is more nebulous, perhaps even meaningless.

Kirp claims later in the article that “integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon.” Yet, it is not clear to me that integration was an educational strategy at all. School integration was the leading edge of a wider social experiment that sought to end the Jim Crow regime of the south. It was easier for the court to mandate that children lead the way on integration than it was to mandate the adults do so. Essentially, children were guaranteed to put up less of a fight.

It was assumed, of course, that black children would benefit from going to white schools. Whites in the south had the better part of everything: schools, movie theatres, restaurants and transportation. School integration was just the first part of a wider mission to allow blacks to partake in American public life on the same footing as whites.

Kirp’s article, while making some interesting points, is flawed in that it ascribes to the Horace Mann idea of schools being the balance wheel of society:

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

This might be true, but this does not necessarily mean these black youths did better because they had spent at least five years in desegregated schools.

The big question I have is: who were these black students that did not get to attend integrated schools in the supposedly halcyon days of desegregation? In the south, it would seem to be the children of sharecroppers. In the north, it would seem to be the children who lived in the most isolated urban ghettoes. In other words, it would stand to reason that the poorest of the poor black students never got a chance to attend integrated schools.

It does not seem as if the study cited by Kirp controlled for income levels in any meaningful way. In fact, the only acknowledgement he gives to this question comes later when he claims “many of the poor black children who attended desegregated schools in the 1970s escaped from poverty, and their offspring have maintained that advantage.” It is interesting to note that “many” is not “most” or even a “significant proportion”.

Yet, Kirp seems to think that integration was a successful educational program:

Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on  African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.

It is tough to sift through this reasoning. Part of this paragraph echoes an age-old trope floated by slave-owners in the antebellum era: that whites can teach blacks the proper way to live in society. This is the prototype of the White Man’s Burden philosophy that would later justify imperialism and, today, lurks behind well-worn education reformer apologies for charter schools and the Teach for America program.

There is no reason to assume that a good number of the black students Kirp discusses did not already come to school with high expectations. One only needs to read the accounts of what the Little Rock Nine had to overcome in the pursuit of an education to understand their drive to succeed. Many of them went on to attain advanced degrees and they all, in one way or another, lived successful lives. Was it attending Central High School that did this for them, or did they already come from families that stressed education and who belonged to a black middle class that was taking shape around that time?

Then there is the matter of the type of economy graduates are entering. During the 60s and even somewhat in the 70s, it was still possible to make a decent living straight out of high school. Wages were relatively higher and worker protections were much more robust. Now, it is tough to make a living straight out of high school and not much easier to make one out of college. It is tough to make a living in general if you come from a poor background. The wealth gap has widened tremendously since the 70s and 80s. Are we to believe that integrating schools will help overcome this wealth gap?

Kirp proposes a racial solution to a problem that is not strictly about race, but is strictly about class. In New York City, nearly 80% of the students who attend public schools are minority. This is obviously not because 80% of the city is minority. It is because parents with the means to do so send their children to private schools. This is because, despite many wealthy New Yorkers’ liberal leanings, they will not allow their children to attend supposedly “failing” schools with mostly minority students. The only way to integrate NYC schools is to force all NYC parents to send their children to public school.

For the second straight week, the New York Times has made a class issue into a race issue. The more we speak about race, the further away we are from any real solution to the economic caste system that defines the United States.

One response to “It’s the Economy, Stupid, Especially Now

  1. They always make class issues into race issues. It’s a purposeful tactic. Class is mostly disappeared in america and mostly comes in through the back door, in a disguised way.

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