A liberal consensus has settled on the view that American schools must be more thoroughly integrated before black and Hispanic students can perform at the level of their white peers. The New York Times editorial board, for instance, recently described the city’s elite high schools as “profoundly segregated,” a state of affairs that calls to mind “the spirit of Jim Crow.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose long-form reporting on the subject earned her a MacArthur Genius Grant last year, detailed her experience as a black mother trying to find a school for her daughter in an “intensely segregated” system.
Whether Hannah-Jones and her ilk are right about the existence of segregation depends on what one means by the word. As it was once understood, “segregation” referred to the state-enforced policy of keeping whites and blacks apart; if progressives are worried about this kind of segregation, then they missed the boat by about 60 years. But Hannah-Jones is referring to segregation 2.0, under which—despite the existence of numerous laws and government programs actively promoting racial inclusion in housing and education—people of different ethnic and racial groups still tend to live among one another, for various reasons. Under this new definition, America is hopelessly segregated––but then, so is Manhattan’s Chinatown, so is Brooklyn’s Hasidic-Jewish enclave, and so are most other neighborhoods on earth.
If Americans have clustered along racial lines for the past five decades, free from state coercion, then why do neo-integrationists perceive a problem? The answer lies in one of the most famous rulings in American legal history: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” decreed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in his 1954 verdict in Brown v. Board of Education. If separate is unequal by its very nature, then it doesn’t matter whether blacks and whites have remained clustered by law or by choice; either way, we must integrate before blacks and Hispanics can excel academically.
But Warren’s pronouncement, iconic though it has become, was not true. Yes, separate was unequal. And yes, ending forced segregation was unambiguously the right move. But inequality was not an inherent consequence of racial separation itself. Rather, the inferior performance of black schools was the result of other factors—most black schools received fewer resources, black families were locked out of many sectors of the economy, black parents were less likely to be educated, and so on. Had all these contingent factors been different, there’s no reason to assume that black schools would have underperformed solely because there were no whites around. Separate was not inherently unequal. It was contingently unequal.
Warren’s claim stemmed from a popular misinterpretation of Kenneth Clark’s famous 1939 doll experiment, which found that black students preferred to play with white dolls over black ones. In the minds of many, this study definitively proved that segregation lowered black self-esteem all by itself. But Clark’s study actually found the reverse: even though the South was more segregated, Southern blacks were less likely to choose the white doll than Northern blacks were. Moreover, the most extensive study of American schools ever conducted, the Coleman report of 1966, found that the positive correlation between racial integration and student performance was “less than, and largely accounted for by, other characteristics of the student body than the racial composition.”
If Warren’s edict were true, then we wouldn’t see all-black schools that perform at the level of all-white or racially mixed schools. But such schools have existed for decades. Dunbar High, an all-black public school in Washington, D.C., outscored two out of three white academic high schools in the city as early as 1899. Neither destitute nor affluent, Dunbar students exceeded the national average on IQ tests, despite the school’s paltry segregation-era funding. As Thomas Sowell quipped, “Dunbar was located within walking distance of the Supreme Court that essentially declared its existence impossible.”
More recently, Success Academy in New York City, a chain of public charter schools that overwhelmingly serves poor black and Latino students, outperformed state averages on standardized tests in 2016. This year, Success middle-schoolers, though enrolled by lottery, were more than twice as likely as black and Latino students citywide to gain acceptance to New York’s elite high schools. The existence of schools like Dunbar and Success may surprise neo-integrationists, but it does not surprise those of us who reject the idea that black kids must sit near white kids in order to learn algebra.
A familiar neo-integrationist argument asserts that poor students do better in wealthy schools than they do in poor schools. Blacks are more likely to be poor than whites; therefore, we must integrate schools so that black kids can reap the benefits of going to school with kids from wealthier families. But this argument only works in a world where “black” is a synonym for “poor.” To the contrary, most black Americans aren’t poor and most poor Americans aren’t black. The same is true of Hispanics. If poverty is the real issue, then why not talk about it directly, instead of using race as a proxy?
Another neo-integrationist argument, heard recently in the debate about New York City’s entrance exam for its elite high schools, is that poor blacks and Hispanics do not, and cannot be expected to, spend time and money preparing for entrance exams. Admitting students based on test scores alone thus puts blacks and Hispanics at an unfair disadvantage. But as with many progressive arguments about education, this one fails to explain the success of Asian-Americans, who are over-represented in elite schools, regardless of socioeconomic status. The New York Times editorial board admits that many of the Asian-American students that populate the city’s elite high schools “come from families that have scrimped on essentials like food to pay for test prep.” Scrimping on necessities may have conferred advantages onto Asian-American kids, but only in the upside-down minds of New York Times editorialists could such gains be called unfair.
According to the Times, “generations of poverty and racism” render modern-day blacks and Hispanics distinct from Asian-Americans—and thus not usefully compared— even though Asian-Americans have also experienced plenty of racism and poverty. But there is no reason to believe that racism and poverty cause academic apathy to begin with. After emancipation, for instance, newly freed blacks launched a heroic effort to learn how to read and write, increasing the black literacy rate from 5 percent to 66 percent in just 50 years. Generations of enslavement led not to academic disinterest but to an intense thirst for knowledge.
The neo-integrationists believe that helping blacks and Hispanics means changing the system until it rewards whatever level of effort blacks and Hispanics are already putting in. But this is like training for a marathon by redefining “marathon” to mean however many miles you can already run—it might seem rewarding in the short-term, but it removes the incentive to improve. And the track record of social engineers should make us profoundly skeptical that a top-down effort to determine where millions of individuals educate themselves would go off without a hitch or an unintended consequence. The neo-integrationist agenda offers fake help that would lead to even faker progress, and blacks and Hispanics should reject it roundly.
Photo: Steve Debenport/iStock