Learning Curve: Crossing the Color Line

Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 28, 2009

Black and Latino families in search of more affordable housing and backyard decks are flocking to the suburbs. White families in quest of crown molding and vintage claw-foot tubs are relocating to the cities.

A national snapshot of metro migration shows that the moving vans of white and minority families are heading in different directions.

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As America’s metropolitan areas embrace new residential patterns, one variable isn’t changing: Racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools.

While the South once led the nation in integrating its schools, it now has become the pace setter in the resegregation of classrooms, largely as a result of housing trends.

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Few people, outside of researchers, fret about the increasing resegregation. One is sociologist Amy Stuart Wells, director of the Center for Understanding Race and Education at Columbia University.

Wells spoke Thursday at Georgia State University about her research and her new book “Both Sides Now,” in which she interviewed students in six states who experienced school desegregation. Now adults, they told Wells that they thought they were being prepared for the real world, which they saw as an “ever-more-integrated society.”

But they graduated high school in 1980 to discover that while they were extolled to be color-blind, much of the country still saw the world in black and white. They moved onto college campuses with little racial diversity and eventually settled in largely segregated neighborhoods. And, despite telling Wells that they valued their experiences on the desegregation front lines, many send their own children to less-diverse schools.

Consumed with giving their children an edge, these middle-class parents are willing to suspend their belief that diversity matters in order to send their kids to the “best” schools.

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Most middle-class parents understand how low-income students benefit by transferring to higher-achieving schools than they would otherwise encounter in their neighborhoods. They realize that there are cultures in more affluent schools that enhance the quality of the education, from involved PTAs to parent-led chess clubs. {snip}

However, middle-class parents remain leery of the research that shows their children don’t pay an academic price for sitting alongside less-affluent peers.

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But color lines remain hard to cross. As one of the graduates of a desegregated high school comments in Wells’ book: “I have such warm feelings and memories of being with all these people, and we didn’t save any of it. . . . I’m not friends with them now. . . . I think I went off with my white world. . . . People live lives for the most part along color.”

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