Desegregation is dead…

so says Professor David Kirp (Public Policy, Berkeley) in this morning’s New York Times.  It’s a piece that begs, I think, of a firm response.  And because it’s about desegregating schools, I think it’s appropriate material for this blog.  Here’s how his piece gets under way, though you should read the whole thing.

AMID the  ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments…. But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices.

The balance of Professor Kirp’s essay, which laments the fading of court-ordered desegregation orders, can be summed up as follows:

(1) Desegregation/integration produces empirical academic benefits for Black students.

(2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.

(3) Therefore Desegregation/integration is a good thing.

(4) The courts should support good things.

(5) Therefore the courts should support Desegregation/integration.

To be fair, this is my summary of his work.  I could be misrepresenting it, though I obviously don’t think I am.

Now I’m willing to grant him (1) and (2); he’s a public policy expert and presumably he’d know better than I would whether the evidence supports these things.  I’ll even grant him (3), so long as we keep it at “a good thing” and not “an unqualifiedly good thing, all-in.”  If something gives relevant benefits, and doesn’t have the most obvious sorts of drawbacks one might suspect, odds are that it’s a good thing.

But I seriously question what I’ve presented as his implicit premise (4).  Kirp seems to lack a certain understanding of how the law works, as demonstrated by the fact that he has linked to Milliken v. Bradley (418 U.S. 717 (1974)), but doesn’t seem to actually understand what the case is about.  That’s a serious charge to level at an academic, so let me explain.  Along the way, I think it will become clear both why I think (4) is wrong, and that Kirp does indeed hold it as a view.

Now it’s clear that Kirp likes desegregation/integration.  His piece is at its best — and by that I mean it’s affirmatively good — when he’s describing why desegregation is a good thing, why it doesn’t have the sorts of drawbacks you might expect, and how it may one of the most potent forces in education.

But Kirps big problem is that despite his command of its effects, he doesn’t really seem to understand what desegregation is.  This may be the most revealing sentence in his article:

Despite its flaws, integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon.

And herein lies the problem: Integration, that is, desegregation, is not really an educational strategy. It’s a court-imposed legal remedy.  It’s  not just something people do because it seems like a good idea, but rather a remedy for a particular sort of harm, in a very particular sort of case: the case of state-sponsored, or supported segregation.

The thinking of a desegregation order goes something like this: if the state (and by “state” I mean district, township, or other governmental body) is using its power to segregate students by race, that’s a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and a bad thing.  We can justify a race-based response to such bad behavior because it’s the only way to fix the racially motivated problem.

But, like state-sponsored segregation, desegregation orders involve the state making decisions based on race; they are thus are not something to be used lightly.   Before you can issue such an order, you have to have the right conditions to justify it.

Kirp seems to think that Milliken is about the Court’s hostility to integration.  He even describes the case as a “rejection of a metropolitan integration plan,” as if all that mattered was that the Supreme Court said “No” instead of “Yes.”  But law isn’t just a question of outcomes.  Law is, fundamentally, a question of reasons and of process.  The “why” of this rejection of integration is at least as important (and likely more important) than the mere fact of the outcome.

The Milliken case was one in which the desegregation order that had come down as a result of the urban district’s racial segregation, encompassed a number of districts in the greater metropolitan area that hadn’t been found to have engaged in any of that pernicious behavior.  Because discriminating based on race is generally frowned on, and because it wasn’t shown that it was needed to remedy segregation in those districts, the over-ambitious, overreaching desegregation plan was struck down.

This sort of legal reasoning is very different than merely a “thumbs down” on something that, as I conceded above, might very well have some very attractive empirical results.

This sort of reasoning, this attention to the “whys” and the applicability of remedies, is central to the operation of the law, and is the most important lesson of the Milliken case. It is also precisely why the Supreme Court ruled (in another case Kirp cites) that a school district can’t just voluntarily decide to use race as a factor in student assignments to schools.  Racial balancing, busing, and desegregation are remedies for state-caused harm.

Now, for all of its wonderful public policy exposition, there is an inappropriate and decidedly non-academic edge to Kirp’s piece, and it comes in the discussion of that case.  Kirp disingenuously calls this latter decision’s reliance on the principles of Brown v. Board of Education “bad history”:

And five years ago, a splintered court delivered the coup de grâce when it decreed that a school district couldn’t voluntarily opt for the most modest kind of integration — giving parents a choice of which school their children would attend and treating race as a tiebreaker in deciding which children would go to the most popular schools. In the perverse logic of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., this amounted to “discriminating among individual students based on race.” That’s bad history, which, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent, “threaten[s] the promise of Brown.”

If you’re going to accuse someone of practicing “bad history”, it’s probably a good idea to explain yourself.   Kirp doesn’t offer such an explanation; he just calls Roberts’ logic “perverse” and leaves that bald assertion hanging out in the ether.  But that’s a strange charge to be making when you don’t seem to have understood the cases that you cite in your own work.  Should we just take his word for it?

