The Integrated Schools Podcast

Ep 18 - Rucker Johnson and the Grandchildren of Desegregation (BvB@65)

Episode Summary

Brown v Board at Sixty-Five - The Stories We Tell Ourselves. In this first episode of our mini-series commemorating the 65th anniversary of Brown v Board, we're joined by Dr. Rucker Johnson, author of Children of the Dream: Why Integration Works.

Episode Notes

As we approach the 65th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), we are pleased to present a special series looking at the stories we tell ourselves about Brown v. Board. The way we understand this case and its legacies do the work of making sense of our past and mapping out our future. With the brilliance of some amazing guests, we unpack some of these popular narratives and the ways in which they have undermined our ability to deal with racial and educational injustice.

In this first episode, we are joined by Dr. Rucker Johnson (UC Berkeley). Dr. Johnson shares some of the research and findings in his freshly-released book, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works. Using a longitudinal study of the children and grandchildren of Brown v. Board, Dr. Johnson shows us that desegregation did have profoundly important effects on individuals and communities even while we gave up on it too quickly.

Let us know what you think of this episode, suggest future topics, or share your story with us - @integratedschls on twitter, IntegratedSchools on Facebook, or email us

The Integrated Schools Podcast is produced by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits. Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits. Music by Kevin Casey.

Episode Transcription

Andrew: Welcome back to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.


Courtney: And I'm Courtney, a White mom from Los Angeles. 


Andrew: Welcome to “Brown Versus Board at Sixty-Five: The Stories We Tell Ourselves.” The landmark Supreme Court case that made school segregation illegal, Brown versus the Board of Education, turned 65 on May 17th. 


Courtney: And so we'll all be hearing in the media how segregation is still alive and well in America’s schools, which, of course, our listeners already know because they're the best listeners. And we wanted to do something just a little bit different. 


Andrew: So we put together a miniseries of episodes, a looking at the legacy of Brown versus Board, but also some of the myths that we tell ourselves about it and the impact that that has on our current school environment. 


Courtney: Yeah, the stories we tell ourselves about what's worked and what hasn't and what the consequences of Brown v. Board have been. You know, stories are just really, really important, right? And many of the stories that we tell about Brown v. Board have been incredibly problematic, as well


Andrew: Right. And by problematic, you mean they help keep segregation in place, right? 


Courtney: Yes, exactly. The narratives about Brown v. Board and by extension school segregation in general, they do this work of making sense of our path, and then that helps illuminate how we move forward. Stories are super, super powerful, and they do work. They do cultural work. But some of the stories are doing the work of opportunity hoarding and White supremacy. 


Andrew: Yeah, I mean to me. I think one of the most problematic myths about Brown v. Board is that it's sort of, it's told as a story of the grand end of racism in schools, right? We had racist schools before Brown, and then we fixed it. And like no question, Brown was a very bold court decision for the time. You know, there was this sort of great opportunity in that moment to rethink race in the country, but we didn't really do it. White people fought Brown until we couldn't fight it anymore, and then we just pushed those same tendencies underground and gave them sort of race neutral stories. 


Courtney: Right.


Andrew: And so, you know, Brown clearly didn't eliminate racism and education, but it did eliminate our ability to talk about race when we talk about these issues, right? We're, we're left often unable as White people to confront the racism head on because the story is that our systems aren't racist anymore. 


Courtney: Yeah. And so, like, these other things about educational injustice became kind of like naturalized conversations, right? Like, we’re replacing racism with color blindness. And we're talking about good and bad schools and good and bad parenting and bussing and local control and best fit for our kids. You know, in, like, we've been able to busy ourselves with stories that matter. But maybe they're not the stories that are at the heart of the matter. 


Andrew: Which is not to say that Brown was all bad, right? I mean, even when we have done some bits of desegregation, it actually has some really profound and profoundly positive effects. And this is the piece that our guest today, Dr. Rucker Johnson, is gonna talk about. 


Courtney: Yeah, and that's another myth, right? Like that desegregation didn't work. And yet, in many ways, it did. 


Andrew: Yeah. I mean, we just didn't try enough, right? We didn't try very hard. We didn't try it for very long. We sort of canceled that show after the first couple episodes, right? Brown v. Board was not the end of school segregation and that, you know, that was because of sort of Whiteness coming to the rescue to fight it. White parents voted, White parents served in legislative and judicial capacities. White parents who, you know, joined the school board, who White flighted, who seceded from districts on and on and on, the policy bent accordingly. 


