June 8, 2004 | Volume 2 | Number 12
Reflections on Brown v. Board: The Long-Term Effect of Desegregated High Schools
Reflections on Brown v. Board: The Long-Term Effect of Desegregated High Schools
How did efforts to desegregate high schools affect the graduates of those schools and the broader society in which those graduates lived?
Through the Brown v. Board of Education decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the system of separate schools for black students and for white students was inherently unequal and that integration of these schools must proceed with all deliberate speed. In the 50 years since those rulings, African Americans have made significant progress in increasing high school completion numbers, improving academic achievement, increasing college enrollment, and attaining advanced degrees, as well as accessing and integrating employment and the broader society. More recently, however, many schools have once again begun to segregate. Previous efforts to integrate the schools, such as busing and affirmative action, are ending, and serious disparities remain in academic achievement, graduation rates, and participation in higher education.
Although many studies have looked at these quantifiable results of desegregation efforts, few have attempted to describe just how the desegregation efforts actually affected students and communities. The current study attempts to do that by examining the beliefs and achievements of individuals who graduated in 1980 from six desegregated high schools.
Amy Stuart Wells, Jennifer Jellison Holme, Anita Tijerina Revilla, and Awo Korantemaa Atanda conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). In conducting this study, the researchers chose to focus on identifying the social and educational experiences of individuals who participated in the process of desegregating U.S. schools. To fully understand and describe these experiences, the researchers conducted focused case studies of individual students who attended six purposively selected high schools. Initially, researchers selected a set of school districts representing varied sizes, geographical regions, racial compositions, social classes, and strategies used for desegregating the schools. From this initial set of districts, six schools were selected with the goal of creating a diverse sample based on racial and social class composition and the roles each school played in its district's desegregation plans. Within each school, individual graduates were selected to reflect the racial composition of the school, as well as represent varying achievement levels, socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities participation, postsecondary education experiences, and current residence. To engage the graduates of each school, the researchers attended the 20-year reunions and also sought out individuals who did not attend the reunions. The schools were located in California, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas.
Once the initial population was identified, researchers gathered data in three overlapping stages:
- School and district profiles: Researchers reviewed documents and interviewed local policymakers, lawyers, advocates, and educators active in the districts in the 1970s.
- Student interviews: Researchers interviewed 40–50 African American, Latino, and white graduates from each school.
- “Portrait” interviews: Researchers conducted in-depth second interviews with 4–6 graduates of each school.
The study's authors conducted a total of 540 interviews with 242 graduate interviews (136 whites, 79 African Americans, 21 Latino, 2 Asians, and 4 mixed-race), including 26 portrait interviews. Researchers also collected and analyzed yearbooks, news clippings, district documents, and other historical documents housed in libraries and schools. Interviews were taped and transcribed for analysis, then coded by the central themes within each interview.
Despite the differing contexts within each school, two central themes emerged from the data analysis:
- Desegregated schools operated within a society that was (and is) still largely segregated.
- Students who experienced desegregated schools found it to be a personally valuable experience.
High School Experiences
Because schools operated in a politically charged environment within a society that was still largely segregated, the needs of minority students were frequently compromised as schools sought to prevent white and middle class flight. For example, minority students were much more likely than whites to be bused to other schools, and schools in minority neighborhoods were more likely to be closed than those in white neighborhoods. Within all six desegregated schools, advanced courses were created and students—primarily white—were tracked into these courses, resulting in classes that were largely segregated by race, even though the schools were integrated.
In an effort to “keep the peace” and promote equity, the schools emphasized a “colorblind” attitude that resulted in little discussion about race issues. In the interviews, many graduates reflected that more discussion of race issues and the tensions created by integration would have helped them build bridges across the races. Although students primarily built close friendships within their own races, extracurricular activities (such as sports, government, band, chorus, and drama) offered increased access to and interaction with members of other races. In some schools, particularly those in which whites were the minority, there was greater social interaction; however, across all schools there was little interracial dating, and when there was, these students faced additional societal challenges.
Post-High School Experiences
All the students interviewed thought their experiences in desegregated schools were beneficial, but they noted that their lives today remain largely segregated by race. For many students, high school was their primary, or even sole, opportunity to interact with other races. White graduates expressed a greater understanding of other cultures and a decrease in fear of other races, while African American graduates noted that they learned that whites were not all racist and that they could compete academically with their white peers. In their current lives, graduates noted that they live in largely segregated neighborhoods and that their primary interaction with members of other races is at work.
In making decisions for their children, most of the white participants identified diversity as important, but they also felt that academic success was more important—many white interviewees noted that their children's schools tended to be primarily white. African American and Latino participants also emphasized academic achievement over integration; however, they also noted that the high-achieving schools they were seeking to enroll their children in tended to be predominately white.
The Bottom Line
While society remained racially divided, students attending racially mixed schools identified being much less prejudiced and more comfortable around people from differing racial backgrounds. However, students found it difficult to continue friendships with individuals of other races outside their integrated high school experiences and noted that their lives today are largely segregated along racial lines.
This study focused on students in integrated schools during the late 1970s.
The researchers in this study used a case study design with purposive sampling to create a specific data source, allowing them to examine and describe the experiences of individuals educated in an integrated environment during the late 1970s. This research is not designed to produce generalizable findings; rather, the purpose is to describe the educational and social experiences of one specific set of students. The information gathered through this study may be useful for informing discussions related to race and integration; however, the experiences identified here should not be specifically generalized to other students educated during the 1970s or to students in schools today.
Wells, A. S., Holme, J. J., Revilla, A. T., & Atanda, A. K. (2004). How desegregation changed us: The effects of racially mixed schools on students and society. Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved May 17, 2004, from http://www.tc.columbia.edu/newsbureau/features/ASWells041504.pdf
InfoBrief: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Decision,
A Dream Deferred: 50 Years After Brown v. Board of Education, the Struggle Continues,
Brown@50: Fulfilling the Promise,
Howard University School of Law
All comments regarding ReseachBrief should be sent to RBfeedback@ascd.org. To speak directly with an ASCD staff member, please Contact Us.
Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.
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