Socioeconomic School Integration Is a Worthy Goal, but Racial Segregation Presents Added Challenges

Are African Americans disadvantaged—for example, having lower school achievement—because they have lower family incomes, on average, than whites, or because they continue to suffer from an American caste system based on race?

Both are involved. Certainly, in a color-blind society, African American students would have lower average achievement simply because a higher proportion of African American than white students have income and other socioeconomic disadvantages that depress their ability to take full advantage of schooling.

Therefore, policies that attempt to offset the disadvantages that impede the success of all lower class children, regardless of race or ethnicity, can benefit black children disproportionately. But we should not delude ourselves that by narrowing socioeconomic inequality, we have also significantly addressed racial subjugation, the continuing American dilemma.

The conservative plurality (sometimes majority) of the U.S. Supreme Court has turned the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment on its head. Written and enacted for the purpose of protecting African Americans from state-sponsored discrimination, Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleagues can’t find that specific intent to protect former slaves, and their descendants, in the amendment at all. Rather, they think that its primary contemporary purpose is to protect whites from having to make sacrifices that might create space for affirmative action to remedy racial segregation.

In 2007, the Court prohibited Louisville and Seattle from making very modest attempts to integrate their schools. The districts had school choice plans that, in the rare circumstances when racially imbalanced schools were over-subscribed, gave preference to students whose admission would not exacerbate that imbalance. In this circumstance, district policy was to prefer admission of the black student, to help bring the school’s racial composition closer to the districtwide distribution. A white student who failed to get admission in each city sued, and this gave the Court the opportunity to strike down the districts’ policies.

For nearly twenty years now, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg has doggedly urged school districts to pursue policies that integrate schools by family economic status, not by race. By doing so, he wisely argues, districts may avoid Supreme Court annihilation of their diversity policies and also provide all low-income children with the benefit of attending school with higher income peers, an experience that is likely to raise the achievement of disadvantaged students without harming the achievement of advantaged students (provided the proportion of low income students in any particular classroom or school is modest).

Following the Supreme Court’s 2007 Louisville-Seattle ruling, many other policymakers and advocates have joined Kahlenberg in this pursuit.  Last week, the Furman Center at New York University sponsored an on-line discussion of this approach, including contributions of Duke University Professor Charles Clotfelter, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan, Kahlenberg, and myself.

Professor Clotfelter led off the discussion, describing empirical work he is doing to estimate the distribution of low-income children among school districts in North Carolina and how the concentration of low-income children is increasing in some districts but not in others.

Dean Ryan wrote that diversity in schools benefits middle class as well as poor children, and it is politically wise to emphasize this. Richard Kahlenberg reprised his explanations of how socioeconomically diverse schools are superior to socioeconomically homogenous schools, and how socioeconomic integration can provide greater benefits than other (expensive) interventions in schools where low-income students are concentrated. I argued that avoiding consideration of race may be convenient in the short run, but leaves the most serious problems faced by low-income black children unaddressed. Low-income black children are poorer, and poorer for longer periods and for more generations than low-income whites. Low-income African Americans are concentrated in ghettos, while low-income whites are more dispersed throughout middle-class communities. Socioeconomic school integration is a step, but what is ultimately needed is housing policy that similarly integrates low-income African Americans into the broader community.