In light of the June 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Louisville and Seattle voluntary school desegregation cases, making it more difficult for district officials to racially balance their schools, this article presents an analysis of prior research on the long-term effects of attending racially diverse schools on their adult graduates as well as new data from interviews with graduates of desegregated schools in Louisville and Seattle. Although the bulk of research on school desegregation examines what is happening to students while they are still in school and their immediate academic outcomes, the growing body of research on the long-term effects of attending racially diverse schools on adult graduates is powerful and significant and, thus, should play a central role in public debates about the future of racial integration in American schools following the Court's ruling in these cases, referred to as Parents Involved. Taken together, findings from this research on the long-term effects of school desegregation speak to both of the central themes to emerge from the larger body of research on racial integration within public schools or universities: 1. the “legacies of structural inequality” theme, which addresses the need for race-conscious policies to overcome decades of perpetuated racial inequality and 2 the “diversity rationale,” which focuses on preparing young people for a diverse society. The new interview data from Louisville and Seattle confirm these prior findings and add new insights.
Knowing that prior research on the long-term effects of school desegregation spoke to the central legal issue in the cases before the Supreme Court in the Parents Involved cases, we wanted to explore the two prominent themes from that literature — “structural inequality” and the “diversity rationale” — as they related to the life experiences of Louisville and Seattle graduates of racially diverse schools.
We interviewed 42 graduates—classes of 1985 and 1986—of six high schools: Central, Fern Creek, and Louisville Male high schools in Louisville, and Franklin, Garfield, and Ingraham high schools in Seattle. These six schools were selected because in each city, they represented a wide range of student experiences given their different geographic locations within their districts, their curricular programs, and the social class and racial make-up of their student bodies by the mid-1980s. Still, in each of these schools, no one ethnic group made up more than 75% of the student body at the time these graduates attended them.
Qualitative, in-depth interviews with a random sample of adult graduates (graduating classes of 1985 and 86) from six racially diverse high schools, which were purposively sampled to reflect the different experiences of student who went to public high schools in Louisville and Seattle at that time.
Data Collection and Analysis
Using a semi-structured, open-ended interview protocol, the authors interviewed a total of 19 graduates from the three Louisville high schools and 23 graduates from the Seattle high schools. In terms of the racial/ethnic identities of these 42 graduates from the six high schools across the two cities, 22 identified themselves as White, 14 as African Americans, 4 as Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 2 as mixed race, including one who was half Latino and half White. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes—although they varied in length from 20 minutes to more than an hour—and was tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were coded for themes that emerged from the interviewees’ responses across schools and context, and the following findings emerged as the most salient experiences of graduates across the six schools.
1. Graduates of racially mixed schools in Louisville and Seattle said they learned to be more accepting of and comfortable with people of other racial backgrounds. Like their counterparts in the six cities of the Wells et al. (in press) study, the Louisville and Seattle graduates we interviewed said they believe that their day-to-day experiences attending diverse public schools as children and adolescents did indeed change them, making them more open-minded and thus more accepting of people who differ from them racially and in terms of their background and culture. 2. Louisville and Seattle graduates and the diversity rationale: Desegregated public schools prepared them for a global economy and society. Preparation for working in a diverse setting—the “diversity rationale”—was, for these graduates, by far the most obvious and pragmatic outcome of their experiences in desegregated public schools. The vast majority of graduates we interviewed in Louisville and Seattle said that at work in particular, they draw on the skills they learned in their desegregated public schools, skills of getting along and feeling comfortable with people of divergent backgrounds and cultures. 3. Overcoming structural inequality: Without diverse public schools, most graduates would have grown up in race isolation. In a society in which housing patterns, places of worship, and social circles are often segregated by race, diverse public schools have been, for many students, the only institutions in which cross-racial interaction and understanding can occur. They have also too often been historically the only institutions in our society in which students of color can gain access to predominantly White and prestigious institutions—in K–12 schooling or higher education.
We argue, based on our research and that of many others, that in an era when technology and free trade are breaking down physical and economic barriers across cultures and traditions, to not prepare our children to embrace and accept differences to the extent possible—the diversity rationale—is shortsighted and irresponsible. But even more important, we need to question how we can maintain a healthy democracy in a society so strongly divided by race, social class, and ideology now that the Supreme Court's decision has made it increasingly difficult to challenge such structural inequality, in spite of a compelling rationale for greater school-level diversity.