INTEGRATION : Tensions Aside, Public Is Found to Favor Racially Mixed Society


Despite evidence of increased racial tensions across the nation, black and white Americans still support the concept of a racially mixed society, especially integrated schools, according to a recent study.

This support has survived for 20 years, the study found, even though some segments of American society actually have become more segregated and political leaders have become increasingly reluctant to openly encourage desegregation of schools, neighborhoods and workplaces.

Furthermore, according to the report’s author, Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor of education and a nationally recognized expert on racial matters, the level of integration in Southern schools was unaffected by what he characterized as deliberate efforts by the Ronald Reagan Administration to undermine it.


BACKGROUND: Reagan came to power in 1980, “work(ing) for a policy of dismantling the mandatory desegregation requirements” that existed in many Southern school districts, Orfield said.

But by the time he left office, “all of the Reagan policies--the attacks on the courts, the anti-integration policies of the Education Department, the Justice Department’s legal motions for ending enforcement of court orders and the appointments of staunch conservatives to the federal courts--had no overall effect on the level of integration of Southern black students,” he said.

A draft of his report--”The Status of Desegregation: The Next Generation”--states that “in spite of increased segregation in some cities, the statistics for blacks across the United States showed that the widely expected increase in segregation during the Reagan years did not occur, even in the South, where most blacks live.”

Although some areas became more segregated, notably neighborhoods at the core of large cities in the Northeast, “they were balanced by areas of increasing integration,” in emerging suburbs.

Research data and anecdotal accounts point to the conclusion that most Americans favor school desegregation.

Drawing from polls conducted by Louis Harris, the American Council on Education, the National Opinion Research Corp. and the Boston Globe and Louisville Courier-Journal newspapers, the report noted “very substantial support for (school) desegregation and growing acceptance of busing” to accomplish it.

“The very strong political leadership against integration policies apparently had less effect on public attitudes than did the actual experience of students and families in integrated schools,” the report concluded.

OUTLOOK: Ironically, school districts that experienced the greatest disruption to achieve integration have achieved the best results, the desegregation study found.

For example, school plans in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Kansas City, where city and county students were reassigned under a single desegregation plan, “provided some increase in integration and major educational choices.” Other areas, like Los Angeles and De Kalb County near Atlanta, that chose to avoid major changes in their schools to achieve integration have experienced a rise in resegregation.

Drawing conclusions about society as a whole from his study of school desegregation, Orfield speculated in an interview that once whites and blacks endure the initial stresses of living and working with each other, they seem unwilling to reverse the process to resume living apart.

“Basically, the expectations are worse than the reality,” he said, referring to initial resistance to school desegregation plans. “But once the change has taken place, there are incentives not to change again.”

As evidence, he cited Chicago’s Hyde Park as an example of a stable, racially integrated neighborhood where residents are unwilling to allow the community to become all-black or all-white.

“Nobody is worried about whether this neighborhood is going to undergo a racial transition,” he said. “So no one seems to worry too much about race and the impact it will have on their property values. They know that there will always be demand from black and white families for homes in this area.”

Conversely, in a neighborhood that is changing from all-white or racially mixed to predominantly black, white residents tend to worry about their property values and schools. That’s why they leave, he said.

“They have a fear of being the last white in the neighborhood and that their child will be the last (white) one in the school,” Orfield said.