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by Gary Orfield September/October 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Socio-economic integration is a good idea, but it is not the same as racial integration, may not provide some of the important advantages, does not have any enforceable basis in law, and often has been extremely controversial.

It is true that students in isolated high-poverty schools and neighborhoods suffer disadvantages regardless of race, but the fact is that there are few such schools and communities that are white. The basic reality is that race is related to but different in some critical ways from class. Middle-class blacks and Latinos face discrimination on racial grounds, poor blacks and Latinos face dual discrimination, and even upper-class blacks tend to live in segregated patterns and experience differential treatment on the basis of race. My black students at Harvard are often followed in stores and treated unequally not far from Harvard Square. Middle-class blacks often live with and attend school with more poor children than poor whites do because of differential housing practices and various forms of discrimination. Even in elite settings their children are often placed in lower-track classes, based on racial assumptions by counselors and teachers. Class-based solutions do not consider the fact that white resistance to being in predominantly black neighborhoods is independent of class and that the highest-income black families are as segregated from white counterparts as the lowest-income.

A variety of experiments with class-based integration show shortcomings. It failed to integrate Lowell High school, a selective school in San Francisco; it failed miserably in the UCLA Law School; it has been a very partial and inequate substitute for affirmative action in many institutions of higher education, which have had to rely on a variety of proxies for race, such as segregated high schools, to make up some of the losses due to affirmative action bans.

The assumption that it will be more politically popular than race-based desegregation is questionable. All the battles against suburban housing exclusion, about zoning and land use policies that excluded affordable, rental, and subsidized housing, were class-based, but they were often interpreted in racial terms and almost always defeated politically. Class-based desegregation lacks the history of discrimination argument as well as a legal basis, because economic discrimination is not considered illegitimate in American law or ideology, since economic status is considered a result of individual attainment rather than group position. When class-based school desegregation was tried in Duluth years ago and in Wassau, Wisconsin, it produced an intense political reaction and was ended. School boards have always had the authority, plus some good educational reasons, to do this, but almost none do. The interest in it today is mostly from those desperate to retain some of what they see as beneficial racial desegregation threatened by hostile courts.

Anyone seriously considering class-based desegregation or class-based affirmative action needs to be skeptical about any claims that it will do the same thing or be readily accepted. Obviously, class-based desegregation is much better than none and has real educational benefits, but those expecting to achieve and maintain integration through this method would do well to try to include specific definitions of class that are more related to race – like persistent poverty and isolation in areas of concentrated residential poverty – and to think hard about the effects of cutting off middle-class blacks and Hispanics from the reach of civil rights remedies. Otherwise, class-based remedies can have the effect of helping the temporarily poor whose families have strong human capital, such as recent highly educated immigrants or recently divorced or downsized suburban families whose long-term prospects are very positive without special attention and who are not the victims of discrimination.

And we should realize that there are particular benefits that come from racial integration, in terms of learning and preparation for adult and community life, that do not come from economic diversity. In surveys we are conducting in high schools around the country, we find students reporting clear evidence of such benefits. We know almost nothing about whether or not class integration lowers or increases racial and class prejudice.

I agree that social class desegregation needs exploration. Such exploration should include a careful sorting out of a variety of experiences and dilemmas. Until that work is fully done, and Kahlenberg’s is only a first step in that direction, there is often a tendency to overgeneralize from limited information. It would certainly be foolish to give up race-based remedies, particularly where they, unlike class-based responses, can be linked to a remedial context and at least partially protected from local politics. Parents of lower-class students usually have very little influence and even less organization than minority parents and communities, and the continuation and support for good class-based remedies will be entirely dependent on political systems in which the poor are largely unrepresented. Class integration may be all that is left if the Supreme Court continues to dismantle race-conscious remedies, so it is very important that we have a sober and realistic analysis of its possibilities and real limitations.

My basic view is that a class-based remedy has to come from the elected branches of government in a society that denies class as a significant category, and that one which really helped with race would often have to be done in a way that would be attacked both as a subterfuge for race and as unfair to whites and Asians of similar income levels. The work I am doing with the group of scholars working with John Stanfield of Morehouse College on the reasons for the educational failure of black and Latino middle-class students has strongly reinforced my view that it is a terrible failure to leave this issue off the table or to assume that class integration (defined by free lunch status, for example) of middle-class and poor blacks would produce a good solution rather than just accelerate out-migration of whites and the black middle class.

Nothing in my teaching and work on housing makes me think that addressing class without race will help much on the problems that we face. New Jersey’s Mt. Laurel litigation built more than 30,000 units and almost none of them went to urban minorities. Without something very specific like the Chicago’s Gautreaux remedy, the class approach has consistently led to funding white departure and spreading housing segregation for minority families. This was apparent in the low-income home ownership program (Sec. 235) and in the private market voucher-type programs (Sec. 8). You can produce a great deal of housing for the poor and only intensify segregation, confining the black and Latino poor in areas with the kinds of schools that will keep them poor.

A good class-based remedy, just like a strictly limited and targeted voucher plan serving only minority kids in terrible schools, could be a very good thing, but my analysis of both the history of related policies and the total unwillingness of policymakers in any branch of government to make and enforce complex definitions, plus my strong belief that unorganized constituencies of powerless people are consistently treated poorly, makes me believe that such policies would usually be poorly drawn, usually have weak effects, and would not long be able to retain targeted funding for transportation, recruitment and other key elements to make a desegregation plan succeed.

None of this means that we should not try class-based plans where there is a will and no better alternative. I think we should. But it would be very wrong to think, on the basis of existing evidence, that they would be likely to be nearly as good for minority students, and, for social integration, as good as race-based remedies. It might be best considered as a supplement to rather than a replacement for race-targeted remedies.


Gary Orfield ( is Professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard University and co-director of The Harvard Civil Rights Project. Among his books are Dismantling Desegregation and Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools.


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