Courtney: Yeah, nor was Brown v. Board the beginning of efforts to desegregate right? Just as battles around desegregation are not just like a Black and White race issue, and we'll hear more about that in this series, too.


Andrew: Nor was desegregation and its resistance only a sort of racist South thing, right? The North, the West.


Courtney: And the Pacific Northwest. 


Andrew: Yeah, right. I mean, the self-congratulatory progressive policies don't often extend to school segregation, right? Resistance is everywhere and White supremacy is deep. 


Courtney: And here's another one. And nor was Brown v. Board a story about how bad Black schools are or were and conversely, how wonderful White schools and teachers are or were, right? Like that's a super entrenched myth. 


Andrew: Yeah, yeah, that’s a big one. The idea that Brown was based on Black people wanting in to White schools because they were so superior? That one we gotta push back against and we're lucky to have Dr. Noliwe Rooks with us to tackle that in the second episode of the series.


Courtney:  I think a running theme through all of these, which goes back to the idea, too, that we've not often are easily done this well, is the idea that desegregation and integration are the same thing. Because they're not, right? They're actually very, very different. 


Andrew: Yeah, and we have Dr. Amanda Lewis coming up, who wrote the book Despite the Best Intentions, which you should definitely buy if you haven't already. And she's gonna talk with us about that piece, right? Like desegregation in the school building with segregation in the classrooms, is not actually integration. 


Courtney: So, we know that in many ways desegregation worked and that we haven't done integration very well at all. 


Andrew: Right. And we have two Black parents. Caro and Greg, who are going to share their experiences in predominately White schools that really highlight the differences between desegregation and actual integration. 


Courtney: Yeah, so this series is kind of trying to ask: What if we did it differently now? Can we learn lessons? Can we retell our stories and start anew? IntegrateNYC youth leaders are arguing, like, we can retire segregation. Finally, after 65 years, can we do something different? What can we dream, what we imagine for a world in which we actually took the opportunities of Brown v. Board and engaged with them differently with different stories? 


Andrew: Yeah, I mean, to do this means that we have to talk about race, right? We have to be clear eyed. We have to confront it head on. I think it's the only way we get to a place where our schools are doing what they're supposed to do. Being places to build real, integrated citizenry to level the public playing field, to create opportunities for everyone.


Courtney: And our past failures don't predict future failures, right? Like not if we can really unpack them and feel their weight and learn those. So uncovering these myths gives us a different kind of opportunity to talk about and be a part of really educational justice. 


Andrew: That's the hope.


Courtney: Yeah.


Andrew: I think it’s fair to issue a little disclaimer. This is, this is certainly not an exhaustive history lesson podcast series. You know, it's a, it's a beginning point. A maybe just slightly better than haphazard overview of the things that that, Courtney, you and I think are important to think about as we, as we look back on 65 years of Brown v. Board. 


Courtney: This is an eclectic introductory course. The series is also really trying to tie these stories back to us as parents and so like things we, we really should know and need to know if we care about school integration. Because Brown v. Board, after 65 years shows us what can happen when we do the policy work without the kind of metaphorical playground work. 


Andrew: And so we're gonna kick it off with Dr. Rucker Johnson. He's the author of the freshly released book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works. 


Courtney: We’ll let him tell you more about the book, but we are, we're really grateful that he took a little time to talk with us, and his book just came out on April 16th. You should buy it. 


Andrew: Let’s listen to the show. 


Dr. Rucker Johnson: I’m Rucker Johnson, economist and professor of public policy at the Goldman School at UC Berkeley. Most of my work looks at the ways in which poverty and inequality affect children's later life chances. And I'm very pleased to share with you my new book.

Courtney: We are really, really excited about this book. Tell us about it.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Our book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, I did it jointly with Alexander Nazaryan, who at the time was a senior writer for Newsweek. And one of the things that is true in this effort is that to glean the most useful policy conclusions, we recognize that quantitative data would give us an aerial view, but that we would need to match it with some on the ground qualitative evidence from discussions with school leaders, teachers, judges, policymakers and others on the front lines. And it's really this ability to combine the original quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews that helped us ensure that our data mirrored the lived experiences of those who were exposed to these landmark reforms. And it's really that that's able to give us this complimentary set of vantage points about the same narrative because there are statistics that don't convey the breadth, depth and power, and lived history of these efforts to create equal opportunity. 


