A process whereby policies and practices of racial segregation are undone through legislative action, social change, school reorganization, and educational programs.
Desegregation is a difficult concept to define, and social scientists, educators, and activists have struggled to formulate a consistent, unified definition. There seems to be general agreement that the concept "desegregation" denotes the legal and actual abolition of racial segregation, particularly in education. The terms "desegregation" and "integration" are often used interchangeably,
Desegregation is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the 1950s, segregation was legal, upheld by a 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. In what has been defined as a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court permitted racial segregation of public—including educational—facilities. Aimed at the African Americans, the largest non-white minority in the country, this legislation provoked many protests, particularly among black educators, who accurately perceived segregated education as a mechanism to maintain inferior academic standards for the black population. In the early 1950s, the NAACP launched a campaign against segregation, attacking its supporting legislation. The legal battle for desegregation scored a great victory in 1954, when the Supreme Court, overturning the 1896 ruling, declared in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation is unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, as proponents of desegregation soon realized, the court ruling covered just one aspect of this multi-faceted phenomenon. In fact, the legal victory was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for successful desegregation. Having cleared the legal hurdle, the desegregation process now had to confront a variety of formidable obstacles: court battles, political opposition, prejudices, and racism—unconscious and intended. Even with desegregation officially sanctioned and formally implemented, segregation can be practiced in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways. For example, as Ellis Cose has written, according to a study of New York public schools, minority parents are often not informed about special programs, while the white parents are automatically given that information.
In addition to dealing with efforts to subvert and undermine desegregation, supporters of the process have also had to contend with the learned skepticism of experts who view desegregation as a huge effort yielding dubious results. Melvin Seeman, for example, has observed that because people have great expectations, desegregation is often condemned when its benefits, though evidently tangible, fail to cause a stir. In other words, people tend to reject desegregation because it leads to modest, not spectacular, improvements. In addition, as Seeman explains, critics sometime focus on short-term effects of desegregation, paying little attention to longterm effects. For example, while lowered self-esteem among minority students can be a short-term effect of a desegregated classroom, students can eventually regain and develop a greater sense of self-esteem. Finally, academic failure due to extraneous factors is sometime blamed on desegregation. However, as proponents of desegregation have argued, desegregation needs to be understood in a wider social context: often, when desegregation and integration fail, the failure, far from implying that desegregation is not a viable social process, reflects the objective—economic and political constraints—and subjective—prejudice and racism—forces which strive to preserve racial discrimination.
Often difficult to identify, resistance to desegregation assumes a variety of forms. A combination of skepticism and apathy, while not necessarily indicating racism, may reflect a pessimistic attitude toward the idea of social and psychological change. In some cases, prosperous minority parents who identify with their social class, but not with their race, give little thought to the importance of desegregation, and therefore ignore the whole process. In other cases, parent might accept the idea "but not for my child," the reasoning being that desegregated schools provide inferior education, particularly in Washington, as Jack E. White has observed (White, 1996), where many black teachers and school officials keep their children outside the public school system. White views this attitude as catastrophic, asserting that the black school officials and educators who neglect the schools they run "have betrayed the best of the African-American tradition, which values education above all else, and have given whites who never believed in integration an easy excuse for abandoning it." Sometimes resistance to desegregation stems from racist attitudes which people inherit or form independently. For example, in a study of group attitudes, William T. Smelser and Neil J. Smelser quote research indicating that white children from punitive and authoritarian families are likely to develop negative attitudes toward blacks. Finally, simple ignorance can undermine the desegregation process. For example, a black child may feel totally alienated in an "integrated" school where black culture is completely ignored (Gussin Paley, 1995).
There seems to be general agreement among researchers that the desegregation process has not transformed public education to satisfy the needs—academic, cultural, and psychological—of minority students. On the one hand, desegregation may have fallen short of its promise; on the other, for a significant segment of the population, abandoning desegregation is not a rational option. First of all, as proponents of desegregation have affirmed, even a less-than-stellar track record can hardly be dismissed as a failure. If integrated classrooms are not meeting minority students' needs, as Constance Johnson reports (Johnson, 1994), perhaps this is due to insufficient desegregation, which means that desegregation must be pursued more energetically.
As an ongoing social process, however, desegregation has benefited from the insights of educators and activists who have approached it as an attainable social project. It is
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