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Integration Affects Minority Youths' Sense of Injustice

September 12, 2005 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

A new study of Chicago public high school students suggests that American minority groups’ widespread belief that they are treated unfairly by police and the courts may begin to harden in the 9th and 10th grades.

That is a transitional time when African-American and Latino youth are likely to have more exposure to whites and compare their treatment to that of other groups in the larger society. The minority youth also are likely to interact more with police, a great presence in Chicago public schools, with increasing authority to confront students.

At the same time, the study found that in the handful of high schools that include a larger number of whites -- or that come closer to reaching the level of integration that was the aim of a 1980 Justice Department consent decree to desegregate Chicago public schools -- the perceptions of injustice abate somewhat for African-American and Latino youth.

The study was published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

“Our findings support Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s research about the ‘ordeal of integration,’” said John Hagan, a Northwestern University professor and research fellow of the American Bar Foundation who headed the study. (The study’s co-investigators also include Carla Shedd, Northwestern University and American Bar Foundation, and Monique R. Payne, DePaul University.)

“Patterson argues that historically, and even today, many African Americans, and particularly African-American youth, have very little contact with white American society. When that contact starts to occur so too does the ordeal of integration. The preliminary levels of contact with white society, Patterson argues, result in an outrage of liberation -- a heightened awareness of inequality in our society.”

The study, drawn from a survey of 18,000 students from almost all of the public high schools in Chicago, compares perceptions of injustice across the schools’ three dominant groups. African- American youth are most likely to see the criminal justice system as unjust, closely followed by Latino youth, the study concluded. Students least likely to perceive injustice are white --- 10 percent of students in Chicago public schools in 2000 -- and Asian.

To study the effects of integration on students’ perceptions of justice -- a major component of the study -- the co-investigators had to rely on only five secondary public schools whose proportion of students was more than a third to 45 percent white.

Across the 100 Chicago secondary schools, as the level of integration increases from nothing to a little bit, the perception of injustice increases for African-American and Latino students and then reverses a bit at schools that reach a level of 45 percent white.

“At the schools with a bigger proportion of whites, the data suggests, the ordeal of integration seems to become somewhat more benign,” said Hagan, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology & Law at Northwestern and senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation.

“The initial sense of outrage felt by African-American and Latino youth may soften a bit as opportunities start to unfold at a school such as Walter Payton High school, an extraordinary modern edifice. As minority youth get exposed to the benefits that a school of this kind can provide they may feel more optimistic about their opportunities and futures.”

For policy purposes, this finding suggests that integration of whites into public schools must reach levels approaching parity before benefits are realized among both African-American and Latino youth.

“Unfortunately, this finding comes at a time when contemporary efforts to advance the integration of American schools, particularly Chicago schools, are in decline,” Hagan said.

The study was implemented within the context of the recent debate over the 1980 desegregation consent decree. Opponents argue that the decree should be vacated because of the decreasing population of white students, the subject of litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Proponents of the decree, which resulted in the creation of magnet schools and other innovative remedies, argue that efficacy of the decree is what matters and that time is needed to study related benefits. The court may reconsider the decree in 2006.

The study notes that school segregation has been increasing in the United States since the 1980s. Chicago has the greatest percentage of students living in poverty among the nation’s five largest school districts. Figures for 2003 show a decrease of white students from 19 percent in 1980 to 9.2 percent, and of black students from about 60 percent to about 50 percent. At the same time, the proportion of Latino Hispanic students has grown dramatically to more than one-third of the public high school student population.

The police are active in all 100 of Chicago's secondary schools -- patrolling the entrances and hallways and routinely reporting arrests to school administrators -- but in the four or five schools with the largest representation of white students, Hagan suggests, minority youth may also see signs of opportunity, not only for schooling, but also for later access to jobs, housing and the future more generally. At that point in their lives, teens’ views of surrounding society can either become more open and hopeful or closed and despairing.

“The research suggests that schools that go beyond token integration may nurture the hopes of Brown vs. Board Education,” Hagan said. “But 50 years following all the promise of that landmark case, the level of integration in public schools in America has declined substantially. That certainly was not what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind. He dreamed of African Americans going to school with children from other races so they too could become part of the American dream.”

Topics: Research