Kirp may be a good public policy professor — I don’t really know, but if he’s at Berkeley he’s probably pretty skilled.  And as I said, his explanation for why integration might be good public policy is quite illuminating.  But he’s evidently not much of a legal thinker, and we’re given no reason to think that his history is any better.

He asks, “Integration worked… why have we abandoned it?”  (That’s actually the tag line from the web page title, but it sums up his position nicely.)  But integration wasn’t adopted because “it worked”.  It was adopted on a limited basis to deal with a very specific sort of evil.  If you want to be able to adopt it as a widespread pedagogical practice, then amend the Constitution to allow for racial classification for the purpose of producing educational benefits.


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In a country where white children are the minority, how will we make the numbers work? Especially when geography gets in the way—it would be easier to desegregate in North Dakota, for example, than in Texas….

    • Mark Roulo says:

      In a country where white children are the minority, how will we make the numbers work?

      Half-day schooling for the non-white kids and full-day schooling for the white kids?

      I have a feeling that while the math works out for this, but that there would be other problems. Can’t quite put my finger on what would be wrong, though … 🙂

  2. Kirp’s first statement in regard to Milliken is “In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan,” a point that you concede is correct. You point to the narrow holding of Milliken in order to question Kirp’s subsequent assertion that the rejection “[left] the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.” But Kirp does not appear to be referencing the literal holding of Milliken as much as he’s referencing the practical impact of that case and its progeny. If you would choose another case and year as the starting point of a court-supported trend away from desegregation, please do identify the case and year.

    In terms of the accusation that Justice Roberts’ reading of Brown v Board constitutes “bad history”, you are committing the offense with which you previously charged Kirp. When you have about 800 words to work with, it’s not unreasonable to say, in effect, “Here’s an opinion I share with Justice Breyer; here’s a link to his opinion where you can read the details”. You’ve read the case, correct? Do you have a defense of Roberts that you would like to offer?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      According to Roberts, Brown said that assigning students on the basis of race was unconstitutional. Since the plan in Milliken assigned students on the basis of race, it was also unconstitutional.

      According to Breyer, Brown only said that assigning students on the basis of race was unconstitutional because if was part of a system of white-over-black oppression. Since the plan in Milliken was intended to help blacks, it isn’t unconstitutional.

      That’s an extraordinarily simplified (and cynical) version of what’s going on here.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    What happen to desegregating using socio-economic data (i.e. Wake County NC before it changed)? It seemed to have worked well. Guess the question is – did it really?

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    I would *NOT* grant “(2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.” This topic is *very* politicized, and if #2 is not true, then desegregation/integration is pretty much dead in the water (the white parent’s will *not* put up with it if they believe that their kids’ education’s will suffer).

    Since #2 *has* to be true for the pro desegregation/integration side, I’d be very cautious/skeptical about accepting it. It might be true, but I won’t take someone the pro side’s word for it.

    It probably doesn’t help that I’ve read “The World We Created at Hamilton High.” The story follows and eastern high school that integrated/desegregated. There were empirical injuries and drawbacks for the white students.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      The problem with assumption #2 is that it equates outcome with educational outcome. Educational outcome isn’t the only thing that matters to white parents. White parents also value “social” outcome. They want to avoid some of the destructive social dynamics that are associated with black, hispanic, and poor white students. Think drugs, teen pregnancy, violence, and lower expectations. They want their kids’ peers to be positive influences.

      • Unless kids are grouped homogeneously by subject, such that all kids are challenged (and accelerated as appropriate) I’m not buying the no-academic-detriment for white/Asian kids argument, either. If kids are grouped homogeneously – and I’d say that’s unlikely – then it’s essentially two separate schools under one roof – like Montgomery County’s math magnet at Blair HS. Even in the “best” schools in MoCo, with at least two levels of math and ELA classrooms in ES and MS, before the socioeconomic integration program MoCo is so proud of, my older kids were not really challenged until HS. Also, Stacy is right about parents’ concerns about kids’ peers; it’s why so many Asian parents limit their kids’ out-of-school interactions with other kids, particularly non-Asians – even if those kids are in the same classes and at the top of the class, the worry is that their kids will become distracted by sports or social activity.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    My dtr teaches at a high school which is becoming more and more integrated, which is to say, more and more of the students are black.
    She’s been assaulted twice–both times minor. The white principal retired because he couldn’t see enforcing discipline against accusations of racism. The new principal is black, does not support the teachers, does not enforce discipline, hires only black teachers. The whites are leaving, teachers and students, due to school conditions, and there will soon be a segregated HS there.
    Sounds like forced busing is the only answer. Problem with that is the greatly increased infrastructure for private schools and home schooling.
    Does empirical injury to the white students include assault and robbery?

  6. Michael, you are far too charitable to Kirp.

    (2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.

    Kirp wrote “the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless.”

