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Cultural hurdles to achieving school integration

Prudence Carter's research explores why desegregation efforts have fallen short in closing the achievement gap between white and black students.

Prudence Carter
Prudence Carter

By Garnett Russell

Summer is here. As public schools close for vacation, so do the busing programs that seek to racially integrate students nine months out of the year. What happens over the summer — students returning to their separate neighborhoods and social groups — shows the limits of these programs.

Policy has focused on the achievement gap between white and minority students and on resources such as funding for school buildings, computers and textbooks. But Prudence Carter, professor of education, believes we should pay equal attention to whether desegregation programs succeed socially and culturally — for example, by helping students form friendships across racial lines. In her book Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools (Oxford University Press, 2012) Carter offers insight into how schools and parents can improve the social side of desegregation programs, while also boosting academics.

According to Carter, successful integration depends on whether schools develop "cultural flexibility" in students — the ability to interact with different types of people. Seen in this way, the success or failure of school integration has important implications for building a more democratic and tolerant society.

Schools that create a welcoming environment by incorporating diversity into the curriculum and by involving all students in extracurricular activities are more successfully integrated, Carter says. Students at these schools have higher levels of cultural flexibility, as revealed in the surveys and interviews that Carter conducted. What's more, cultural flexibility is important for students' sense of social and academic inclusion — and may ultimately help in closing the achievement gap itself.

School desegregation insufficient

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racially separate schools were inherently unequal. But the resulting desegregation programs — such as busing — haven't necessarily created more integrated schools.  According to Carter, students in “desegregated” schools often inhabit separate social worlds. They take different classes, they play on different sports teams, and they sit with separate groups in the cafeteria. Additionally, integration has yet to arrive on a broader social level, in terms of acknowledging and attributing equal value to minority groups within the community.

Judah, a 15-year-old African-American student who buses to a majority white high school, summed up the situation for Carter. “The system doesn’t encourage us to interact," he said. "Think about it … [T]he purpose of the program is not just about [students of color] coming out to suburban schools, doing the homework and going back to our own homes…. The other purpose is to teach each other what we have to offer.”

Reinforcing boundaries

Why don't students socialize more across racial boundaries? Carter found that extracurricular activities and academic courses often reinforce racial lines between students.

For instance, at a majority white school in the South, cheerleading, baseball, and Young Republicans were viewed as “white” sports or clubs.  At another majority white school in an urban area, the students who bussed in, primarily Latino and African American, often sat together in the cafeteria at lunch or in a separate designated study room.  

In other words, separation within school spaces creates symbolic boundaries for groups — something that translates to real consequences for integration.

For boys, however, extracurricular activities sometimes provide a route to integration. A related study found that, compared to girls, black and Latino males in desegregated schools could gain social acceptance through participation in sports and the embodiment of “hip hop culture.” Thus, a male black student who participates in sports and is seen as “cool” by the other kids is more likely to be accepted into the culture of the majority white school.

Academic courses also reinforce boundaries among students. For example, in one predominantly white school, none of the students who bussed in were encouraged to take a class on ancient Rome.

Tracking systems create further boundaries. In the majority white schools, very few minority students were enrolled in honors classes — these students felt they were not expected or encouraged to enroll in honors courses. In schools with a large number of minority students, proportionally more African-American students enrolled in honors courses. Participation in these advanced classes was associated with higher self-esteem and higher levels of cultural flexibility.  

Promoting cultural flexibility

Carter argues that research and policy needs to move beyond school funding and achievement and focus more on what she calls the "soft structures" of schooling. Improving resources is not enough to overcome the subtle cues that minority students do not belong. To change school cultures, we can't just think about merely having students attend the same schools — we must integrate social and cultural practices.

Schools should focus more on integrating different racial and ethnic groups across different classes, extracurricular activities and clubs, according to Carter. Students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds should be encouraged to participate in different courses and clubs ranging from model United Nations to orchestra.

Schools should also support the value of different cultures. Carter found higher levels of cultural flexibility at schools that offered multicultural history and diverse cultural displays. Students also felt more included when schools displayed images of diverse people in the posters on classroom walls.

The visibility of role models in a diverse teaching staff is important in making diverse students feel welcome. One African American student told Carter he was pleased to see her, a teacher and professor — someone who looked like him and was "really smart."

Finally, an open environment that promotes discussion of race, ethnicity, gender, and class — rather than avoiding discussion around these issues —creates a greater likelihood for constructive dialog and change.

Carter believes that schools should develop a metric to systematically measure how well these things are being done, rather than focusing solely on academic achievement. Indeed, it's possible that improving cultural flexibility might ultimately improve academic achievement since minority students with a greater sense of inclusion at their school might also do better academically.

Parents partner with schools

Schools cannot, on their own, solve all inequality in society. In fact, parents and communities sometimes unwittingly reinforce inequalities in society and in some cases override the work of schools.

Parents can do several things, according to Carter. They can encourage schools to promote diversity in the curricula and in school activities. They can openly discuss racial and ethnic issues with their children. Finally, they can set examples for how to cross social and symbolic boundaries when it comes to different racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality or class groups.

This article was written by Garnett Russell for Gender News at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Russell was a Graduate Dissertation Fellow 2012-2013  at the Clayman Institute and is a doctoral candidate in International and Comparative Education at Stanford Graduate School of Education.


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