Desegregation, racial attitudes, and intergroup contact: A discussion of change


Unless certain conditions are met, Mr. Grant warns, the educational fruits that truly desegregated schooling could offer will be unavailable for harvesting.


In the summer of 1989 I taught a course titled “Multicultural Education in the Schools” to more than 50 students. They were experienced educators — teachers, counselors, librarians, and administrators — from a variety of Wisconsin school districts, though the heaviest concentration of representatives came from greater Milwaukee, Madison, and Racine. Everyone enrolled in the course was working in a school that was committed to some form of desegregation or multicultural education.

During the summer, the participants were to prepare a multicultural educational plan for a classroom or an entire school. Then, to complete the course requirements, each student was to send me in late October an analysis of the implementation of the plan. The group would meet again in early December for one last class session, during which students would discuss these analyses and give progress reports on the implementation efforts.

The students’ December reports on their efforts to make changes in their classrooms, their school libraries, their counseling offices, or their total schools communicated the reality of dealing with the tough problems posed by race, class, and gender. One student, after analyzing the situation at her school, commented, “The main problem that will have to be solved is probably the hardest one — that is, to change [the school staffs] attitudes and help them develop a knowledge base [in multicultural education].”

“Attitudes” and “knowledge base” were recurring refrains in the presentations of all the participants. They discussed problems emerging from their own attitudes, the attitudes of their colleagues, and the attitudes of students and their parents. Because I have offered suggestions elsewhere regarding a “knowledge base” for schools that are undergoing desegregation and simultaneously implementing multicultural education,1 I will concentrate here on racial attitudes and on the contact thesis, using insights garnered from my students, from my own research in desegregated schools, from the work of other researchers, and from reports that have appeared in professional publications or in the popular press. I will argue for increasing the number of actors in the desegregation equation, discuss the decline of overt racism and the rise of covert racism, and critique the contact thesis as it has been applied in schools. I will also recommend the implementation of different models of contact.

Increasing the number of actors in the desegregation equation

It has been 36 years since the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. This ruling was inspired and led by African-Americans who were fighting for all children, but especially for African-American children. In the years since that landmark decision, our country has witnessed a population boom among other people of color who have, in turn, sought to secure their rights in schools and in other social institutions. The Hispanic population (which numbered 16.9 million in 1985) is growing steadily. Meanwhile, the largest number of recent immigrants has come from Asia. Between 1971 and 1980 Asians made up 25 % of all new immigrants.2 Indeed, the ethnic makeup of California is changing so rapidly that, by the year 2010, no single ethnic group will constitute a majority. In 1988 Kati Haycock and Susana Navarro pointed out that, in California, “Latinos . . . comprise about 24 % of the population; they will comprise 27 % in 2000. (This is up from 12% in 1970.) Asians comprise 9% of the state’s population and should increase to 12% by 2000. The black population, while increasing at a slower rate, will nevertheless comprise 8% of the state’s population by the year 2000. And the white population will decline from the present 62 % to 54% .”3

The school desegregation equation must include, in theory and in practice, all groups of color.

These population changes — especially among Asian-Americans and Hispanics — mean that the school desegregation equation must include, in theory and in practice, all groups of color. The ethnic diversity within these minority populations and their concentration (and isolation) within certain regions of the country are also important factors that the desegregation equation must take into account. For example, three-fifths of the nation’s Hispanic students live in California and Texas. Other large Hispanic populations are found in the Northeast, the West, and the Midwest. And these regional Hispanic populations tend to have different ethnic identities. Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent generally live in the Northeast, Mexican-Americans generally live in the West, and Cuban-Americans generally live in Florida, while the Midwest tends to attract Hispanics of Puerto Rican or of Mexican descent.

Asian-Americans are likewise clustered in just a few states. When the 1980 census was taken, nearly 59% of Asian-Americans lived in California, Hawaii, and New York. California has the highest proportion of each of the six largest Asian-American groups (Filipinos, 46 %; Chinese, 40%; Japanese, 38%; Vietnamese, 35%; and Asian Indians, 15%). New York is home to approximately 18% of all the Asian-Americans of Chinese or Asian Indian descent, while Hawaii is home to about 34 % of the Japanese-American population.

