E. Racially Mixed Schools Need Much Attention and Care: Summing it all Up

Putting these six racially mixed high schools from the late 1970s into their broader social, political, and historical contexts has proven to be a valuable exercise, one that helps us rethink the current, overly simplistic debate about the "success" or "failure" of school desegregation policy in this country. Indeed, rather than portray the struggles of these schools as evidence that we have fallen short of the ideal of a racially more equal and just society, we want to point to these stories as evidence of both how far we have come and how much further we need to go.

Much of the burden of righting the historical wrongs was placed on the public schools, while much of the rest of the society, except for the military, continued along its separate and unequal path. If white privilege was not strongly challenged in other realms of our society, we should not be at all surprised that it was barely challenged at all in racially mixed schools. What we have learned from our six districts and schools is that, despite what many adults thought back in the 1970s, their journey toward equal educational opportunities was not complete once white, black, and Latino students walked through the same school doors; it had only just begun.

A white school district administrator in Charlotte, who was one of the many principals of West Charlotte High School in the 1970s, reflected on how different the understandings of the goals of school desegregation were in the 1970s. He said that back then there was a tension among liberal white educators who supported desegregation and racial equality in theory, but who also wanted to teach the predominantly white high-track classes. Many of these educators were not ready to close the black-white achievement gap at that time. The administrator noted:

Our moral issue [in the 1970s] was to get two groups of people together who had never been together before, and let them succeed, or let the institution succeed as a result of creating that kind of grouping. I think the moral dilemma today is, you got to go deeper than that. It's not enough just to put two groups of people together. Those two groups of people had to be put together and come out on equal terms. I don't think that was in our thought process at the time.

Another central paradox is that by the time educators began to figure out how and what they could and should try to accomplish in racially mixed schools, the number of such schools was declining. For instance, shortly after we conducted our interviews, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools ended their court-ordered school desegregation plan, and West Charlotte High School, as we noted, is now predominantly black once more.

. Professor of Sociology and Education, Columbia Teacher's College.