And so the book focuses on three of our most important equal education opportunity policies we pursued over the last sixty years. School integration, which is arguably the most controversial social experiment of the past fifty years; school funding reforms that aimed to equalize the distribution of school resources to ensure that funding for schools was not simply a reflection of the wealth of a local community; as well is preK investments that aimed to ensure that investments in the preschool years allowed children to be more likely to be school ready. 


We put data that spans generations from 1950 to the present, using the longest running panel data set in the world, the panel study of income dynamics across multiple generations, where we're following kids from birth to adulthood and matching their access and exposure to school funding reforms, school integration, preK spending, and trying to look at how the trajectories of their life chances were affected by these reforms. So we took a very systems approach and a very long view to document impacts, and then we move forward to the resegregation that's occurred since 1990 to document how the advances that were achieved through the integration era, how they were undermined over the last 20 years and trace out the way forward.

Andrew: That's great. So, so taking that historical context and that understanding, what, what did that tell you about sort of the way we think about trying to fix schools now?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Quite frankly, you know, I think our current reform policy debates suffer from what I think of as a Groundhog Day Syndrome. You know, if you remember from the movie, every day keeps repeating itself, and you know, it feels like there is a type of policy amnesia that results in one giant repeated pattern of failed school reforms, that I think we'll continue if we don't take seriously the lessons from the first generation suite of Equal Education Opportunities policies. And those include school desegregation, school finance reform, and Head Start. And if we're able to import the lessons from the long running impacts now of those policies into our contemporary policy debates, then I think we're going to be armed with the ability to address the persistent opportunity gaps that we see existing between children from lower income versus affluent families and communities. 


You know, politicians are often fixated on budget deficits when we should be more concerned with the deficits of opportunity facing disadvantaged children. And if you just remember from Groundhog Day the movie, Bill Murray stars as this weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again until he's finally able to graduate when he got it right and learns to love. You know, in our case, it’s the love of equal opportunity for all children, irrespective of zip code and skin color. 


You know, as an, as an empirical researcher, our job can be seen as a type of meteorologist. We make projections, we use the best available evidence to inform our policy prescriptions. What's clear about this forecast is that diversity is a centerpiece of our collective future. And whether we prepare our students today for that reality and harness its immense value, is really the choice before us.

Andrew: So what prompted you to do this research? Why, why write this book?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: There's unprecedented racial diversity of the overall population of U.S. schoolchildren, and despite that value, more than half of children now attend hypersegregated schools, where over three-quarters of enrolled students are either White or minority.

Andrew: Yeah, that sort of lays out the current state of affairs, right? We're as segregated now as we were before Brown v. Board of Education.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Well, it's certainly before bussing began, yeah. So we're back to the levels of segregation that prevailed in the early seventies, really, before bussing began in earnest. And, you know, part of this is that segregation is not only about separation of people, but it's, it's, it's the segregation and hoarding in fact, of opportunity. 


Courtney: Yes.


Dr. Rucker Johnson: So that's where we're really trying to hone in on why does segregation matter? How does it matter? How does it affect children's learning opportunities? Their subsequent educational trajectories?

Andrew: Yeah, that's the piece that's really interesting to me about the work of yours that I read in the past, is the real sort of empirical evidence of benefits to everybody.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Yeah, I think what's important is there's a lot of missing traction of conventional wisdom that's not, in effect, rooted in empirically grounded recent scholarship in accord with the new evidence on the kind of causal impact of these policies. So in some way, you know, Mark Twain once said: it's not what we don't know that kills us, but what we know for sure, that just ain't so. And so there's a lot of this kind of we think we know, like we hear that desegregation failed, that it was social engineering without any real benefit. And so we've turned away from integration as a goal and school desegregation as a strategy. 


