Has Desegregation Worsened Black Student Outcomes?

Acting White by Stuart Buck

Richard Thompson Ford reviews Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation:

But suppose integration doesn’t change the culture of underperformance? What if integration inadvertently created that culture in the first place? This is the startling hypothesis of Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck argues that the culture of academic underachievement among black students was unknown before the late 1960s. It was desegregation that destroyed thriving black schools where black faculty were role models and nurtured excellence among black students. In the most compelling chapter of Acting White, Buck describes that process and the anguished reactions of the black students, teachers, and communities that had come to depend on the rich educational and social resource in their midst.

Buck draws on empirical studies that suggest a correlation between integrated schools and social disapproval of academic success among black students. He also cites the history of desegregation’s effect on black communities and interviews with black students to back up a largely compelling—and thoroughly disturbing—story. Desegregation introduced integrated schools where most of the teachers and administrators were white and where, because of generations of educational inequality, most of the best students were white. Black students bused into predominantly white schools faced hostility and contempt from white students. They encountered the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren’t capable and from liberals who coddled them. Academic tracking shunted black students into dead-end remedial education. The effect was predictably, and deeply, insidious. The alienation typical of many young people of all races acquired a racial dimension for black students: Many in such schools began to associate education with unsympathetic whites, to reject their studies, and to ostracize academically successful black students for “acting white.”

There’s quite possibly something to that, but as a bit of a reality check it’s worth looking into the National Assessment of Educational Progress data on racial gaps. The math scores for 13 year-olds are typical:


Now unfortunately for these purposes, the data only go back to 1978 rather than all the way into the era of desegregation. But it’s important to note that if we’re talking about actual performance (as opposed to “culture”) then black kids appear to be doing better than ever these days. What’s more, the gap between black kids and white kids has narrowed. And what’s even more, one reason it hasn’t narrowed even more is that white kids are also doing better than ever. Desegregation probably has had some ironic effects, but the main effects of African-Americans’ greater economic, social, and cultural equality have been about what you would expect—better school performance, growing prosperity, black guy in the White House, etc.