Desegregation policy and practice need to take into account these varying concentrations of Hispanic and Asian-American students, as well as the cultural characteristics that the different Hispanic and Asian-American ethnic groups bring to the desegregation process. For example, primary language is a crucial variable. Some Hispanic and Asian-American students lack proficiency in English. But planners need to consider whether desegregation policy should provide for language instruction, if such instruction has the effect of resegregating some students in small classes that serve only youngsters whose primary language is not English. Clearly, such linguistic isolation poses a problem; as Beatriz Arias points out, it “creates classrooms where there are few native-English-speaking peer models. “4 Desegregation planners must also be careful not to treat students of a given minority group as though they are linguistically identical. In 1978, for example, the Office for Civil Rights reported that only 26 % of Hispanic students were identified as having a primary language other than English.5

A significant number of Asian-American students lack proficiency in English. Indeed, 50% of all Chinese-Americans are deficient in English — as are 31% of all Filipino-Americans, 21 % of all Japanese-Americans, 66% of all Korean-Americans, and 78 % of all Vietnamese-Americans.6 Florence Yoshiwara points out that the relatively low figure for Japanese-Americans stems from the fact that only 25% of Japanese-Americans are foreign-born, in contrast to much higher percentages for other Asian-American groups. Indeed, Yoshiwara notes that, of the 452 bilingual programs for Asian-American and Pacific Rim students offered in 1980, only 28 (6%) of them catered in part or in whole to Japanese-American students.7

The recently expanding minority groups often receive inequitable treatment in the public schools. For example, Hispanic students are frequently segregated and treated as culturally deficient and linguistically deprived foreigners. This treatment helps to explain their high dropout rate (45 %), their underrepresentation in advanced courses, and their low rate of college attendance. In 1986 Isauna Santiago reported that more than three-fourths of the Hispanic students in New York City were dropping out of school and that institutional changes were occurring slowly — usually only as a result of persistent pressure from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund and its attorneys.8 Desegregation policy and practices must address such conditions.

Unlike Hispanic students, Asian-American students experience little school segregation. According to Gary Orfield, Franklin Monfort, and Melissa Aaron, Asian-American students typically attend schools that serve 25 % disadvantaged minorities (blacks and Hispanics) and 75% whites and Asian-Americans.9

In California, where the greatest number of mainland Asian-American students reside, these students frequently place among the top 25 % of all students academically. At the 12th-grade level, Asian-American students in California outscore the other racial groups in mathematics. Their high school dropout rate is 17%, and 64.2 % attend college.10 Frequently, they are stereotyped as model students.

Some Asian-American scholars believe that this stereotype is causing undue harm. For example, Ronald Takaki argues:

Asian-American “success” has emerged as the new stereotype for this ethnic minority. While this image has led many teachers and employers to view Asians as intelligent and hard-working and has opened some opportunities, it has also been harmful. Asian-Americans can find their diversity as individuals denied: many feel forced into the “model minority” mold and want more freedom to be their individual selves, to be “extravagant.”11

Yoshiwara points out that these stereotypes “have implications for curricula, teacher-student relations, and career counseling.” She adds:

Always being described as quiet, hard working, nonverbal, and high achieving places unfair burdens on Japanese-American students. When teachers encourage this type of behavior, they reward students for remaining stereotypic. Teachers need to encourage verbal skills and consciously select Japanese-American students to engage in discussion, debates, and presentation. It is very important to create an atmosphere in which Japanese-American students can feel comfortable enough to pursue their own paths in society.12

It should also be noted that a key feature of immigration reform related to Asians after 1965 was preferential treatment for skilled Asian immigrants and their families. Thus many of the Asians who entered the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s were educated individuals, familiar with academic success and with professional work and norms. However, in recent years the number of skilled Asian immigrants has declined. This shift may eventually bring us to understand Asian-Americans more accurately as the diverse group that they are. Native Americans bring still a different dimension to the desegregation process. Some Native Americans are interested in receiving their schooling on the reservation, while others are interested in living in the larger community. Linda Pertusati argues that, unlike blacks (who frame their discussion of education in terms of segregation/desegregation), Native Americans emphasize assimilation versus cultural preservation. However, she views Native Americans and blacks as sharing similar concerns when it comes to the curriculum, community control, group identity, and the role of culture within the total educational process.13 The struggles of Native Americans for self-determination must also be considered when desegregation policy and practices are discussed.

Clearly, scholars and researchers who study school desegregation must move from considering only two groups — usually whites and blacks, but sometimes whites and Hispanics or whites and Asian-Americans — to a more comprehensive perspective that includes various combinations of racial groups. For example, the third-generation desegregation concerns identified by the Desegregation Assistance Centers — curricula, instructional methods and learning styles, student self-concept, and achievement — need to be studied from a multiracial perspective.14

In sum, the growing numbers of Asian-American, Hispanic, and Native American children and the special school problems experienced by them compel us to stop treating school desegregation as a black-and-white issue. Studies of school desegregation must take as their subjects all students of color and must carefully consider the characteristics and needs of each ethnic subgroup.