But, but it actually turns out that when you do the requisite empirical work, being able to follow children from birth and into adulthood, you actually see a very different picture emerge where we see desegregation having big and lasting impacts, and not just on educational outcomes. But on earnings and health, as well. And one of the big misconceptions is that because Brown is 1954, we somehow in our head think that this was tried for a very long period of time. But if you actually look at the implementation of integration efforts in the kind of holistic way, there's really only a 15 year window in which there was significant integration efforts, and so it's very uneven in terms of the timing of, of implementation, very delayed the first decade after Brown, there was no significant integration, actually achieved…

Courtney: All deliberate speed, right?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: All deliberate speed, exactly. You know, without having long run data and nationally representative data, we would not otherwise be able to really address it with an open mind and follow the data and evidence wherever it may lead. And that bolstered the validity of our argument that when strategically implemented together, that school integration, school funding equalization, and early preschool investments, that when those are sustained over extended periods of time, equal education opportunity policies can and do work. 


You know, individually integration seeks to accomplish that goal by redistributing schoolchildren. School funding reforms aimed to achieve that by redistributing resources. And the expansion of preK investments do it by redistributing the timing of school investments back to the earliest years of cognitive development. And each of the policies on their own make a difference. But it's really together that they enhance one another. And it's in that way that we are kind of conceptualizing integration as more than a policy, but the very approach to policy and in ways where the pursuit of integration is not an end of itself, but a means to this broader goal of equal opportunity, where there's a big difference between the collection of good policies versus the strategic combination and building on the synergies of these policies when implemented together, as opposed to in in silos. 


My quest and the book was motivated out of the realization that if we fail to draw out the lessons from our storied history of school integration, that school funding reforms will force current or future generations of schoolchildren to relive the same inequities of opportunity day over day.

Courtney: Yeah, I'm really appreciating the way you’re kind of framing different approaches in different policy ideas, because I think some of the debates that exist out there are really around whether we need to bother with integration at all, when it's really about resource issues. We haven't funded schools equally, much less equitably. So we should just start with that because there really isn't anything magical about White children, that you would need to sit beside White children to get a good education.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Yeah. And I think a missing component of the discussions on school reform is to remember that when I am referring to school resources, the most important resource that schools have is the person at the head of the classroom. Without the kind of focus on teacher quality and ensuring actionable distribution of teacher quality and investing in professional development and that they're able to kind of have greater capacities to meet children of diverse needs, really, integration is not just about the diversity of schoolchildren but the diversity of the teaching workforce and the ways in which we support the teacher salaries and the reductions in class size. It's what money buys that, that's relevant for why school resources are such a salient part of the policy prescription and why one can't just focus on kind of redistributing schoolchildren and, and think that this is all happening through peer effects. Because the evidence is not consistent with the driver being peer effects, as much as it is about how school integration efforts affected school resources and school practices and the access to AP courses and the access to school facilities and access to after school programs and the access to mentoring. Those are critical components that require us to not think of desegregation as the endgame, but rather that moving from the desegregation to integration means moving from access to inclusion and moving from exposure to understanding. We need not to be limited on examining only test scores for evaluating the efficacy of these policies to lead to better results for all kids. Because ultimately, if we don't have a methodological set of data that can track these with credible results, then you should not just listen to me. Like in other words, we don't need another person with an opinion.

Andrew: Yeah, you said, you know, integration can work, but who does it work for? And how do we know that it works? And is there a cost? Is it zero sum? If it works for some people, does that mean that it's not working for others?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Well, so I think on that, you know, there's some thought that, well, haven't we already done these things? Haven’t all these things that you're talking about been tried? And I guess the answer that is well, yes, but not in the kind of holistic cure we prescribed. See, in most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly, inconsistently, and each policy often framed initially as a panacea, that all we had to do is you have kids in the same school, not realized there's this other process that might resegregate children by classroom because we have a different process that assigns kids to gifted and talented programs, and a different process that assigns kids to remedial and special ed programs, in ways that actually reproduce inequality not based on kids capacity to learn, but rather on implicit biases that we often have that underestimate particularly poor and minority kids’ potential often. So when we say haven't these things been tried, it's actually the substantial variation in the timing and implementation across districts in school desegregation, school funding reform, and expansion of preK spending that gives us exactly like this rare testing ground for examining what we call the first generation suite of Equal Opportunity Policy initiatives. 


