Duke Today

April 5, 2021

By Lucas Hubbard

DURHAM, N.C. — Integrating the American classroom has long been a goal of many who seek to eradicate racial discrimination. But a new paper from four economists, including Duke University’s William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., suggests that Black students do not always benefit from attending racially balanced schools.

Instead, Black adults who attended racially balanced high schools in the mid-20th century completed significantly less schooling than those who attended either predominantly black or predominantly white schools, the authors found.

“Standard wisdom has it that school desegregation paves the way to racial nirvana in the United States,” says Darity, director of Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and a professor of public policy, African and African American Studies and economics. “Our study suggests that the effects have been more muted than typically claimed in other studies and in the popular media.”

“Of course, school desegregation is desirable to produce a better America, but we must be far more cautious about the benefits we ascribe to it.”

The authors analyzed data from the National Survey of Black Americans, a nationally representative survey of Black Americans age 18 or older who attended school in the period from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Initial interviews for the survey were conducted in 1979 and 1980, with follow-up interviews conducted eight, nine and 12 years later.

The authors looked at the experience of Black students who attended three types of schools: “mostly or almost all white,” “mostly or all black” schools and “mixed-race” schools, where the student population was racially balanced.

Based on data from 1,121 respondents, the authors found that Black students fared worse in mixed-race schools, where the student population was about half black and half white.

Black students attending racially balanced high schools — schools that were about equally divided between black and white students — completed a half year less of school, on average, than Black students in predominantly black high schools. Moreover, Black students attending racially balanced high schools earned three-quarters of a year less education than Black students at predominantly white high schools.