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February 6, 2003

Taking a look at school desegregation

Pitt’s new Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP), an interdisciplinary center housed in the School of Social Work, was established recently to promote scholarship where racial issues are at the intellectual core.

Janet Ward Schofield, professor of psychology and senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, spoke last month on “School Desegregation and Intergroup Relations: Looking Back and Looking Forward” as part of CRSP’s inaugural lecture series.

Schofield has published extensively on school desegregation, including her study on “Black and White in School: Trust, Tension or Tolerance?” which won the 1983 Allport Intergroup Relations Prize from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Schofield is a member of the board of the advisory committee on Race and Ethnic Relations Among Youth at the National Academy of Sciences. She also has served on the National Advisory Panel on School Desegregation Research.

Her lecture focused on 1978-1983 research at a then-new northeastern United States middle school (grades 6, 7 and 8) with 1,200 students; roughly half were white and half were African American. In her lecture she referred to the school by the pseudonym Wexler.

Schofield’s current work focuses on school desegregation and intergroup relations, as well as the effect of computers on classroom social processes. She is preparing a grant proposal to do a follow-up research study on the Wexler students she interviewed for her original study.

Janet Schofield’s study of Wexler middle school in the late 1970s focused on three topics: how well the prevailing theory for examining intergroup relations applied to the school; the differences in both structure and function of intergroup relations in a school environment, and the ways racial and gender groups view interaction, including how observable stereotyping played a role in intergroup relations.

“In examining the published research at that time, I found that most of it focused on a very simple question: What is the effect of desegregation on intergroup relations?” Schofield said. “Unfortunately, the answer to that question was extremely unclear,” despite a fair amount of research on the topic. “In fact, there were a couple of reviews that concluded the most striking characteristic [of the research] was its inconclusiveness.”

In examining the inconclusive research, Schofield found two recurring flaws.

“When I struggled to figure out why research seemed inconclusive, I found that it was due to a very serious conceptual problem, which was that researchers took a political term and in some cases a legal term — school desegregation — and treated it as if it were an independent variable that had one particular meaning,” she said. “But, in fact, desegregation is a social situation with an incredible variety of meanings at the school and classroom level.”

Schools were defined as desegregated whether the percentage of African American students was 5 percent or 70 percent.

“So you have a huge difference in the makeup of student bodies, and you also had a huge difference in how the schools were structured and how they function,” Schofield said. “Some schools had major amounts of re-segregation within classrooms, while others made much more effort to have heterogeneous classrooms.”

The second research flaw was the failure to maintain the distinction between desegregation, that is, a situation in which people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds attended the same school, and integration, that is, desegregation that met certain additional conditions, she said.

“The theory that was best suited to looking in this direction at the time I began work was Gordon Allport’s ‘contact theory,’ which strongly influenced my efforts.”

What Allport, a prominent educational researcher in intergroup relations, suggested, Schofield said, was that contact between previously separate and often hostile groups has the potential to improve relationships between them, but only under certain circumstances: equal status within the contact situation, cooperation toward mutually shared goals and the support of the relevant authorities for building relationships.

She felt Wexler was close to the ideal place to study this theory: It was a new school, roughly half white and half African American, where the administration was committed to promoting a colorblind environment.

“In Wexler’s 6th and 7th grade, things came pretty close to Allport’s contact conditions,” Schofield said. “But in sharp contrast, in the 8th grade, there was a formalization of very unequal contact between African American and white kids,” because the students were divided based on test scores into an accelerated program where roughly 80 percent of the students were white, and the regular program, were 80 percent were African American. The 8th grade also published honor rolls, which was not the case in the 6th and 7th grades.

“So, in the 8th grade, you had a situation where differences in achievement, which were no doubt related to differences in socio-economic background of the students in the school, were formalized in a way that created unequal status for the African Americans and the white students. But this gave us an opportunity to compare the intergroup relations” from separate perspectives.

