Nearly 70 years ago, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that race-separate schools were unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. The unanimous decision rejected racist provisions declaring, for example, “White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school,” (Florida Constitution of 1885, Article XII, Section 12), and opened the door to the desegregation of public schools in the US and especially the South. In reality, most segregated districts refused to comply with the Brown decision until many years later. But a growing number of students in the 1950s and 60s began to attend schools where most of their classmates were another race.
In our recent research, we asked whether these early integrators of the 1950s and 60s fared any better than those who only attended racially segregated schools, looking both in the South and other regions. A student attending a “race discordant” school – a school where most students are a different race than your own race – might be beneficial due to increased interracial contact and building more social awareness or due to better school resources and teacher quality. But the opposite could be true as well. For Black students in this era, going to a race discordant school could also have resulted in greater exposure to negative stereotypes, discrimination, and hostility. For White students, it might have meant attending a school with fewer resources. However, our study showed that none of the potentially negative consequences and a number of positive effects emerged for those who attended race discordant schools.
Using a nationally representative sample of adults over age 50, we tested whether having attended a race discordant school in early life is associated with important outcomes like cognitive function in later life or lifetime cumulative achievements like earning advanced degrees or net wealth. The results were striking. The Black adults in these cohorts who ever attended a race discordant school fared better on almost every measure than did Black adults who remained in segregated schools. This was true for wealth, for social engagement, and for cognitive function. White adults who attended at least one discordant school generally did no better and never did worse than segregated White students, as is consistent with past work in the area.
These findings suggest that the hard-won battle to dismantle the system of race-separate schools provided real societal benefits. For Black students who were concentrated in under-resourced schools, particularly in the South, school desegregation was an important step toward equal access that yielded long-term benefits with no measurable costs to White students. Despite the many obstacles that stood in the path of Blacks in particular, those who spent a portion of their schooling in race discordant schools as children were wealthier, more socially engaged, and showed better cognitive function in later life.
Undoing the legacy of race-separate schooling in the US was a long march by the NAACP and others. It provided laudable, long-term benefits, namely greater racial equity in educational opportunity and greater equity in life outcomes. It would be wise to guard diligently against any return to our segregated past.
Dr. Dawn Carr is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Carr here.