The Dream Revisited

In Search of Integration: Beyond Black & White

by Rucker C. Johnson | January 2014

I appreciate the opportunity to join this blog platform and react to the thoughtful, provocative, and rich comments set forth by my colleague, Mary Pattillo.  While my comments are not direct replies to her main tenets, my views are certainly aligned with her points and sentiments.  I hope my response will further the all-important purpose of this dialogue.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the singular high points of the Civil Rights Movement—the March on Washington—it is important to recall that its educational goal was the desegregation of all school districts.  Despite the March and the resulting policy changes, today as a nation, we sit in a backslidden condition.  America’s schools are more segregated now than they were in the early 1970s. 

Often, the words desegregation and integration are used interchangeably, as if they are one and the same.  Conflating the two is erroneous, and lacks an understanding of the process MLK envisioned--"to change behavior, not only laws."  Desegregation alone was not enough. Along the highway of justice, desegregation was to be an immediate point of origination—the final destination: equal opportunity for all.  Integration, however, was to be the map guiding the hearts and minds to a paradigm shift that would take us beyond legalistic compliance with desegregation into the spirit of the democratic dream of integration and inclusion.  Brown was intended not only to promote equitable access to school quality, but also to alter the attitudes and socialization of all children—beginning at the youngest ages.  Beyond the removal of the legal and social prohibitions of segregation, beyond law enforcement agencies and the courts, desegregation was a necessary but not sufficient condition that represented the partial down-payment, the lay away plan, toward the final goals of equal educational opportunity and inclusion.

Outmoded and unjust laws are not the only barriers to change. While the rollout of civil rights laws washed away segregated public facilities, it could not wash away the greatest barriers to true equality: fear, prejudice, and irrationality.  Efforts to achieve either desegregation or integration singularly have proven elusive because the two are inseparable.  King anticipated this when he said, "Desegregation is enforceable…integration is not," because it requires changes in attitudes.  The response—white and middle class flight, segregated classes within desegregated schools, lower expectations for students of color, disparate disciplinary measures, and racist attitudes—certainly short-circuited the efforts to move beyond desegregation to integrated communities.  Too often policy makers have settled for superficial fixes to the complexities of integration.  As a result, we are fifty years down the path, but in many respects, virtually no closer to the destination. 

Because of the persistent patterns of segregation, many view segregation as inevitable.  Spoiler Alert: not so…and history is our witness that policy choices play a key role.  Urban cities are hyper-segregated because of the legacy of historic patterns of racial discrimination in mortgage lending, the geography of public housing units, racially-motivated city planning and zoning policy, highway construction, and gentrified development strategies that price poor families out of their existing neighborhoods, to name a few.  Such unfairness creates greater inequities and exacerbates existing poverty.  It is unconscionable that in 1968, when MLK died, the black child poverty rate was 35%, and it is the same rate today.  Poverty, like segregation, is man-made, and thus can be unmade by man.

Focusing again on desegregation….at first glance, the initial effort toward school desegregation may appear to have been about merely placing people as pawns, mixing up the social Rubik’s Cube, or constructing a color compound for success.  Placing brown bodies next to white bodies does not osmotically improve the life trajectory of Blacks, nor does it infuse Blacks’ wealth holdings or resources with that of whites.  Though the cultural mosaic of diversity is a positive outcome of integration, for the proponents of Brown, diversity per se was not the steam propelling the train down the “long road to freedom.”  More than anything, for many in the black community, the goal was to galvanize and redistribute school resources to ensure a quality education in every district, for every child, from every neighborhood, of any race, ethnicity, and class.  Brown insisted that America acknowledge and make reparations for the existing inequities that left one People a step behind in education, and therefore earnings, and therefore health, wealth, and so forth. 

