Nearly 68 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate schools for white and Black students were “inherently unequal,” setting in motion more than 800 school desegregation court orders around the country. Most of these orders have since expired or are no longer enforced, but scholars, such as Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, have argued that these lapsed efforts were enormously successful in improving the education and livelihoods of Black people who attended integrated schools. This scholarship and the journalism of Nikole Hannah-Jones have been powerful in reviving the argument for racial integration in schools, and they have inspired new desegregation efforts, such as those currently underway in New York City, where I live.
But now a fresh historical analysis of more than 5 million students, the largest desegregation study I’ve ever seen, presents a more complicated picture of the benefits of racial integration in education. Like Johnson, a team of economists from the University of Wisconsin and Williams College calculated that desegregation orders in the 1970s tremendously improved high school graduation rates and adult earnings for Black Americans – but these researchers found those gains only in the South. By contrast, they found no educational or income improvements for Black Americans who lived through school desegregation during the same period in the North.
“The really big effects were concentrated in the dismantling of de jure segregation in the South,” said Owen Thompson, an economist at Williams College, and lead author of the study. “You just really see very little impact in the North, but very, very strong effects in the South.”
A draft paper about the data analysis, “The Long Run Impacts of Court-Ordered Desegregation,” hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and might still be revised. It was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in April 2022.
Kirabo Jackson, a prominent education economist at Northwestern University praised the study. “We already knew (directionally) that desegregation was good for Blacks in the south, but this new paper is more precise, comprehensive, and conclusive than previous studies on the topic,” he tweeted. Johnson, the Berkeley economist, was traveling this week and said he wanted to take more time to digest this new study before sharing his thoughts.
Even though the vast majority of desegregation orders happened decades ago, this kind of big data analysis is possible only recently because the Census Bureau now makes it possible for researchers to link different datasets and track unidentified Americans from birth through to their working years. Previous long-term studies relied on much smaller datasets that didn’t reflect all students in the nation who experienced integration orders. Meanwhile, larger national studies were unable to follow people over time to observe employment and earnings.
In this study, the economists looked at the timing of almost 200 desegregation orders between 1969 and 1980 and compared the lives of people who learned in integrated classrooms with those who were older and experienced only segregated classrooms.
In the South, defined in this study as the 11 former Confederate states in the Civil War, Black children had been barred from attending school with white children; more than half of the desegregation orders in this study took place here. Researchers calculated that the more years of school integration Black people experienced in the South, the more likely they were to graduate high school and attend college. Later, they were more likely to be employed and earn higher wages.
The more years of integration, the more benefits. Those who lived in a school district that desegregated during their high school years didn’t reap much. But 94 percent of Black children who started first grade in integrated schools didn’t drop out and remained in school for at least 12 years, a 15 percentage point increase compared with Black children born before 1950, who had no exposure to school integration. Similarly, a full 12 years of integrated schooling was associated with adults who made 30 percent more a year, moving from an average annual income of $35,000 to $45,000 in constant 2019 dollars.
Southern Black students who experienced more years of integrated schooling were also more likely to go to college. However, there was no improvement in the number of four-year college degrees.
Older Black young adults who were between 17 and 24 when desegregation orders went into effect didn’t see any educational or employment changes. That’s a sign that integrated schools really produced these tremendous differences for Black children.
Meanwhile, the white schoolmates of the younger, Black beneficiaries didn’t seem to be helped or harmed by racial integration in this analysis. The educational attainment and income of white Southerners remained unchanged. That’s evidence that “gains among Black students did not come at the expense of their white peers,” the authors wrote.
It’s puzzling and surprising that Northern Black students also didn’t reap benefits, regardless of how many years they learned in integrated schools. Previous research has credited increased funding as one of the main reasons that desegregated schools improved the education of Black children. Indeed, the economists confirmed that funds poured into desegregated schools. Yet per student spending increased 40 percent over 10 years in the Northern school districts with high proportions of Black students, just as it had in the South. Funding doesn’t explain the geographic divide.
One possibility might be class size. Class sizes shrunk a lot more for Black students in the South in the years following in a desegregation order. In the North, class sizes for Black students didn’t change as much.
But Thompson thinks a more compelling answer is that there was a lot more white flight from desegregating districts in the North than in the South. In the North, segregation hadn’t been required by law, but occurred because Black and white families lived in different school zones. When court orders attempted to dismantle this “de facto” segregation, it sometimes asked children to travel to a different school outside of their neighborhood. Many white families left the public schools and enrolled their kids in affordable Catholic schools, or moved just outside cities to suburban districts.
That left Northern Black children to integrate with a smaller number of white students whose families couldn’t afford to go to private school or move. Poor children were still learning alongside poor children. There may have been some racial integration, but there was very little socio-economic integration, Thompson explained.
In the South, by contrast, more middle-class white children remained within the public school system. Southern school districts are typically much larger, extending across an entire county. Even if a family tried to move to the suburbs, they would still be inside the school district and subject to the integration plan.
If you believe that it’s beneficial to learn alongside higher achieving classmates – what academic researchers call “peer effects” – desegregation gave Southern Black students a better group of white peers.
To be sure, some Southern communities built new private schools for whites, so-called segregation academies, but there weren’t enough spaces to absorb the majority of white students. In Northern cities, by contrast, there was already an existing large network of parochial schools where families could flee to right away.
When Thompson and his research colleagues calculated how much schools actually integrated, they found that Black students in Southern schools were typically exposed to three times the number of white peers as Black students in Northern schools.
I wondered how to make sense of these contradictory results. Is desegregation still an effective policy to improve the education of Black students?
Thompson is left with the depressing conclusion that desegregation may have worked well in one moment in history to unravel the Jim Crow South, but those gains are unlikely to be repeated. There are far fewer white students, who now make up fewer than half of U.S. public school students, to spread around, even without any white flight, which is still likely.
“History would suggest,” Thompson said, that “contemporary desegregation initiatives like New York City’s, they’re not going to have really large long-run impacts on the human capital and labor market outcomes of minority students.”
He paused. “I believe in integrated schools,” Thompson said. “This goes against my personal politics.”
Sometimes the numbers don’t prove what we hope they will.
This story about desegregation was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.