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Voices of Integration in Social Science Literature

Alyssa Wallace1

“Voices of Integration” is a project through which the experiences of low income families who have moved out of high poverty neighborhoods to more integrated areas can be shared with the public. This project utilizes an interview-based approach similar to that employed as a more formal research tool by Leonard S. Rubinowitz and James E. Rosenbaum in Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia, as well as by Amy Stuart Wells and others in Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation’s Graduates and Wells and Robert L. Crain in Stepping over the Color Line: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools. Like our interviews, these books offer some insights into the challenges and long-term benefits of desegregation for individual families.

In Crossing the Class and Color Lines, Leonard S. Rubinowitz and James E. Rosenbaum focus on race- and class- based integration of housing. Their study critically examines the Gautreaux desegregation program in Chicago, which moved over 7000 families between 1976 and 1998. In their research, the authors interviewed 114 families who moved to predominantly white suburbs as part of the program. Of these “suburban movers,” 97% left neighborhoods that were at least 90% black and moved to suburbs that were an average of 96% white. Interviews were conducted on two occasions, once in the early 1980s and once seven years later. All participants were required to have at least one child in school and those interviewed were predominantly mothers, though some were their children. Interestingly, in their first set of interviews, the authors did not ask the participants any questions overtly referring to racial discrimination, but rather let these issues surface organically from the participants’ responses.

When asked about the differences between their experiences in public housing and in the suburbs, the change most discussed by the women interviewed was the degree of safety they felt. While living in public housing, the women recalled break-ins, gang violence, drug and alcohol use, and physical attacks, particularly on women. As one woman described, “[y]ou could look out your window and see someone get cut up... It was so real. I was right in the middle. I was living it.”2 Reflecting on the difference in her new surroundings, another woman reported, “[t]here is no violence here [in the suburbs], no gangs, no gang-banging. I’m used to all that gang-banging all night long, all day long. Every time you look around somebody was killed –children and grown people.”3 Still, several of the women reported violence or threats thereof in the suburbs because of their race.4 Nevertheless, the women found that the suburbs were overall a much safer environment for their families than was the public housing in which they had formerly resided.

The interviews also revealed the prevalence of social interaction between the program participants and their new neighbors. Most black participants who moved to predominantly white suburban neighborhoods reported that at least one of their neighbors was friendly. One such “suburban mover” told interviewers, “[t]he neighbors made me feel comfortable. They told me if I had a problem, I could use their phone. Just made me feel like ‘You’re not alone. We’re in this boat together. Anything you don’t know ask us. We’ll help you.’”5 Others echoed similar positive experiences with helpful and supportive neighbors. Some members of the community, though, were reported to have treated these women and their children differently, particularly in stores and other public accommodations. Some of their children were excluded from white homes and thereby had a difficult time forming friendships. However, Rubinowitz’s and Rosenbaum’s data shows that negative incidents and interactions decreased for these families over time.

Interviewees did not usually point to improved education for their children as a reason for their desire to move, but their children’s schooling was certainly affected in significant ways. These schools had better facilities, greater resources, and a stronger focus on extracurricular activities and college preparatory courses. Some mothers noted the difficulty their children faced because of the higher academic standards in the suburbs. A disproportionate number were placed in special education programs. The mothers reported being satisfied with their children’s teachers, even though many teachers treated black children differently from white. One mother explained, “I like the concern that the schools have for the parents and the child. If you show them that you are concerned – I try to make a visit at least once per marking period to talk with the teacher and establish an open relationship from the beginning... It’s easy to talk with her [suburban] teacher.”6

As in the books discussed below, interviewees in Crossing the Class and Color Lines mentioned the interconnectedness of success in school and involvement in sports. Here, mothers explained that athletics helped motivate their children to succeed in school, in part due to encouragement by coaches. One mother explained, “[h]e has to have good grades to be in the sports [in the suburbs]. I like the attention that they give him in sports. They have teachers and coaches who are concerned and who take time and patience with the kids. They want them to do well.”7 Other mothers similarly linked their children’s academic and social success with their participation in suburban school sports programs.

