Does Education Help Breed Segregation?

Pam Sheridan, Sallyport, Fall 2006

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A study, co-authored by Rice sociologist Michael Emerson, shows that increased education of whites, in particular, may not only have little effect on eliminating prejudice, but it also may be one reason behind the rise of racial segregation in U.S. schools. Furthermore, higher-educated whites, regardless of their income, are more likely than less-educated whites to judge a school’s quality and base their school choice on its racial composition.

Black–white racial segregation has been on the rise in primary and secondary schools over the past decade. While whites, especially those who are highly educated, may express an interest in having their children attend integrated schools, in reality, they seek out schools that are racially segregated. In the study, researchers found, on average, that the greater the education of white parents, the more likely they will remove their children from public schools as the percentage of black students increases.

“We believed from prior studies that education has a significantly positive impact on racial attitudes,” says Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology. “We found when studying behaviors, however, that acquiring more education is not a means of combating segregation. Education may broaden an individual’s world, but it also leads to greater negative sensitivity toward blacks’ presence in public schools.”

Emerson and research colleague David Sikkink, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, know that income and other factors come into play in terms of school choice, but their study shows that, even after controlling for these variables, education has an unintended effect. Whites with more education place a greater emphasis on race when choosing a school for their children, while higher-educated African Americans do not consider race.

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According to the researchers, part of this behavior is explained by the place and meaning of schooling for children of more-educated white parents. Degrees, for example, become status markers, regardless of income. Parents seek quality education for their children to ensure they are not hindered from achieving the “good life.” As earlier studies indicate, education is a key to social mobility and one of the most important forms of cultural capital.

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The researchers found that regardless of income, more-educated whites in their data set also lived in “whiter” neighborhoods than less-educated whites. Higher-income African Americans also lived in whiter, but more racially mixed, neighborhoods than lower-income blacks. “The more income African Americans made,” Emerson says, “the more likely their children attended more racially mixed schools than did African American children of less-educated, lower-income parents.” This, he explains, is because more highly educated or higher-income African Americans often live in areas with racially mixed local public schools, close to high concentrations of whites that have undergone desegregation plans, while African American children of less-educated, lower-income parents attend largely black schools. When separating income from their analysis, however, the researchers concluded that unlike whites, African American parents’ higher-education levels don’t affect their school choice.

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“Our study arrived at a very sad and profound conclusion,” says Emerson. “More formal education is not the answer to racial segregation in this country. Without a structure of laws requiring desegregation, it appears that segregation will continue to breed segregation.”

Titled “School Choice and Racial Residential Segregation in U.S. Schools: The Role of Parents’ Education,” the study will be published in an upcoming issue of Ethnic and Racial Studies.

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