Posted on May 17, 2019

Looking Back at School Desegregation

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, December 1995

Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law, David Armor, Oxford University Press, 1995, 271 pp.

Forced Justice, written by a sociologist and former member of the Los Angeles school board, is a relentlessly factual account of the effects of school integration. Although its tone is dry and understated, it would be difficult to find, between the covers of a single book, more hard data on the failure of desegregation. David Armor systematically blows to bits every one of the assumptions that underlay federal schools policy, exposes the flimsy legal reasoning on which it was based, and cites devastating data to show that it has failed to achieve a single one of its goals.

Forced Justice- School Desegregation and the Law, David Armor

Social Theory Trumps Law

Like affirmative action, school desegregation mocks the principle of Constitutional law. The very same Constitution has been successively interpreted to permit segregated schools, permit them only under certain conditions, forbid them altogether, and now tolerate them under certain conditions. The truth, of course, is that the Constitution is mute on the subject of segregation, and that judges have simply read their own social theories into it. As Prof. Armor puts it, with excessive delicacy:

[S]ocial science theory and research have played important roles in the evolution of desegregation law, at various times providing an important intellectual basis for court decisions or legislative actions that might otherwise be lacking a clear legal foundation.

The main social science doctrine that has driven integration is something called the harm and benefit thesis. As Prof. Armor explains, Gunnar Myrdal was one of its first proponents. Segregation, he argued, was caused by white prejudice. It harmed blacks in innumerable ways that lowered their standards of behavior and level of achievement. Whites then pointed to the degraded state of blacks to justify their own prejudice. As Myrdal put it: “White prejudice and [low] Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.”

This vicious cycle had to be reversed. Integration would open opportunities for blacks, which they would use to improve themselves. Whites would discover what fine fellows blacks are, and set aside their prejudices. Prejudice and black degradation would then disappear.

Research by black psychologist, Kenneth Clark, fit perfectly into this thinking. He had found that many black children who attended segregated schools preferred white dolls to black ones when given a choice. This, he argued, proved that segregation lowered the self-image of black children, and was an important cause of black failure.

Since white prejudice was the only real problem blacks faced, it was vital to eliminate it. In his influential 1953 book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport explained how this could be done: “Prejudice . . . may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports . . .”

School integration was the obvious first step in solving the American dilemma. Children could be snatched from their parents before prejudice could ripen, and mixed with children of other races, all with the added benefit of Allport’s “equal status” and “institutional supports.” In the headiest days of the harm and benefit thesis, people were convinced that whites would benefit almost as much as blacks from an integrated atmosphere of racial harmony and academic achievement.

As Prof. Armor points out, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court explicitly endorsed the harm and benefit thesis. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and generate “a feeling of inferiority [in blacks] . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Although nearly all sociologists believed this in 1954, it was pure, unproven, intellectual faddism. In fact, there were already reasons to suspect it was untrue. Kenneth Clark’s famous doll studies, which the justices cited in their decision, were presented in a deliberately deceptive way. By 1954, Clark had already discovered that Massachusetts blacks attending integrated schools chose a white doll over a black doll more often than did southern blacks attending segregated schools. He refrained from telling the Supreme Court about this because if his doll studies showed anything at all, it was that segregation was good for blacks.

Needless to say, Clark’s dishonesty is rarely pointed out, and the illusions he helped promote have remained largely unshaken. Although the Supreme Court never revisited the harm and benefit thesis, Prof. Armor cites a typical lower court ruling of the 1970s that states, “racial integration provides positive educational benefits . . . In addition, racial segregation imposes a badge of inferiority on minority students; integration is necessary to remove that badge.” As Prof. Armor shows, this dogma—which was the real force behind school integration—pushed legal reasoning in increasingly fanciful directions.

Desegregation vs. Integration

The rot had set in with Brown itself. This ruling was generally thought to have prohibited only legally enforced, de jure segregation and not segregation that arose naturally from racial housing patterns. However, by alluding to the harm and benefit thesis, did it not suggest that de facto segregation might be just as bad? Was it therefore illegal? There was much here for integrationists to conjure with.

Most Southern school districts dismantled strict segregation but made no effort to bring the races together. A few black parents transferred their children to white schools but whites did not transfer to black schools. Districts outside the South that had never practiced de jure segregation assumed the ruling did not apply to them, even when schools mirrored the racial imbalance of segregated housing patterns.

