Politics holds back school desegregation

Gary Orfield hopes for and fully expects the day to come when school integration is no longer a political issue. Fueling it, in his view, are growing urban racial problems and insights gained since the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that declared separate schools ``inherently illegal.''

``We've learned a lot about what techniques work best,'' insists this University of Chicago political scientist and acknowledged expert on desegregation. He is interviewed in his Hyde Park office which overlooks the campus and is walled-in by books on every side.

Most school desegregation plans now being adopted have more educational components from the start, more choices for students, and less coercion, he says. And the prospects for success are best, he adds, if the school is predominantly middle class and if the integrated setting lasts throughout the student's school career.

But as an outspoken proponent of the merits of both school and housing desegregation, Dr. Orfield is the first to admit there is now no political consensus on the subject. Indeed, many Americans now question the academic benefits for minorities and suggest that whites may lose by such racial mixing rather than gain.

Orfield, noting that Northern intellectuals were more prone to champion the merits of integrated schools in the early days when the courts were focused on the South, says part of the problem is a lack of good research on the subject.

``Most of the research is just terrible,'' he says. ``The only two issues that have been studied with any seriousness at all are the effects on achievement during first year and on white flight.'' The latter refers to the exodus of white families from the city to more predominantly white suburban schools.

What is needed, he says, is a look at long-term consequences on a variety of issues including access to higher education and job opportunities. They are often harder to measure, he admits, but are nonetheless crucial.

Orfield says it was the narrow focus on white flight of the Reagan administration's current federal school desegregation study that in part led to his recent resignation from the study's five-member advisory board.

``The question is whether a major federal study should look at nothing about the effects of desegregation on minorities and only at whether or not whites like it,'' says Dr. Orfield.

In his view, only common institutions and socialization can keep society from developing ``very deep, racial cleavages.'' Desegregation, if executed properly, he says, can create access to opportunity almost impossible to duplicate in any segregated setting.

He points to the recent 15-year study of schools in the Hartford, Conn., area by Johns Hopkins University's Robert L. Crain and Jack Strauss. It showed that blacks educated in predominantly white suburban schools made greater strides toward social equality and acceptance than those educated in largely black city schools.

And Orfield adds that contrary to widespread popular belief, there is no ``significant'' evidence that desegregation ``harms'' whites academically. Too often, he says, desegregation is viewed as a benefit only to minorities. His three daughters have been enrolled in urban public schools in every city in which they've lived. Their father feels they are the richer for the experience in a society increasingly Hispanic and black. He notes that 23 of the 25 largest cities now have minority majorities in thei r public schools.

Indeed, he suggests, it is the long-term pattern of economic and social discrimination against minorities which has led to the serious problem of urban minorities isolated from jobs and the social mainstream. Instead of focusing on the real reason for the devolopment of this ``underclass,'' he says, researchers are leaning toward the explanation that blacks have an inferior culture.

``Many of these people feel no sense of hope,'' he says. ``They're considered irrelevant to the economy, and they know it. We're just treating them as if they don't matter.''

Suggesting that training and jobs are now the most critical need for such young minority males, Dr. Orfield insists the deepening racial crisis in the cities is a problem that sooner or later will have to be faced.

``Ultimately I don't think there are any legal solutions,'' he says.``Our willingness to talk about these issues goes in cycles, but this is such a fundamental feature of our society that it's got to erupt into politics occasionally.

``Though they're obviously not in the mood to do it right now . . . our politicians and other major institutional leaders are going to have to sit down and think about [all] this and realize we have big changes to make.''

One of the toughest stumbling blocks -- but an essential one in order to achieve any stability, in Orfield's view -- is the need to include suburbs in urban desegregation efforts. He concedes the problem is not technical but political. ``There's no support for it at all,'' he says. Yet he notes that a number of cities such as Wilmington, Del., Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis have been taking a metropolitan approach with considerable success.

And he says he is pleased that the Reagan administration's recent legal efforts to challenge past desegregation orders -- so that forced busing is dropped and there is a return to neighborhood schools -- have so far not been very successful.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.