Before concluding the book with their recommendations for the future, the authors survey the educational and employment outcomes for the “suburban movers” versus those families who made moves to predominantly African American neighborhoods in the city. In contrast to the hypothesis that childhood poverty creates a “permanent disadvantage,” students in the suburban schools were more likely to attend college, receive higher wages, and receive benefits with their pay. “Suburban movers” were also more likely than “city movers” to remain within the new spheres of education and employment.

School integration

In Both Sides Now, Amy Stuart Wells and her co-authors seek to illuminate the triumphs and difficulties faced by the graduates of the class of 1980 in six integrated high schools across the country. In preparing their research, the authors conducted 550 interviews at six schools selected for their participation in large desegregation plans and for their geographic and demographic diversity. Minority and white graduates of varying levels of economic status, academic success, and extracurricular involvement, as well as differing post-graduate trajectories were selected to be interviewed, along with a small sample of students who did not graduate, but rather transferred or dropped out. The students were interviewed at their twenty year reunions or by phone at that time.

After a brief historical overview of what the authors call “the closing and reopening gaps,” Both Sides Now begins to delve into substantive themes recurring in the interviews. The authors emphasize that these school integration programs, while imperfect, were very much worthwhile. As one student explained, “[t]here’s just stuff you can’t take for granted anymore when you have been in a racially diverse environment... You can’t just fall into these, like, bland stereotypes of everyone of another race or class if you’ve just had prolonged personal contact with them.”8 Others echoed this sentiment, noting their personal growth and altered perceptions. As Wells stresses, through school integration programs, students’ own racial prejudices and stereotypes were challenged, often resulting in their abandonment.

In their exploration, Wells et al. take a critical look at the concept of color-blindness and its worth in school integration. While many of the respondents used the term “color-blind” in their interviews, the authors and some of those interviewed question whether or not color-blindness is a good thing. Rather than ignoring racial differences, Both Sides Now emphasizes the value of recognizing and discussing them. One interviewee explained, “[t]o pretend it doesn’t matter is a lot of energy being spent on the wrong thing, ‘cause it’s denial. But if we could all... just say, ‘You know what? It matters. It’s an issue. People have different perceptions. Perceptions can be important, sometimes even as important as reality... and you got to deal with the perceptions.’”9 Others observed that, while their discussions of race with peers were helpful and constructive, their teachers were less open to facilitating such conversations. Wells et al. conclude that efforts at color-blindness did little to deal with racial issues or foster tolerance, but that acknowledging differences led to productive conversations that promoted interaction and tolerance.

While students of different races often formed friendships, interviewees of all races emphasized the degree to which these friendships were limited in nature. One student explained, “I had a network and groups of friends I feel was pretty diverse there at school, but I didn’t necessarily, you know, hang out with them on the weekends.”10 Others students, regardless of race, described in-school integrated interactions but separation in life outside the school building.11

The authors also highlight the role of “white privilege” in day to day school life. For instance, Wells et al. identify the measurable difference in the type and degree of access to information about advanced courses and higher education offered to white students as compared with students of color. As one Latina student recalled, “I was never aware that there was maybe like an advanced, upper-level class for those that made As, and they were all predominantly white.”12 Other students told of similarly disparate access to higher level courses and college preparation. Even though the school was integrated, they noted, classes, particularly those at the highest and lowest academic levels, often were less so.

Wells et al. look not only at the interviewees experiences while in school but also at their post-schooling lives. Reflecting on college, the housing market, the workplace, and social settings, the respondents largely agreed that integration is not something they have frequently experienced since their school years. One student recalled discussing with her friends their post-school lives at a reunion, remembering “we were reflecting on our lives now – that we feel as though the settings that we’re in are less integrated than they were back in high school.”13 The authors further explore this lack of an integrated lifestyle, asking the interviewees about their own choices for their children’s academic settings. While most still asserted that their integrated education was of immense value, few chose the same for their own children. Though they generally expressed a desire for their children to experience diversity similar to that which they experienced in school, many expressed a worry that only less diverse schools offered the best education. As one parent explained, “[g]oing to a racially diverse school, from my perspective and being a parent now, it would be good. But being racially diverse isn’t going to get you a job.”14 These sentiments were repeated by many of the white interviewees, while parents of color reported that their children would receive a better education at a predominantly white school because of the opportunities found there.

