Since the ruling of Brown Vs the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 that ‘separate is never equal’, the Federal Government has forcefully pursued a policy of integration in American public schools. The only exceptions to this sweeping policy are a few ‘Afro-centric’ schools established.
It is an oft made point that self-described ‘Afro- centric’ schools, of which there are over one hundred in America, consistently out-perform mixed schools in outcomes for African-American students, especially males. These schools are not only successful, but also popular. Their enrollments constantly exceed expectations following decades of African-American disappointment with the public school system, as well as a preference for a curriculum focused on African and African-American history and topics.
This runs counter to expectations that were held in the 1940s and 50s. It was argued then and continues to be argued today that segregation carries with it the implicit message that black people are inferior to white people. Dr Kenneth Clark’s famous ‘Doll Test’, in which African- American children consistently chose white dolls or derided black ones, provided the intellectual basis for this.
Clark’s tests are not a sound reason for integrating schools. Nearly sixty years after those famous tests, similar results are still yielded despite integration. In fact Dr Clark himself yielded even more severe results in integrated Northern schools at the time, but neglected to inform the Supreme Court of these results. It could be that lacking ethnic or racial self-esteem is unrelated to education, and is really a result of white American society. Another possibility is that children pick up on how they are expected to answer the Doll Test, and answer in kind.
One paradox of this ‘integrate schools; raise black self- esteem; raise black achievement’ argument is that African- Americans consistently report higher self- esteem than either white Americans and, in particular, Asian- Americans. By all objective measurements of self- esteem, such as rates of self- harm, African Americans do better than white Americans, and especially Asian- Americans. There is no link between self- esteem and educational attainment.
If it were just an issue of how best to educate children then it could be left up to parents to decide the course of their children’s education. After all, you can be sure that parents are the people most likely to have to their child’s best interests at heart and to know what kind of education best suits their child. If it were the choice of parents, we may well see the proliferation of Afro- centric schools and counterparts for every ethnic group in America.
However, one of the aims of the integration was to increase contact between the races, an idea which had less to do with improving the education of students and more to do with solving what was then called ‘America’s Dilemma’. Marxist sociologists had during the 1940s and 50s concluded that the central problem not just with American race relations but with the whole of American society was the hatred, contempt and prejudice white Americans had for African- Americans. White Americans, they believed, were trapped in a vicious circle of holding blacks in an inferior position, seeing their degradation, and using that to justify more oppression.
The solution to this was to be equal status contact between blacks and whites, which it was thought would change white attitudes and allow blacks to rise in society, thus changing white attitudes further as the races discovered a common humanity. This aim would be assessed in two ways: how much contact the two races actually had and have, and how this contact changed how the races view each other.
It is impossible to completely accurately gauge how much either of these two things has happened. Do whites now have a more positive outlook on blacks and are African-Americans, with less prejudice facing them, more successful? My instinct is to answer ‘yes, but we still have further to go’. When I rethink it, perhaps I am doing an injustice to white attitudes in the 1950s – how different were they really?
The truth is that there is still relatively little meaningful contact between the races. Schools often complain that the races self-segregate at lunchtime, and whilst some research suggests that friendship crosses racial boundaries more frequently than before, deeper analysis suggest otherwise. It seems that it is much more frequent for white respondents to such surveys to report more black friends than black people do white friends. It is probably that white people think the interviewer will think better of them for this, so they exaggerate casual relationships into friendship.
Ultimately, integration in schools has failed in all of its aims, and any positive changes cannot be attributed to the school system. The achievement gap in educational attainment and career fulfilment continues unabated. The time for American schooling to be re-focussed on purely educational aims rather than social engineering is now. I cannot offer a prescription of how to solve America’s racial problems but it does not lie in our schools.