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Desegregation: METCO and the Nation

Policy Research


I  Major things we know about this policy area

According to Guryan, there was not an organized, nation-wide campaign to desegregation public schools in the United States. Instead, private civil rights groups brought a series of court cases and the court cases led to the most effective desegregation efforts. (Guryan, 2004) While the first Brown decision was enforced mainly in the courts by political forces, the second Brown decision deemed that enforcement would be carried out by localized federal district courts on a case-by-case basis. (Guryan, 2004) Broadly speaking, the school desegregation process was shaped by two developments: First. the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited federal aid for segregated schools and enabled the U.S. Department of Justice to join suit against school districts that failed to comply with the Brown order; And second, in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could not comply with Brown by removing attendance restrictions that were based on race. (Guryan, 2004) Districts were forced to take positive action that would lead to effective integration of the schools and many of the busing plans that integrated large urban school districts followed from the Green ruling. (Guryan, 2004)

Let us take a look at the attitudes toward School Desegregation. All regional, cohort, and educational groups have increased tolerance for school desegregation in principle. (Smith, 1982) 1. Regional differences: Southerners and non-southerners become more alike in their tolerance of school desegregation. While not yet equal to northern whites in their tolerance on this issue, southern whites have registered dramatic increases over time. (Smith, 1982) 2. Cohort differences: The significant differences in white Americans’ tolerance of school desegregation occur consistently from 1954 to 1980. The most tolerant cohort is the Vietnam age group; the World War I cohort is the least tolerant of school desegregation over time. (Smith, 1982) 3. Educational differences: Whites with differing levels of educational attainment manifest consistent differences in tolerance of school desegregation. The most tolerant educational attainment group consists of whites educated beyond high school. The least tolerant group is also the least educated. (Smith, 1982)


II. Different strategies for desegregation

School desegregation has been one of America's most salient social and political problems. (Cataldo, 1975) While achieving school desegregation in the South was largely a matter of enforcing the law, outside the South, school segregation was long thought to be based on residential segregation and not legal action. (Cataldo, 1975)

Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 brought greater pressure to bear on recalcitrant school districts. (Cataldo, 1975) With both the judicial and executive branches of government joined in concerted effort, substantial progress began to be made. (Cataldo, 1975) While most Southern school districts have been declared unitary, a majority of them cover medium-sized cities and towns and rural areas where the logistics of desegregation are relatively easy, and where many whites cannot easily afford the high costs of private schools for their children. (Cataldo, 1975)

To distinguish between white flight from the schools and white flight from the cities may not be necessary because both of them may occur simultaneously in mutual reinforcement, producing a common result: city schools become increasingly black, suburban schools virtually all-white. (Cataldo, 1975) White flight from the cities continued unabated from 1960 to 1970, but by contrast, black migration into the suburbs was very small. (Cataldo, 1975) Thus, metropolitan fragmentation and suburban diffusion have left central cities and their suburbs stratified by race. (Cataldo, 1975) Residential preferences would not exclusively determine school assignments, and the racial stratification between central cities and suburbs would be broken, at least insofar as education is concerned. (Cataldo, 1975)

Parents whose children are transferred from suburban schools to central city schools would be more likely to reject than parents whose children remain in suburban schools. (Cataldo, 1975) Suburb-city transfers often involve busing, but the suburb-suburb transfers sometimes also involved busing. (Cataldo, 1975) Percent black, not busing, is the controlling factor in rejection decisions for parents whose children are transferred from suburban schools to city schools. (Cataldo, 1975)

The absence of significant residential desegregation in the suburbs and the concentration of the black population in central cities make effective school desegregation difficult without consolidated planning for the entire metropolitan region. (Cataldo, 1975) Suburban diffusion of the white population does not in itself constitute a barrier to consolidated planning. (Cataldo, 1975)