In Stepping over the Color Line, Wells and Robert L. Crain provide a useful framework for thinking about the different reactions of individual students to integration. In this book, they examine a school choice plan in St. Louis. In their five-year study, Wells and Crain interviewed over 300 people, as well as observed classrooms and meetings and analyzed documents and census data. Their research centered on discovering who had benefitted from the school choice plan, how, and why. Interviewees included superintendents, political leaders, monitoring committee members, lawyers, judges, students, teachers, and parents. Students were selected from both the city and the suburbs, with city students representing three groups referred to as “city,” “transfer,” and “return” students based on their school choices.

In the course of their study, Wells and Crain classified their participants into several groups. Black participants were referred to as “separatists,” “beat down,” “white is right” (“assimilationists”), or “visionaries.” White participants were either “resistors,” “sympathizers,” or “visionaries.”

“Separatists” were students who opposed integration, most of whom thereby remained at predominantly black city schools, rather than transferring to suburban schools. “Beat down” referred to those who had accepted a place at the bottom of society, ignoring efforts such as school integration and often fearful of whites. “White is right” participants were those that associated whiteness with positive things, seeking to join this racial group in education and often having negative opinions of their own race. In contrast, “visionaries” sought to integrate without giving up their racial identities. White participants were classified on the basis of whether or not they resisted school integration. “Sympathizers” supported social programs as long as such efforts remained distant from their own lives. White “visionaries” were those who sought to truly address the breadth of problems of racial inequality.

The interviews in Stepping over the Color Line expose several of the same themes as do those in Both Sides Now. For example, as in Both Sides Now, the interviews in Wells’ and Crain’s study in St. Louis exhibit a trend of black students in predominantly white schools experiencing significant success and acceptance if they became involved in sports. As one mother of a black student in the St. Louis school choice program reflected, “I think the only reason my son and his friends graduated from Mehlville without a lot of pressure is because they were in sports. And Mehlville for the first time in history won the district championship [in basketball] with these boys on their team.”15 Additionally, Stepping over the Color Line, like Both Sides Now, discusses the way that course levels and tracking were used to re-segregate classrooms by placing black students in remedial and lower-level courses and white students in more advanced classes.16

Stepping over the Color Line, like Both Sides Now, ends with recommendations for the future of desegregation programs.. Prominent in their discussion is a rejection of the “separate but equal” approach to urban education. Indeed, like Both Sides Now, Stepping over the Color Line shows the challenges of integration but nevertheless clearly supports integrated education and programs that promote it.

The interviews conducted as part of the “Voices of Integration” project have revealed some similar themes to those highlighted above from these three academic works. Through this project, we hope to bring to life some of the lived experiences of families “crossing the class and color line” in today’s segregated metropolitan communities.

1PRRAC Law & Policy Intern, 2011
2Leonard S. Rubinowitz and James E. Rosenbaum, Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 90.
3Ibid., 95.
4Ibid., 96.
5Ibid., 108.
6Ibid., 149.
7Ibid., 159.
8Amy Stuart Wells, et al., Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation’s Graduates (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 232.
9Ibid., 148.
10Ibid., 194.
11It is worth noting, though, that there was no housing integration component to these interviews, and all six schools examined in this study were high schools – it is possible that more lasting interracial friendships could be formed at integrated schools earlier in students’ educational lives.
12Ibid., 101.
13Ibid., 243.
14Ibid., 278
15Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain, Stepping over the Color Line: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 228.
16Ibid., 274.

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