The Dream Revisited

Talking About Diversity

by James Ryan | March 2014

I admire Professor Clotefelter’s  post about economic and racial segregation, just as I admire his scholarship generally. I also agree with his points about the different normative salience of economic as opposed to racial segregation, the importance of policy with respect to economic (and racial) segregation, and the growth generally (though variably) of both kinds of segregation.

In this brief post, I want to focus on how we tend to talk about racial and economic segregation at the K-12 level and how this differs markedly from how we talk about the same thing at the university and college level. At the K-12 level, most of the academic—and public—conversation about segregation speaks in terms of costs. The costs are almost always costs borne by poor students or racial minorities. A good example is in Professor Clotfelter’s post, where he writes that “economic segregation almost inevitably means unequal access to the best teachers and other resources.” There are two points in this statement: economic segregation has costs, and those costs are borne by the poorer students. The latter point is implicit but perfectly clear, as no one would doubt that it is the poorer kids who lack access to the best teachers and other resources. 

And so goes the conversation generally. In most social science studies about segregation, whether racial or economic, the focus is usually on the harms of segregation, and the victims of this harm are racial minorities or poor students. There is nothing wrong with this per se, as segregation does lead to inequalities, and those inequalities (in access to good teachers, safe facilities, educational resources, etc.) tend to disadvantage poorer students and racial minorities. 

But this is not the only way to talk about segregation, and it may not be the most persuasive. 

To see why, contrast the conversation about K-12 segregation with the conversation about the same topic at universities and colleges. But wait, you might be thinking, we don’t really talk about segregation at universities and colleges. We talk about diversity. You are right, of course, and that is precisely my point. Instead of talking about the harms of segregation in higher education, we talk about the benefits of diversity. There are political and, especially, legal reasons to frame the conversation this way, as the Supreme Court has explicitly approved the use of race in admissions to further campus diversity.

Regardless of the reason for the different focus, notice the effect when the conversation shifts from the harms of segregation to the benefits of integration or diversity. Importantly, the stakes for the audience—what’s in it for them—change. When we talk only about harms to poor students, and redressing those harms, middle-income families might naturally wonder:  what is in this for me and my children? And what might we have to sacrifice in order to help others? One need not be a thorough-going cynic to think a conversation focused on addressing the harms to poor children may not galvanize the steadfast support of most middle-income and affluent families. 

Suppose, instead, the conversation were about the benefits to every student of attending a racially and economically diverse school? That is, imagine the conversation were not simply about the costs of racial or economic segregation (costs borne by just one segment of the student body) but about the benefits to all students of attending a racially and economically diverse school? It’s not as if we lack research on this topic (see e.g. Siegel-Hawley 2012). It exists, but it does not get as much attention as it should, and there can and should be more of it. 

Put plainly, if we want research to influence public policy, my belief is that it will do so when it identifies what economists would call pareto-optimal policies rather than policies that seem zero-sum.  In plainer language, if research can show that all students can benefit from attending diverse schools, I believe that research would be far more influential on public policy than suggesting that a redistribution of resources to poor kids would help poor kids.  Don't get me wrong:  I believe in educational equity, just as I believe in justice, and I have been writing about these topics my entire career.  I just think we should not shy away from opportunities to talk about policies that can actually benefit everyone.

Professor Clotfelter ends his post with a call for more research about economic segregation in schools. I completely endorse that call. I would just hope that the focus of that research is on how all students can benefit from attending a diverse school and, just as importantly, on how schools can create and maintain academically successful, socially vibrant, and stable diverse schools. I am not saying, as the song goes, that we should eliminate the negative, but it would help a lot to accentuate the positive.



Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012 October). How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from Racially Diverse Schools. [research brief no. 8]. Washington, DC: National Coalition on School Diversity.

James Ryan is Dean and Professor of Education of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

More in Discussion 2: Economic Segregation in Schools