PROOF POINTS: Reconsidering the benefits of desegregation

Greenville High School in Mississippi. In 1969, a federal court ordered a faster integration strategy for Greenville’s public schools. A 2022 study finds that these court orders led to large educational and employment benefits for Black children in the South, but not the North. Credit: Jacob Carroll for The Hechinger Report

Nearly 68 years ago, the US 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.”

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