The 1968 case of Green v. New Kent County was the first in which the Supreme Court moved beyond desegregation to require active integration. It involved a small Virginia district with only two schools, one for blacks and the other for whites. After Brown, the district offered students the option to attend either school. The usual transfers took place, and by 1968, one school was 82 percent white and the other was 100 percent black.

The court imposed a mandatory, race-conscious integration plan as a “remedy” for the deliberate segregation of the past. Exactly as in affirmative action, racial discrimination was to cure racial discrimination. Although the implications of the ruling were profound, the case failed to attract national attention because everyone assumed that it applied only to Southern school districts with a record of de jure segregation.

The 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision ominously introduced busing as a means to integrate schools forcibly, but this, too, was offered as a Southern solution to the Southern problem of legal segregation. Northern complacency was soon shattered by the 1973 decision, Keyes v. Denver, which was the first time a school district not in the South, which had never had a policy of discrimination, was ordered to integrate its schools. The legal “reasoning” was quite fantastic.

Denver’s schools simply reflected residential segregation—not school board policy—and residential self-segregation is not (yet) illegal. How had the Constitution been violated? The court concluded that unless the district had deliberately located schools and drawn attendance boundaries so as to encourage racial mixing, it had perpetuated segregation. A failure actively to promote integration was now just as culpable as deliberate, legal segregation, and Denver school children started riding buses, too. Pretty soon, to the shock and outrage of their parents, so did children all over the country. In Los Angeles, the average one-way ride for a bused child took 55 minutes.

Forced busing emptied America’s cities and public schools of whites. Zealots eventually discovered that integration meant busing black children ever-crazier distances—so that they could go to school with other black children.

In 1991, as Prof. Armor explains, the Supreme Court finally relented and ruled that school districts could not be held responsible for white flight or housing patterns. So long as they had made a “good faith” effort to eliminate the “vestiges” of segregation, they could be released from court scrutiny. In effect, school districts could move gingerly back towards neighborhood schools—which by then blacks wanted almost as much as whites—even if it meant resegregation.

What Harm? What Benefit?

After nearly 40 years of madness, the Supreme Court is therefore drifting back towards the original, merely mischievous thinking of Brown. In the meantime, as Prof. Armor explains, there have been a great many studies that test the harm and benefit thesis. The media ignore them because:

First, it appears that segregation did not stunt black self-esteem. Blacks generally show higher self-esteem than whites and, if anything, integration lowers it.

Second, careful comparisons by region showed that by the early 1960s black schools were not being slighted. Facilities, staff, and textbooks were largely equal, and the small differences to be found could favor blacks as often as whites.

Third, integration does not improve race relations, as the sociologists swore it would. The data are mixed but, if anything, contact between the races worsens relations. When there is improvement, it usually comes in the early years of integration. The longer the contact, the worse the relations. Interestingly, the proportions of the racial mix make a difference, with the greatest mutual antagonism arising when blacks are 20 to 40 percent of a school.

Fourth, although the early years of integration exposed black students to more whites, whites have fled public schools at such a rate that today, black students have scarcely any more white school mates than they did in 1968, when forced integration began in earnest.

Finally, integration has not improved black academic performance. The overall gap in reading between whites and blacks has narrowed, but there has been as much black progress in overwhelmingly black schools as in largely white schools. Something other than integration—Prof. Armor suspects that it is the rising social status of black parents—accounts for the improvement. By now, no one is claiming that integration improves white test scores, but for the most part it does not seem to lower them; these days, this is considered a victory for integration.

Prof. Armor concludes that “enhanced academic achievement [for either blacks or whites] is probably the last reason why any agency or individual should endorse desegregation policies.” Since he has so clearly demonstrated that integration has produced no benefits, why endorse desegregation at all?

Naturally, the true believers insist that the country just hasn’t tried hard enough. In a major brief filed in 1991, the NAACP explained that we have gone about it all wrong, and that certain conditions must be met in order for school integration to produce harmony and achievement. Instruction must be cooperative rather than competitive. Parents must become involved in planning and monitoring desegregation. Grouping by ability must stop. There must be “substantial” numbers of nonwhite teachers and staff, and all must enthusiastically support integration. Multi-ethnic textbooks must be used. Of course, no one thought this at the time of Brown; integration was all that was necessary.