In other words, we're trying to document the impacts of school integration in a way to summon arguments about the power of a collection of evidence that's drawn from multiple districts of municipalities. Not the story of a single place whose implications could just be something about that place or something about a small group of people where there's no kind of implication for policy writ large. And so it’s really that the slow and uneven pace of integration, as well as the school funding reforms, that enables us to use those as a national experiment to evaluate whether these policies and integration in particular work. 


So, for example, while some Black students born in 1960 may have experienced integration for all twelve of their school-age years, other Black students born in the same year but from different school districts, may not have experienced even one year of integration. And so it's really this ability to compare the outcomes of otherwise similar children, but who differed in how many years of integration they experienced, how many years of access to school funding reforms and in preK spending, that gives us the traction to be able to document what these long run impacts are. 

Courtney: Yeah, this is a monster project.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Yeah. We wanted to look at the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage and whether these policies can break the cycle of poverty. And in fact, that's precisely what we were able to document. Now we have access to this longitudinal data of more than 15,000 kids followed from birth to adulthood, and it's not only that we're able to follow that generation of kids, but all of those kids are now in their forties and early fifties, and they all have their own kids. And so we're able to actually trace out that the benefits of desegregation that we document actually carry over and we see benefits for the children of that generation. 


So what I will refer to as the grandchildren of Brown, that children born since 1980 but whose parents experienced this integration, that their kids’ college attendance rates are actually greater; that they tend to live in more integrated environments; that if their parents, particularly White parents, were exposed to integrated environments as children, that as adults they tend to live in more integrated environments. One of the things I'm trying to kind of undergird with this is that the results demonstrate that integration isn't a zero sum game.

Andrew: When you say there are benefits are, we like, what's the scale that we're talking about here?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: So keep in mind that as late as 1960, only 20% of Black men were high school graduates, compared to about 50% of White men, and in that only 3% of Black men had college degrees, compared to 13% of White men. But by the late seventies and early eighties, college enrollment for Black 18 to 19 year olds rose to rates similar to those for White students. That's striking, and what our work shows is that desegregation played a dominant role in explaining this convergence. We show that the estimated effective desegregation exposure to rouse your school-age years for Black children prove large enough to eliminate the Black/White educational attainment gap. 


So, we're actually demonstrating that when these investments occur, that when the kind of school resource equity, the school integration environment, it creates a capacity of kids to reach their full potential in ways that would otherwise not be possible. And then how we are able to document that is by looking at data that follow kids from school age to adulthood, but look at self reported racial attitudes and their political attitudes around inequality is. And what we show is that exposure to diversity in grade school, significantly impact one's outlook on race and that socioeconomic status colors these perspectives on race as well, but that when kids have exposure beginning in the earliest school age years, that we find in adulthood, that when they're exposed to this diversity, White and Black students alike, that we find particularly White students have much greater empathy toward children that are different from them in life experience and background, that they tend to have much more racial tolerance that maybe their parents didn't have. But because they had that exposure in their earliest school-age years, we're seeing those impacts. 


You know, a lot of these have a type of what we refer to as adults’ response, where the longer you're exposed to these integrated and better resourced school environments, the more significant improvement in children's subsequent life trajectories in the form of greater likely high school graduation, greater likelihood of college attendance and graduation that translated into significant improvements and earnings. And what's probably most striking of all is our study finds that a 25% increase in per pupil spending experienced throughout the school-age years could eliminate the average attainment gaps between children from low income and non-poor families, and that the longer students are treated for the symptoms of poorly funded education and the higher doses of school funding reform they administered, the better their outcomes tended to be.

Andrew: It's dramatic.


Courtney: Yeah.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: It's not just that it's dramatic, but most people actually don't think that that's what the result of these efforts was. That there's a significant, even in the scholarly literature, there's a significant kind of conventional wisdom that the increases in school spending have not led to significant improvements in children's life chances, that it hasn't really closed... because we currently have big achievement gaps. So how could it be the case that these policies were so impactful? And today we're looking at achievement gaps that are still so large. 