I am hopeful, yet I question how the goal of providing high-quality educational opportunities can be successfully achieved and sustained for children of all race/ethnicity and income groups without addressing housing policies that shape residential segregation patterns along these lines.  Segregation too often leaves poor and minority schools with lower-quality facilities, larger class sizes, and less effective teachers, which leads to poor academic outcomes and diminished later-life success.  Moreover, unjust systems of inequality can shackle children to the poverty cycle and keep them from discovering their true potential.  For example, school finance systems that rely primarily on the local property tax base generate significant differences in per-pupil spending, which is intensified by wealthy parents’ capacity to enhance and enrich existing resources (Jackson and Johnson, 2014).  School desegregation and school finance reform have in common the goal of promoting equal access to educational opportunity.  One strategy focuses on redistributing school children, the other on redistributing money, targeted toward poor and minority children.  Pursuing strategies to promote integration and championing ones that ensure equal educational opportunity should not be conceived as an “either/or” proposition, but a “both-and” one. 

Even if America had ever achieved separate and equal, that equilibrium could not be maintained in perpetuity.  As long as one people has lesser, and fewer, resources and opportunities than another, the socio-economic imbalance will again emerge.   Less fortunate communities would again be found contending with single-parenthood, high crime rates, non-college educated parents, a low property-tax base, and more while trying to simply gain an education.  Brown was to position these underserved communities so they could eventually have an educated mass that could not only advocate for their children with confidence, but they could advocate for the very principles from which all children could benefit.

As we look for solutions to address the achievement gap, I am reminded of the story of the person searching for their lost key under a lamppost. It’s not that the key was lost under the lamppost that drives their search—but rather that under the lamppost shines the light. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places; or perhaps we have incorrectly assumed that there is only one place to look.  The search for a single key is misguided; for in reality, there are multiple keys that collectively open the doors of success and close the doors to opportunity gaps.  Whether we choose desegregation, school finance reform, or charter schools, all offer an answer, but none is the single and complete answer to address inequality.

The black-white achievement gap narrowed substantially in the 1970s and 80s and has been stagnant since then.  We can learn from our previous success.  Desegregation and improved access to quality (reductions in class size, increases in school spending) were key contributors to closing the gaps back then.  For blacks a generation ago, school desegregation significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status; desegregation had no effects on whites across each of these outcomes.  The mechanisms through which school desegregation led to beneficial adult attainment outcomes for blacks include improvement in access to school resources reflected in reductions in class size and increases in per-pupil spending (Johnson, 2013). Also at that time, the federal government began to invest in early childhood education.  Case in point: those very investments set me, and people like me, on a path to experience and achieve things beyond what my parents attained.  These approaches work and will work again, if we invest in them. 

Unfortunately, some of the gains of the ‘70s and ‘80s eroded as both whites & middle-class blacks left the cities, and urban school systems became in some ways as socioeconomically and racially segregated as they were at the time of the Brown decision.  The combination of racial segregation and concentrated poverty can be toxic without addressing school and non-school educational needs of our most disadvantaged children.  Such toxicity is further exacerbated in the heat of any economic crisis when we seem more drawn to the loss of financial capital than the need for human and health capital investments.  We ought not leave such jaded footprints on children’s early-life experiences. 

Today, segregation may not be as conspicuous as 30-40 years ago.  Contemporary segregation takes on more nuanced forms, but the consequences are no less pernicious.  We have desegregated schools, yet segregated classrooms.  The quality of curricular content between districts differs substantially (e.g., access to early education programs, gifted and talented programs, AP offerings, tracking beginning at young ages).  There are larger between-district differences than within-district, and inter-district metro-wide desegregation plans have been ruled unconstitutional, limiting that policy lever’s efficacy.  A new legal environment, beginning in the early 1990s, diminished desegregation standards and resulted in the release of hundreds of districts from their court-mandated desegregation orders, which led to a re-segregation of schools.  Since then, more than one-half of school districts that were ever under court order have now been released. 