Schofield and her research team tracked the impact of contact conditions, particularly the impact on the voluntary inter-racial association of students, by measuring changes in lunchroom seating patterns over time. (They discounted the 6th graders for this part of the study, because in a disciplinary move, an administrator mandated seating for those students in the lunchroom.)

“We looked at inter-racial ‘adjacencies,’ students voluntarily sitting either next to or across from each other. We predicted there would be a decline in 8th graders’ adjacencies over time and an increase in 7th graders’. The indices acted exactly as we had predicted,” she said, verifying some of the tenets of contact theory.

Moreover, she said, the effect of increased intergroup relations among 7th graders carried over to the following year when the students got to the more structured 8th grade. “We found that in almost every case kids sat next to each other more than the kids of the previous year’s 8th grade. And these differences were statistically significant.”

Schofield’s team did parallel studies of the role of gender in intergroup behavior and in developing friendships.

“In all grades, girls showed more clustering by race than boys,” she said. Other observational studies in the classroom netted the same result: There was always more mixing of races among boys than girls.

Delving deeper, Schofield then conducted a series of interviews which revealed that boys and girls viewed friendship quite differently.

“With girls you have what might be called a family model of friendship. They have a relatively small number of friends, and what they did was to talk about things, what affected them, what they were worried about. There was a lot of self-disclosure,” Schofield said.

Boys, on the other hand, were more activity-oriented. “They did things with their friends, rather than talking about feelings. And many of the things they did required lots of people, including games and sports,” she said.

The implications along racial lines included “that girls tended to stick more closely to those with whom they felt the most comfort, which in this case, was racial membership,” Schofield said. “Boys were interested in creating a ‘dominance hierarchy’: Who is on top? And if that’s of interest to you, you have to include everybody. It helps create interaction between white and African American kids.”

The same interviews explored how children’s interpretations were influenced by stereotypes and expectations; in particular, whether children would interpret an ambiguously aggressive act as more threatening when the perpetrator was African American than when he was white.

“For example, we noticed that both whites and African Americans shared the stereotype of African Americans as ‘noticeably tougher,’ which is consistent with other research in adult populations where you find the same stereotypes, especially in white populations,” Schofield said.

The researchers used artists’ depictions of students bumping into other students in school hallways.

“Our hypothesis was confirmed, comparing the reactions of 40 6th grade white boys and 40 6th grade African American boys using all combinations of [the race of] the actors and perpetrators: Kids rated behaviors as more mean and threatening when African American kids were the perpetrators than when white kids were. In other words, kids interpreted the same behaviors differently depending on the skin color of the perpetrator,” she said.

“Because the artist-drawn scenarios were identical, except for hair and skin coloration, there was no way we could have created that phenomenon. You can see that there are a number of potential problems where one group sees behavior as friendly and others don’t. It opens up room for misinterpretation, and there’s room for a lot of friction.”

Schofield said this led her research team to certain conclusions and cautions about the effectiveness of a colorblind perspective based on how it functioned in Wexler.

“People in the school strongly endorsed the idea of having a colorblind perspective, both black and white teachers and administrators,” Schofield pointed out. “When you see reactions to invidious distinctions that are made on the basis of race, you can see why the colorblind perspective was looked on as helpful. And, in the short term, it did often avoid conflict controversy.”

However, she said, their research suggested potential negative consequences of a colorblind perspective, including:

• The perspective made much less salient the importance of examining modes of instruction, curriculum content and disciplinary practices to ensure that needs of children from different backgrounds were met. “In fact, at Wexler, suspension rates between whites and African Americans were quite different, and when discussions about that came up, administrators said, ‘We treat people as individuals, so we don’t even need to look at this.’ It’s a perspective that keeps one from thinking about potentially serious institutional issues,” Schofield said.

• A colorblind perspective can lead people to be complacent regarding re-segregation. “If you don’t see color, then large groups clustered together by race doesn’t really matter, because you can’t ‘see’ that. That’s potentially a serious problem in a school designed to try to improve relations, especially if you believe in the model that suggests contact is important in developing intergroup relationships.”

—Peter Hart

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