Inevitably, some school districts have followed the NAACP’s advice. They have gotten rid of “gifted” programs, grouping by ability, and sometimes even grades themselves, because they all highlight racial differences. When these efforts are found not to work, the NAACP will doubtless think of something else.

Taking Orders

One of the strengths of Prof. Armor’s book is its overview of how desegregation works. Since there are no precise guidelines about what constitutes “integration” or how long court supervision should last, there is considerable regional variation. Some judges set precise figures for racial balance while others are more flexible. A whole host of techniques with names like contiguous rezoning, pairing/clustering, two-way busing, and satellite zoning have been devised to get blacks and whites into the same schools.

Some plans are mandatory—a child goes wherever he is ordered—and others are “voluntary” though, as Prof. Armor points out, this should often be called “controlled choice.” For example, children may be allowed to choose their schools, but only if the choice promotes integration. A black child may transfer from a majority-black to a majority-white school, but a white child may not.

Although school desegregation is no longer news, more than 200 large and medium-sized districts still have mandatory desegregation plans. Virtually all big-city school districts—which educate most of America’s nonwhite students—are now or have been under court orders. Some desegregation orders have gone on for nearly 20 years.

As Prof. Armor explains, in practical terms, a court-ordered plan means that the school board must get the approval of the plaintiff in the case—usually the NAACP or the Department of Justice—before it can do anything that might conceivably affect racial balance. This can be just about anything: closing old schools, opening new ones, drawing attendance districts, starting magnet programs, assigning teachers, or even modifying the curriculum. It is a terrific bother always to have to seek approval from bureaucrats or black activists, and when there are standoffs the parties have to go before a judge.

Some school districts have taken a liking to court orders. The wilder integrationists know that people oppose busing, so it is convenient to be able to blame a judge for it. Also, the federal government has set aside money for integration, and districts that are under court order can put on the nose bag first. It costs about $1,000 to desegregate a child for one year, which is a substantial part of the average $4,500 per year that schools spend on students.

How does a district get off the hook? It must go to court and show that it did what the judge ordered. There has been a huge debate over how long an actively integrationist plan must last, but as the Supreme Court said in 1991, once the “vestiges” of segregation have been eliminated to the extent “practicable” a district need no longer answer to the NAACP.

Prof. Armor notes that the NAACP has unearthed some interesting “vestiges:” racial differences in drop-out rates, grades, and disciplinary action. It argues that until these differences disappear schools have not complied with the law. Amazingly, some judges agree. One decided in 1993 to keep the Yonkers, New York, school district under court order until blacks and whites get essentially the same test scores; most courts stop short of this impossible requirement.

The legal lingo of desegregation tortures the language. A district that may be excused from court scrutiny is said to be “unitary,” that is, it no longer operates “dual,” segregated schools. These terms date back to the days of de jure segregation but today, a school board that cannot find enough black principals, or coax enough whites to come to school with blacks (or, in Yonkers, to narrow the gap in achievement) is, technically, operating “dual,” segregated school systems! It is violating the Constitution, and the courts are carrying out the wishes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison by imposing a remedy.

Prof. Armor notes that one of the great underlying obstacles to school integration is residential segregation. Although they share seats on the bus and work side by side, blacks and whites do not live together; housing is scarcely any less segregated than it was 30 years ago. School integration has intensified residential segregation by driving whites to the suburbs.

Prof. Armor does not blame whites for segregation. His data show that the average white preference is for neighborhoods that are 10 to 20 percent nonwhite. Blacks, on the other hand don’t want to live in areas that are 80 to 90 percent white; they say they want neighborhoods that are only 50 percent white. This is virtually impossible, since whites leave neighborhoods like that. As Prof. Armor has found through computer simulation, “black preferences for fifty-fifty neighborhoods explain as much housing segregation as white preferences.”

Second only to attempts to force employers to hire people not of their own choosing, school integration has been the most ambitious racial scheme of this century. Far from solving the American dilemma, it has barely succeeded in getting a few more black and white children to attend school together.

Prof. Armor predicts that the courts will eventually give up trying to achieve the impossible, and that a great many urban schools will slip back into the de facto segregation that prevailed in the 1960s. The intervening decades have witnessed needless waste and disruption on a gigantic scale.