    Kirp ignores the story of the Asian students in a Philadelphia school who went on strike to protest the physical abuse they received from the Blacks with whom they shared the halls (the race of the attackers is not mentioned, but that’s SOP in today’s press unless they are White).  That’s just a place where the victims were numerous and united (and considered worthy of sympathy by the “sensitive” reporters and editors) enough to get favorable press.  What about the rest, like Allen Coon?  How many school transfers and cases of PTSD are out there, unreported because the victims are atomized or not “diverse” enough?

    I’m not willing to grant Kirp (2), therefore I do not grant (3), and (4) is questionable in any event.  (5) is certainly a non-sequitur.

    Kirp also admits this:

    schools can’t hope to overcome the burdens of poverty or the lack of early education, which puts poor children far behind their middle-class peers before they enter kindergarten.

    Even Head Start fails to close the gap.  Kirp mis-represents the troubled children as “poor”, when the problem isn’t that poverty produces low achievement, but that low achievement produces poverty and is heritable.

    But Kirp couldn’t admit this if he wanted to.  If he did, he’d wind up like James Watson of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

    Kirp may be a good public policy professor — I don’t really know, but if he’s at Berkeley he’s probably pretty skilled.

    And dedicated to the Politically Correct, Multiculturalist view of everything.

    I see Richard Aubrey has said much the same thing, but without the documentation.

    • RIchard Aubrey says:

      If I were trying to convince anybody in the formal sense, the lack of documentation would matter.
      But I’m explaining what’s happening in my family and my near-world, and since I already know it, I don’t have to document it for myself.
      I am, however, reinforcing those who’ve had similar experiences. They don’t have to document for themselves.

    • Russ, arguing from anecdote? From your own race-based assumptions? I know for a fact you’re capable of better.

  7. Ponderosa says:

    I question #1. Having white kids in the same building does not mystically increase blacks’ achievement. I’ve worked in such a school. Among the black kids, the dysfunctional inner-city ethos held strong and dragged down many a bright black kid. Desegregation is a way of creating the APPEARANCE of equality, not the reality. Want real equality? Make inner-city schools KIPP-like boot camps –tough discipline, robust curriculum. Only in this way can these kids begin to make up for the huge cultural- and intellectual-capital advantage that suburban kids have.

    • Ponderosa says:

      I’d add: it seems you need to BREAK the ghetto culture and install a new culture in the minds of these kids. That will take a mighty force.

      Or, to be more realistic, you need to do triage –save the savable. This is what KIPP does.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        My prediction is that KIPP type schools will become more integrated. As white and Asian working class parents see the success of KIPP schools, they’ll be more likely to accept integration as long as it comes along with a structured, disciplined environment and higher expectations.

        • If the KIPP model were so great you would see it implemented in non-poor school districts. Parents do want their kids to be educated.

          The better, more elite, more prestigious the school, the less likely it is to endorse anything even slightly approaching KIPP.

          • Do Richard Barth (CEO of KIPP) and his wife Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America) send their kids to school the order them where to fix their eyes and when to nod their heads, with classes taught by bright-eyed newcomers doing a 2-year temp stint in the classroom?

            Regarding the desegregation issue: The following is evident to anyone who has spent time in different urban schools. A school that enrolls a critical mass of low-income, high-need, challenged students becomes overwhelmed and struggles. These are the schools we cruelly brand “failing schools.” A school that serves a percentage of low-income, high-need, challenged students that falls short of that critical mass can cope.

            Where would an individual low-income, high-need, challenged student do better: in a school that’s overwhelmed, struggling and “failing,” or in a school that’s coping? And that’s before you get into the diversity of experiences and contacts a student attending a diverse school encounters.

            The “it’s a miracle” schools that do well with a segregated, low-income student population of color do it the obvious way: by enrolling only the motivated and compliant and pushing out the students who fall short on those characteristics.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            What part of “white and Asian working class parents” is confusing to you?

            Upper middle class and affluent parents don’t need KIPP as a model. They have their own version of structure and discipline.

          • Ponderosa says:

            @ Caroline:

            You seem down on KIPP. Do you not agree that firm structure is necessary for a lot of these high-needs kids?

  8. Ponderosa says:

    Vis a vis Asians, whites are the new blacks. How can we fix dysfunctional white culture?

  9. We don’t. It’s Asians who need fixing, not whites. Well, maybe a bit of a balance, but Asians–the overachieving ones–need fixing as much if not more than whites,.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Since Asians get along just fine, they aren’t minorities.

  11. Within the last several months, I encountered an article that discussed the early days of residential integration. According to the author (sorry, can’t remember name or source), the first urban blacks to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods tended to come from next-door black neighborhoods that were culturally and educationally similar; black professionals started the process. Their residents had left the inner-city culture behind and had familiy structures, values, behaviors and expectations that were similar enough to their new neighbors’ to smooth the integration process. He commented that they would welcome the dropping of inner-city dysfunctionals in their communities just as little as would their white neighbors. That was 50 years ago and I think it’s far more true today; it’s not a racial issue, but a cultural one.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    momof4. Absolutely right.
    But see “Griffe du Lion” on the subject, and bring your friend who has the PhD in stat.