III The underlying social problem

Broadly speaking, there have been three overlapping demographic racial eras in the twentieth century: The first era was from 1915 to World War II. (Pettigrew, 1979) World War I abruptly ended European immigration and thus industry turned to the South and began to recruit among poor whites and blacks alike. (Pettigrew, 1979) This massive migration of blacks from farm to city and from south to north made race relations not just a provincial concern of the former Confederacy, but for the first time an urban and national concern. (Pettigrew, 1979) The second era was from 1945 to 1970. The boom in housing construction following World War II basically established present pattern of intra-metropolitan segregation of the races and the largest force in this process of residential separation was the Federal Government itself. (Pettigrew, 1979)  Just as the first demographic era established race relations as a national issue, this second era established race relations as a metropolitan issue. (Pettigrew, 1979) The third era was from 1970 to present. Before the nation has come to grips with the metropolitan scope of its racial problems, the third demographic era has arrived. (Pettigrew, 1979)

According to Pettigrew, there are three social factors behind the issue:

1. Discontinuities of social change. The treatment of black Americans has been a national issue since the very beginning and it has shaped and contorted much of the social structure. (Pettigrew, 1979) No social change occurs smoothly and consistently either within or across institutions. And the discontinuities across institutional sectors can greatly impede social change. (Pettigrew, 1979)

2. Altered nature of racial discrimination. Racial discrimination lives on in many forms, but its character has fundamentally changed since World War II. (Pettigrew, 1979) Older forms of institutional discrimination generally invoked total exclusion of blacks or a rigid color line above which blacks could not rise but over recent decades, these older forms have been replaced by secondary racial discrimination that is more indirect, more subtle, more procedural, more ostensibly nonracial, and more centered upon spatial arrangements, demographic trends, and housing patterns. (Pettigrew, 1979)

3. Racial attitude changes. White resistance to many forms of racial change has declined while black insistence has risen. (Pettigrew, 1979) On one hand, the modifications of white America's attitudes on a wide range of racial issues are especially notable in the improved stereotypes of blacks and in support of the eradication of the more direct forms of racial discrimination. (Pettigrew, 1979) But court-ordered school desegregation soon after began to sweep through the region, and white southern parents steadily changed their minds. (Pettigrew, 1979) On the other hand, Black attitude shifts need to be qualified in terms of age and region. (Pettigrew, 1979) The 1954 Supreme Court ruling against school segregation had an enormous effect on raising the hopes of black Americans of all ages, but heightened militancy and alienation from white society is most notable among young blacks who grew up with the civil rights movement, and never experienced the full force of traditional American racism. (Pettigrew, 1979) Similarly, black northerners never knew the full depths of southern racial oppression, and have in recent years witnessed less structural improvement in their region than black southerners. (Pettigrew, 1979)


IV The efficacy of different approaches

According to Guryan, desegregation plans affect black dropout rates through three main channels. First, the reassignment of students within the school district affects the set of peers with which students attend school. (Guryan, 2004) New student assignment plans cause parents to withdraw their children from the public schools, or to move out of the district altogether. (Guryan, 2004) Net of effects on the total enrollment and the racial composition of the district, desegregation plans alter the set of peers with which black children attend school. (Guryan, 2004)

Second, desegregation plans move black students to better schools. (Guryan, 2004) If whites attended better schools than blacks did before integration, then on average desegregation should improve the quality of schools that blacks attend. Though total support for schools may decline as a result of desegregation-induced migration, integration may still lead to a change in the average quality of schools to which black students are assigned. (Guryan, 2004)

Third, there are other effects of desegregation plans on black educational outcomes. (Guryan, 2004) Parents may become more involved in their children's education as a result of increased information, or in order to reap the benefits of the fight they have recently won. (Guryan, 2004)  The legal victory that usually accompanies a desegregation plan may also make black children feel enfranchised. (Guryan, 2004)






Cataldo, E. (1975). Metropolitan School Desegregation: Practical Remedy or Impractical Ideal? Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 422, The Suburban Seventies (1975), pp. 97-104

Pettigrew, T. (1979). Racial Change and Social Policy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 441, Race and Residence in American Cities, (1979), pp. 114-131

Guryan, J. (2004). Desegregation and Black Dropout Rates. The American Economic Review, 4 (2004), pp. 919-943

Smith, A. (1982). White Attitudes toward School Desegregation, 1954-1980: An Update on Continuing Trends. The Pacific Sociological Review, 25 (1982), pp. 3-25



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