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U of L Grawemeyer Award winner’s research shows racial integration worked for Black students

Courtesy of UC Berkeley
Brittany Hosea
Courtesy of UC Berkeley

A researcher whose recent work shows positive impacts of racial integration in American schools has won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville.

University of California-Berkeley professor Rucker Johnson used data from longitudinal studies of thousands of students going back to the 1960s to look at the impact of racial integration in schools, including those in Louisville. He found that Black students who attended integrated schools saw many gains in education and quality of life compared to students who remained in segregated majority-Black schools.

His findings are explained in his 2019 book “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.”

Rucker’s research shows integration in the 1970s and 1980s led to Black students having higher graduation rates, better college access, higher incomes, lower incarceration rates and even better health outcomes.

“By the late ‘80s, Black college-going rates had reached the same levels as white college-going rates at that time,” Rucker said. “It’s that period where we see the greatest racial convergence in not just educational attainment, but in earnings and health—this kind of narrowing of health disparities.”

Rucker’s research also showed the longer Black students spent in integrated schools, the better their outcomes were.

There’s a big caveat, however: integration only leads to better outcomes if it also increases Black students’ access to resources.

“Prior to desegregation, a lot of the district-level spending was disproportionately allocated to the majority-white schools,” Rucker said.

Integration gave poor, Black students access to the same resources as white children, and their outcomes improved, Rucker said.

“A big part of the impacts that we’re seeing for African Americans is through the channel of increased access to school resources,” he said. “When the integration efforts didn’t lead to significant changes in access to school resources, we don’t see the same bang for the buck.”

Meanwhile, integration had no impact on white students’ education attainment. However, it did have social impacts. White students who went to integrated schools had less racial prejudice, more diverse friendships and more progressive political views as adults, Rucker said.

“That’s a really important part of thinking about the full scope through which integration can transform communities in ways that are beyond just test scores,” he said.

Johnson said he’s concerned by the re-segregation of schools since the peak of integration in 1988. Since then, federal judges have become more conservative and less likely to enforce integration with court orders.

Today, schools are just as racially segregated as they were in 1968, according to a study from the University of California Civil Rights Project.

Jefferson County Public Schools, while long held up as a poster-child for maintaining racial integration, is also becoming more segregated. A new student assignment proposal would likely worsen that segregation, but proponents say the current design unfairly burdens Black students with leaving their neighborhoods.

Rucker’s Grawemeyer Award in Education comes with a $100,000 prize. The award is given annually to honor landmark ideas in education, music, religion, political science and psychology.

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