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The Impact of School Desegregation on White Attitudes and Politics

Advocates of school integration have long suggested that desegregation can improve the racial attitudes of white students. In a new working paper, Mark Chin of Harvard University finds evidence to the contrary. 

Chin looked at answers to the General Social Survey (GCS) from 1993 to 2018 to evaluate the impact of court mandated school desegregation on white adults’ attitudes about race and their political beliefs.  He compared responses to the nationwide survey from adults who had attended schools forced to integrate in the 1950s to 1980s with responses from those who did not attend integrated schools.

Chin’s results suggest that court-mandated integration did not improve racial attitudes. Specifically, he found that exposure to desegregated schools increased White people’s political conservatism, decreased their support for policies promoting racial equity, and negatively affected their racial attitudes toward Black people. Notably, he saw that the most negative effects came from individuals in counties with the least support for integration at the time.

However, Chin notes that school integration has positive academic and socioeconomic effects for Black students, and that other studies have found starkly different results than his. He suggests that policy makers should consider that a key component to integrating schools must be community support for the movement, and that they should also promote other education interventions that similarly improve outcomes for Black students.

By Catherine Dragone