You know, that's kind of what causes people to not realize that these policies were working, but they were not sustained. This is not to ignore ways in which this was extremely difficult for the pioneers of integration, ways in which they confronted significant resistance and that produced a lot of scars among the Black community about whether this is a worthwhile effort to do when, you know, Black teachers often got laid off. This is not to sugar coat or have a revisionist history about the tension related to these efforts. It's only to say that when true integration took hold and remember, basically we reached peak integration levels in 19… the late eighties, like 1988 we’re at the peak integration and basically every year since 1990, we've regressed and our schools have become increasingly resegregated. And some people have a view that that is just the natural way of parents choosing and it's not really something that was policy induced. That's actually not true. This is actually very much the direct consequence of explicit policies that gerrymandered school districts that lifted court ordered school desegregation efforts in ways that lead to return schools to neighborhood schools. And obviously there's suburbanization and White flight, middle class flight, that reinforced that. But I think it can't be overlooked that, as we document in the book, when true integration occurred, we showed that it had the redemptive power to heal divisions, that it can serve as an incubator for ideas and exert this kind of gravitational pull to bring people together across racial lines.

Courtney: And can you draw the line for us between these findings for individuals and, and kind of the long range impacts on society?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: One of the components of this that is really important to emphasize, is that we tend to have a policy design that treats children as if their lives developed in silos. That their educational needs are like separable from their health needs. That the impacts of their social emotional development is detached from the factors that affect their test scores and cognitive development. So, hospital desegregation, and this was also found in other work by Ken Shea and Bhashkar Mazumder and John Gurion. But we show along with them that the combination of school desegregation and hospital desegregation resulted in Black children being healthier as children and that healthier children are better learners. 


And so what the evidence shows is that half of the achievement gap that we see apparent in third graders, actually prevailed at kindergarten entry. And that just highlights the footprint of the early preschool years as a very central part of, of the policy prescription. These are investments not in just preschool and kind of investments in the knowledge developed in preschool, but they're actually investments in the cognitive ability to acquire future knowledge. And without those investments, kids sometimes can't take advantage of the education opportunities afforded to them in their K-12 years. 


And so what the evidence shows is not only that these are wise public investments in our future, but that they more than pay for themselves in the long run. Now you say, well, how might they pay for themselves in the long run? So, the monetary savings from lower educational remedial costs down the road, reduced likelihood  of public assistance, the averted costs of crime. Because these are policies that actually reduce criminal involvement and incarceration likelihood. The reductions in health care costs, the increased tax revenues from more working age adults being more productive because of the individual gains they made as youths. And so when we elect to forego these critical early life public investments and disadvantaged children, we pay for it. We do pay for it dearly down the road. Reduced national and state tax revenues, less economic growth, greater strains on state and federal budgets, increased crime, poor health. You know, so, part of the importance of this is that these are not the problems of marginal, poor, and minority kids. These are problems that, if we don't address them, affect our collective future.

Courtney: Right. 


Andrew: So even if your baseline is not a sort of moral drive for greater equity for greater social justice, if you're not interested in kids finding shared humanity, if you're just like purely in it for the economic benefits, you should still be in favor of integration, is what you're saying.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And when I'm saying integration, I want to be clear that some people think of what I'm saying as the more narrow desegregation effort that just reshuffles children, without the other pieces that I'm talking about. That are about teacher quality, school funding reforms, investing in kids early. But you have to think about this in a holistic way. But when you do, and in places in which that was done, these results are profound.

Courtney: Yeah. We talk a lot about the difference between desegregation and integration. From a parent perspective, we can desegregate our kids just by enrolling them at a global majority school, for example. But, but integrating our families is much different kind of work.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: It's messy. It's it's it's it's, you know, real conversation to have to happen. Exposure to people that are different from you. It can be a little scary. It requires a communitywide embrace. And children from the period that experienced this kind of peak integration, they’re actually some of the best advocates of the policy itself. When Louisville and Seattle, when they came under litigation scrutiny with the Parents Involved case and just maybe, for some of the listeners that aren't familiar, this is the 2007 Parents Involved case that ruled that it was unconstitutional for race to be the sole factor in student assignment plans to achieve diversity.

Courtney: Like the folks who stood up in opposition, to what eventually became this ruling, were people who had been in these integrated school environments, right?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: And the majority were Whites. Yeah, I traveled back to Evanston to interview the first integrated kindergarten cohort for their 50th reunion, and their stories were so inspiring about what they remember about how those years were so formative and their subsequent career choices, the way in which they thought of their lives as a calling and service to their community. You know, first of all, it's very unusual to go back to a 50th reunion of anything.