Furthermore, contemporary segregation and effects on racial inequality have taken an even more negative turn with regard to criminal justice policy, and the early antecedents of them are witnessed in elevated minority school suspension rates.  Profound changes in sentencing policy since the 1980s were fueled, in part, by the politics of fear—perceptions of neighborhood safety were colored by race. To underscore how much this has changed things, we would have to release 4 out of 5 people from behind bars in order to return to the rates of incarceration of the 1970s (Alexander, 2011; Raphael & Stoll, 2013).  In today’s schools, these fears are evident in the assumptions and judgments that teachers make about black boys, in particular, and underscore that ultimately without parent advocacy and agency, institutions will foster and sustain disparate outcomes.  Regardless of our dogged intentions, true integration has escaped our grasp, and American apartheid haunts us over and again.  The more we slam the hammer of justice on the head of segregation, the more it evades us and rears its nefarious head in a different place and a different guise. 

These negative outcomes are recorded in history, but there are some promising models of successful modern-day interventions that provide a blueprint for us to follow.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is noteworthy for its comprehensive, full-scale initiatives that seek to improve children’s educational opportunities with wrap-around services from birth to college and beyond, by providing family support and programs in pre-school academics, media and technology, fitness and nutrition, as well as college and career preparation.  Another meritorious enterprise is the mixed-housing income intervention of Montgomery County, Maryland, which demonstrates that achievement among poor black children increases with integration, attendance in middle-class schools, and increased compensatory education funding for disadvantaged children (Schwartz, 2010).  These policies have promise to break the vicious cycle of poor school performance leading to poverty, and poverty leading to poor school performance, and constitute reform models for other cities to follow. 

Consider that, within the next 10 years, the majority of children in our country will be minorities. The era of integration that existed during the Civil Rights Movement is not the same as the world we now inherit: the black-white dichotomy is an old paradigm.  We have shifted from communities that are black and white to ones that are multi-ethnic in a globally competitive, 21st-century knowledge economy.  The global community requires multi-cultural competencies.  No matter where our children live and work in the future, their neighborhood will be part of a multi-cultural and global community; our failure will be in not adequately preparing them for that new reality. 

Our diversity as a country has always been a jewel, but far too often not treasured as such.  Strategies to further the goals of racial/ethnic and economic integration in schools have faded from mainstream policy agendas.  While we have better data and better research on what works, we do not expend sufficient effort collecting data to track the extent of school segregation by race and economic status, which in my view reflects diminished policy priority.  In the past, we counted the percent of students who were black vs white. If we got the percent balanced, we thought we were done—we did what the court said. We now need to collect data and conduct research that offers a different and clearer picture of where we see evidence of success, where disparate outcomes persist, how the combination of factors matter (education, early childhood, health, jobs, wages, family support structures), and which levers to push.  We cannot afford to ignore, or merely put a bandage on, the low achievement of minority children in racially isolated inner cities.  Apathy is often the enemy of progressive action that confronts inequity and injustice. 

How can we best marshal our collective voice and actions to confront these challenges?  We must renew our commitment to challenge discrimination and segregation in whatever form it takes, engage our passions in serving youth, fulfill our purpose in life, and learn from others who have fulfilled theirs.  King and Mandela are our best models of the duality of being both an agitator and a healer for justice.  In following their example, we must take courage to initiate the uncomfortable conversations about race and inequality.  We must fear the cost of inaction more than the cost of action.


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.

Jackson, Kirabo and Rucker C. Johnson.  2014.  “Long-term Impacts of School Finance Reform.”  UC-Berkeley working paper.

Johnson, Rucker C. 2011. “Long-Run Impacts of School Desegregation and School Quality on Adult Attainments.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #W16664.  Updated 2013.

Raphael, Steven & Michael Stoll.  2013.  Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?  New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.

Schwartz, Heather. 2010. “Housing Policy Is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland.” Century Foundation.

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings & Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Melvin Washington, ed. 1986.  San Francisco: Harper Collins Press.

Rucker C. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley. His work considers the role of poverty and inequality in affecting life chances.

More in Discussion 1: Why Integration?