Integration: Who Is It Good For?

Hint: Middle class white students…

By Jack Schneider
I have watched friends lock their doors as black men crossed between cars on the street. They have done it without breaking conversation and without acknowledgment. My wife and I have had acquaintances challenge our decision to enroll our daughter in the public school across the street from our house. What would we do, one asked, if she were invited to a sleepover in “the projects”?

We have listened to stories in which a person’s race or class was mentioned, despite it being irrelevant. Irrelevant, of course, except for the fact that the person in question was inevitably the story’s villain.

We have heard parents express concern about the *city kids* (a peculiar euphemism to use in an urban area like ours, where all kids are by definition city kids) flooding onto a playground one afternoon.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

None of these people is a bigot. At least none of those we interact with. In fact, many have talked passionately about the importance of addressing structural inequality. But their comfort zones don’t extend across socioeconomic lines. For the most part, they interact with people of similar racial and economic backgrounds.


One way street
Rarely is this discussed as a problem that might be remedied by integrated schools. Instead, integration is pitched as a one-way street, with all of the benefits flowing to nondominant groups. This is certainly understandable. When isolated in segregated schools, racial minorities — particularly those from lower-income families — are denied opportunity in a way that their whiter and more privileged peers never are. Without a doubt, inequality bears its weight most oppressively upon the least advantaged.

But middle-class white students are also harmed by segregation. And this is an important point to make if we are ever going to convince parents — as we must, given the troubled history of legislating school desegregation — to voluntarily enroll their children in racially and economically diverse schools.

Value added
Many parents assume that their children will get a better education at high-income schools with largely white populations. Such feelings are shaped by their observations of a real link between educational achievement and socioeconomic status. Yet even parents who resist such assumptions, recognizing that home support rather than school quality is the key variable in achievement scores, struggle to see the value added by diversity. Often, their most positive conclusions are that their children will not be harmed in attending a diverse school — that they will receive more or less the same education.

But that is not true, particularly if we define education in its broadest sense.

Laying the ground
The purpose of education, we might recall, is to lay the ground so that young people may find their way through the world in whatever manner they wish, and find their place in it whatever that place may be. The aim is not merely to promote the accretion of knowledge — something segregated schools can do as well as integrated schools — but also to expand the mind and nurture the soul. Education should broaden. It should transform.

Which schools are best prepared to execute this task? Certainly those with qualified teachers, rich and varied curricula, adequate resources, and positive cultures. But also those with diverse student bodies capable of expressing a full range of experiences — student bodies that will expand the way that young people perceive the world and relate to each other. Just as no parent should compromise on the former of those characteristics, none should ignore the importance of the latter.

Truly diverse schools are an educational imperative. Not just because they are a bulwark against racial and economic injustice. But also because they teach young people how to see and be seen in new ways. They are places that serve all students. And insofar as that is the case, all parents should be fighting for them.

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. A version of this post appeared previously on the Phi Delta Kappa blog Learning on the Edge. Follow Jack on Twitter at @Edu_Historian.

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  1. Yes! My three kids all attended public schools in Boston from K-12. Now college grads, they cite it as a significant life experience to know other kids of all races, economic levels and cultural backgrounds. All three shook their heads in despair during college at those who had never spent time with anyone not just like themselves.

    This is why the plutocrats are so busy destroying public schools – they are a building block of democracy, and educated people in a democracy are a threat to the plutocracy.

    ¡El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!

  2. “None of these people is a bigot.”

    Well, maybe not in the sense that they consciously harbor negative thoughts/feelings about people of other races, but locking the door when you see a black man and complaining about “city kids” on the playground is pretty bigoted.

  3. My experience, or my son’s, was very similar to laMissy’s across the river from Boston. By the time he graduated from the 8th grade he was the only white boy left in his bilingual school class – there was one white girl – though at least one third of those he started with were white. Their parents were afraid they were being held back academically so they transferred out. They were right, in part. In the long run though, say by the end of high school but in truth well before that, there were no differences in academic achievement between similar SES kids who attended different K-8 schools. But my son got an education at his school that I could not provide for him.

    His best friends were, in different years, African American, Mexican, Dominican and Irish American. That’s not to say it was always easy for him. There were times when he came home from school in tears having been subjected to discrimination and bias from his classmates. The experience had a profound impact on his world view and his choice of academic study in college. Now ten years out of high school he wouldn’t trade those nine years for the alternative “safer” options we could have chosen.

  4. My daughter attended the Title I school where I taught, at my request. It was much more diverse, and she has continued on to high school with a much more open mind about judging people based on the “real things” rather than superficial caca…But, in all honesty, her academic experience differed much more than her older sister’s at our neighborhood school, as well. My older daughter, who did just fine, was never really challenged and just went with the flow in a way that would not have been sufficient for my second one. My younger one was reading on a third grade level in kindergarten, and that was just “not how they did things” at the neighborhool school. So, she came with me. Our impetus may have been to differentiate within the framework of guided reading groups and balanced literacy based on our at-risk population’s low scores initially, but we really did do for every single student was was best for their level of development–if they weren’t ready to move up, they got further remediation (classroom based, not computer crud), while if they needed to be accelerated or enriched, they got that. We worked as a team to trade students, share resources, whatever it took. And, since everybody was always in and out of the room or working in different groups all the time, there wasn’t the stigma of the dumb kids or the smart kids, or whatever. My daughter got such a better experience in the Title I school than the neighborhool school down the block from the Teachers College…And, she is friends with a variety of people. Of course, marching band has helped with that. Now, my older daughter has those values, too, diversity wise, but she did not get the enriched academic experience in the “whiter” school. And neither girl has ever felt uncomfortable bringing anyone home from another race. She probably is more worried about explaining why we have four dogs…

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