Andrew: But much less kindergarten. 

Dr. Rucker Johnson: … much less kindergarten! I had to. I had to go. I have to know, what are they talking about? And it was really kind of an infectious sharing of the challenges that were real but the way that they transformed their understandings of difference and taught them how to think individually together. That they had unity without being uniform, that they had Black administrators, Black teachers, White administrators, White teachers. That they had an integrated teaching community. And, you know, that made a big difference. Now again, politics undid all of that. There wasn't like a reunion of the first twenty years of integrated cohorts because it didn't last that long. But it was a representation, that while we're focusing on the negative outcomes of resegregation, it misses a key point that it's not simply that resegregation portends a loss of opportunity, mobility and unity, but it’s that integration has the power to transform communities in societies in ways that we've only begun to realize. That's why kind of looking at racial attitudes, the polarization of racial attitudes, the kind of increased inequality, the way our communities are even more segregated by race and class. That's not a coincidence. 


What's important is that our current labor force and the new jobs of this 21st century knowledge-based economy, place a high premium on people that have these leadership qualities to lead a diverse set of people from diverse backgrounds. And so, you know, no matter where our children live and work in the future, their neighborhoods will be multicultural, part of a global community, and our failure will be in not adequately preparing them for that new reality.

Andrew: It's, it's great to hear that White people who attended integrated or at least desegregated schools have, have stood up for brave policy, on occasion. And, I mean, we definitely hear at Integrated Schools from a lot of parents who, you know, had that experience for themselves growing up and are frustrated that they can't find the same for their kids, but feels like this sort of a drop in the bucket compared to all those White people have sort of done the opposite, right.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: Just to give you a sense of the amount of gerrymandering of district boundaries to resegregate that's happened. In 1972, only 25% of Black students in the South attended schools in which more than 90% of students were a minority. So these are really hyper segregated schools, and by ‘72, 1972 the South is actually more integrated than the rest of the country. But today in districts that were released from district court orders and remember most of the integration efforts, unfortunately, did not happen without having a local federal district court order that spurred it into action. But in districts released from desegregation court orders and there's more than half of districts have been released from court order since 1990. But in those district that have been released from court orders, more than half of Black students now attend what I call these apartheid schools, where more than 90% of students are minorities. And that's also concentrating poverty and concentrating affluence. It’s hoarding opportunity, actually, and what the evidence says is the fears that integration was gonna lead to worse outcomes for Whites. None of that transpired. 


And the reason why we don't find significant improvements for Whites for like, say, educational attainment and high school graduation rates is because what school integration did was level up. So that Black kids were now receiving the level of resources that White kids were getting all along. And so what we're really documenting is that when you have equitable school resources, that the school quality differences that cut over a long race and class lines actually are able to be narrowed in significant ways that have these impacts. But how do these affect White kids? I would definitely show that the impacts on racial attitudes are most pronounced for White children. That when they're exposed to integration, we see much more racial tolerance, much lower levels of racial prejudice. And we see much more empathy expressed around the experiences of people who are different, and I think a lot of the impacts for Whites are more difficult to measure but no less important outcomes.

Courtney: Yeah, I mean, empathy isn't as easy to numerically, quantitatively account for, right? Like, maybe that's just the anthropologist in me, but, you know, yes, it's different. It's different from assessing math standards.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: So we profile a number of families, even from the era that was the early era of desegregation, who are White families that stayed in the district and did exceptionally well. And some of them dedicated their career to issues that relate to equity and justice, and some of them are business leaders that make significant investments in the, you know, communities that surround them. The kind of throughline seems to be that they have a more civic-minded orientation that looks for the value of diversity in all of their ongoing efforts. We found that people who actually experienced these environments, it was very clear that it shaped their subsequent trajectories in real ways.

Andrew: So, what now? What do we do?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: It requires a coalition of school leaders, of some policy changes, of parents involvement. It's curricular reform that's required. Like in order for this stuff to mesh, it's not enough to have Black kids with the White kids. Then you have to think about curricular reforms that are reflecting the diversity of kids in the classroom. You have to think about the diversity of teachers and making sure they have these kind of cultural competencies to inspire kids of different backgrounds. It requires all of these pieces in concert.

