More than 30 years after the great civil rights marches, racial segregation remains a fact of life in many of America's ostensibly desegregated schools. And there is evidence that black and white children grow further apart in the years leading up to graduation.
West Georgia College researcher Harry Morgan told the AERA conference that in many communities where blacks constitute 40-50 per cent of the school population, various streaming systems are used to assure white parents that their children will be allocated to almost exclusively white, academically-rigorous teaching groups.
The increase in racially-segregated schooling has also been highlighted by Gary Orfield, director of Harvard University's project on school desegregation, who has pointed out that 1995 marked the first time in 40 years that black and white children were less likely to go to school together than their older brothers and sisters.
But as Harry Morgan reminded the conference, even where children of different races are educated together, the schools often make little effort to ensure cross-race socialisation. Although it had been shown that streaming by academic ability (which the Americans call "tracking") damaged black and poor children, the practice continued in many schools.
"Racial isolation within school is as serious as racial isolation outside of school," he said. "Unfortunately community institutions like churches support the separation of the races to maintain their own financial security," he said.
Morgan devised a study to determine the effect that social attitudes, public policy and school practice were having on inter-racial friendships among 10 to 17-year-olds in Atlanta, Georgia. He asked 128 black children and 181 whites such questions as "If you were free to choose, would you accept a person from another race as a friend at school a friend outside of school a friend with whom you could go on a date a person to whom you could be married?" He found that whites rejected intermarriage to a greater extent than blacks and that older children were less close to people of other races than their younger classmates were. "As children enter secondary school and mate-choice age, cross-race socialisation becomes a race and social-class issue," Morgan said. "Intimate social friendships that might lead to inter-racial dating, and possibly marriage, would call forth school, neighbourhood and family taboos that exist for black and white children. Unfortunately, the longer children in this study remained in desegregated schools, the less likely they were to value inter-racial friendships."
Morgan's only positive finding was that the children's answers to questions about dating and marriage were not as negative as their teachers had predicted.
* Previous research has found that desegregation can help black youngsters to raise their occupational aspirations. Students who attended desegregated elementary and high schools also tend to do better at college. A major 1994 study by Amy Wells of the University of California and Robert Crain of Columbia University concluded that desegregated schools helped black students break out of "the cycle of perpetual segregation and isolation by providing them with access to information about better educational and occupational opportunities".