Where discrimination outweighed benefits of integration

Black adults who attended racially mixed high schools in the mid-20th century completed less schooling
By: | April 9, 2021

Integration may have had unintended consequences as a new study finds that Black students have not always benefited from attending racially balanced schools, a new study has found.

Black adults who attended racially mixed high schools in the mid-20th century completed less schooling than did Black students who attended predominantly Black or predominantly white schools, say the four economists who authored the paper.

Overall, the effects of integration have not been as positive as is often claimed in other studies and in the popular media, says one author, William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., a professor of public policy, African and African American Studies and economics at Duke University.

“Standard wisdom has it that school desegregation paves the way to racial nirvana in the United States,” says Darity Jr. who is also the director of Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. “Of course, school desegregation is desirable to produce a better America, but we must be far more cautious about the benefits we ascribe to it.”

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Darity Jr. and his co-authors analyzed the National Survey of Black Americans, which polled Black Americans age 18 or older who attended school from the 1930s through the early 1970s. As students, the people surveyed attended three types of schools: “mostly or almost all white,” “mostly or all black” and “mixed-race” schools.

Based on data from 1,121 respondents, Black students fared worse in high schools where the population was about half black and half white. They completed a half year less of school than did Black students in predominantly Black schools and three-quarters of a year less education than Black students at predominantly white high schools.

These students were also less likely to graduate.

Black students who attended predominantly white high schools had higher graduation rates than did their Black peers in mixed-race and predominantly black schools.

Why climate is key

Previous research by Darity and coauthor Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School, has found that competition over resources is highest in mixed schools—which likely intensifies the impact of discrimination.

“Black students are perceived as more of a competitive threat to white students for preferred resources,” such as attention from teachers, placement in desirable classes, and positions of status in co-curricular activities, the authors wrote in the new study.

In lessons for the 21st century, simply creating more mixed-race schools may not improve Black students’ performance—and may even hinder achievement—if discriminatory treatment of Black students persists.

“The potential for greater resources available in racially integrated schools does not necessarily offset adverse effects in a school with a negative racial climate,” added the paper’s lead author, Timothy M. Diette of Washington and Lee University.