Courtney: Was there any one thing in this research that really struck you? That was surprising?

Dr. Rucker Johnson: I think it's a great question. So I think that, um, I had done a great deal of quantitative work before I had done some of the key qualitative interviews. And the qualitative interviews span generations. So I'm interviewing judges and school leaders and teachers and parents and kids that experienced it as kids. These reforms and you know, their reflections of what it meant. But one of the things that, particularly, when I was interviewing the kind of pioneers of integration and just heard firsthand accounts of the resistance, of the firebombing of a Black family who was on the school board of the first integrated community in Charlotte. And I think what, what I found profound about it was that despite the greatest intensity of resistance that they faced, when I asked them: would you do it again? Do you still believe in integration as a goal, as school desegregation as a strategy? Do you think that this is something that we should discontinue and move to other strategies to try to address these issues? Or do you still believe that it's possible and possible today? And I'm not saying they all said the same thing in the same way. But what I found profound, is their commitment and their resolve, that they still believed in the importance, and were willing to do whatever it took to continue therein. 


I try to think of myself as both social justice-minded, but also not just advocacy based, but evidence based. Like, I only want to do evidence based advocacy. If the results say school disintegration doesn't work, I don't want to be the one saying it. Like if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, let's move on to something else. And I could appreciate if they were like, after all we've experienced, after all, all the scars we took. Because a lot of the burden of integration was put on the backs of Black families. So, when I listened from Memphis to Charlotte to Boston to Evanston, I think I was struck by the expressions that this is something that's worthy of our attention and that this effort needs to be revived. So that really quickened me. It inspired me to go forward with the work in a way that I don't think I anticipated.

Courtney: I don't know how to thank you enough, Dr. Johnson, for joining us. This is really, really great. And I am, I am waiting with bated breath to get your book.

Dr. Rucker Johnson: I especially just wanted to thank you for your interest in my work.

Andrew: Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson. 


That was really great. Huge thanks to Dr. Johnson. You know, I think the impacts of desegregation, higher earnings, improved racial attitudes, desire to live in more integrated environments, you know, that, that makes sense to me but it's really great to have this sort of real meaningful research to back it up. 


Courtney: Yeah, and when we can see that the effects of desegregation have these intergenerational effects, when we can talk about the grandchildren of desegregation in a meaningful way, it's really encouraging. Yes. So how many times Andrew, were you holding back from saying “it's generational work”?


Andrew: Yes, it is. But it is generational work, right? And it's like the research proves that it can have a generational impact if we keep at it. If we keep trying. You know, Dr. Johnson's work shows us the positive impacts are actually there and that we sort of gave up on it just way too soon. 


Courtney: Yeah, and I think in thinking about his three-pronged policy strategy of preK, and fully funded schools and, of course, integration, I'm once again imagining the force we could muster for the first two, if we actually had skin in the game. If we as White and/or privileged families intentionally desegregated our kids and integrated our families.


Andrew: That would change the game. We never changed the game, you know, because it would change the stories that we tell. 


Courtney: Yeah. 


Andrew: To get there, we have to think about race, we have to think about inequity. And if we are there, we have to deal with it. We have to face it head on. 


Courtney: Yes. So this gives us a different story to think with and act with. And a thousand thanks to Dr. Rucker Johnson. 


Andrew: And a thousand thanks to all of you listeners who have made this possible. It’s labor of volunteer love, your financial support of our work makes all of this possible. So, if you'd like to be part of continuing this effort, please head on over to and click that donate button.


Courtney: And share this podcast on your social media. Send it to your college roommate in Tulsa. Post it in your parent Facebook groups.


Andrew: Tweet it out to anyone you think should hear it. Help us spread the word. 


Courtney: Basically, we're calling in an army of social media managers.


Andrew: Right. We can't afford a real one. So we may as well have everyone else help.


Courtney: If we all do a little, no one has to do a lot. 


Andrew: Yeah, we're really looking forward to this series. 


Courtney: Absolutely.


Andrew: So, spread the word and help us get more people to hear it. And we're of course, always very grateful for your feedback. So, keep the voice memos and emails coming, comments, questions, thoughts for future episodes. Send them to hello at 


Courtney: And we're happy to be in this with you as we try to know better and do better. 


Andrew: See you next week.