I should point out here that I do not seek to diminish the place of blacks in the school desegregation effort. White racism toward blacks persists, although it is sometimes more covert and subtle than was true in the past. The relationship between blacks and whites in schools and in all other U.S. institutions is sufficiently different from other between-group relationships to require that blacks remain central to the desegregation effort. This uniqueness is grounded in part in the history of black/white relations: slavery for blacks was followed first by a long period of dehumanizing segregation and then by the de facto social and political oppression that black people experience to this day.

Two black psychiatrists, William Grier and Price Cobbs, argued in the late 1960s that “the culture of slavery was never undone for either master or slave. The civilization that tolerated slavery dropped its slaveholding cloak, but the inner feelings remained. The ‘peculiar institution’ continues to exert its evil influence over the nation.”15

Much of this tension has been — and continues to be — expressed in the form of negative stereotypes and false assumptions about African-American people. In his 1953 book, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison noted:

After Reconstruction the political question of what was to be done with Negroes, “solved” by the Hayes-Tilden deal of 1876, came down to the psychological question: “How can the Negro’s humanity be evaded?” The problem, arising in a democracy that holds all men as created equal, was a highly moral one: democratic ideals had to be squared with anti-Negro practices. One answer was to deny the Negro’s humanity — a pattern set long before 1915. But with the release of The Birth of a Nation the propagation of subhuman images of Negroes became financially and dramatically profitable. The Negro as scapegoat could be sold as entertainment, could even be exported. If the film became the main manipulator of the American dream, for Negroes that dream contained a strong dose of such stuff as nightmares are made of.16

As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.“17 I believe that this problem will continue into the 21st century. Indeed, I believe that the problem will be exacerbated, because this society is not yet preparing itself to affirm the different groups of color. The extent to which groups of color are able to develop and foster harmony and communication among themselves will determine, to a large degree, whether the “color-line” will dissolve or harden over time.

Decline of overt bigotry: Rise of covert racism

Twenty-five years ago many large U.S. cities were aflame with riots. Blatant acts of racist violence were commonplace. During the dinner hour, television news broadcasts served up a menu of racial confrontations; prominently featured were screaming whites and blacks massed in front of recently desegregated schools, where law enforcement officers provided human corridors down which black children walked from their buses to the buildings.

In 1969 the nation watched the seizure of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes and protest demonstrations led by the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1972 we witnessed the AIM takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Throughout this period, the popular press carried frequent reports of racial violence in the schools and of confrontations between black students and white teachers. Articles in Sunday supplements and feature articles in the daily newspapers focused on such topics as “Teaching in a Ghetto School” or “Indian Reservation Schools.”

 Racism and bigotry — in schools and in the society at large — have become more subtle.

Although they are still with us, racial disruptions occur less frequently today. Racism and bigotry — in schools and in the society at large — have become more subtle. From their review of the research on the attitudes of whites toward blacks, Donald Kinder and David Sears concluded in 1981 that prejudice has not disappeared but instead is taking the form of “abstract, moralistic resentment of blacks.” This resentment, they argued, is grounded in the belief that “blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience, and discipline.”18 This new attitude toward blacks, according to Kinder and Sears, manifests itself in white opposition to busing and in white unwillingness to vote for black political candidates.19

Michael Omi and Howard Winant hold a similar view. “Issues of race have once again been dramatically revived in the 1980s, this time in the form of a ‘backlash’ to the political gains of racial minority movements of the past,” they maintain. Omi and Winant charge that this “revival” has occurred because conservative popular movements, conservative academics, and the Reagan Administration “joined hands to attack the legacy and logic of earlier movement achievements. They have done this, moreover, in a way which escapes obvious charges of ‘racism.’“20

In schools, overt racist acts have disappeared for the most part, but curricula and textbooks continue to ignore people of color.21 Subtle bigotry shows up in the rhetoric of educational equality (which does not necessarily include educational equity).22 Subtle bigotry is manifested as well in the widely held attitude that family environment bears most of the blame for student underachievement. The low expectations that many schoolpeople hold for students of color are not generally perceived to play a large role in producing this problem.

The serious underachievement of students of color in many U.S. schools is beginning to prompt some changes, however. Educators, at a loss about how to work effectively with students who differ from them racially, have begun to embrace the concept of multicultural education. Some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities are offering — for the first time ever — tenure-track positions in multicultural education, and school systems across the country are implementing multicultural education programs.

Blatantly negative attitudes toward Asian-Americans have likewise softened in recent years. If the current rapid increase in the Asian-American population had occurred in an earlier time, it would have elicited public outcries aimed at stemming “the yellow tide,” and it would have resulted in legislative action to control immigration. But yesterday’s stereo type of Asian-Americans as “conniving, clannish, and kowtowing inferiors” has been replaced by a different view of Asian-Americans: as “competitive, community-minded, exemplars of hope and inspiration.”23 The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is now seen as morally, politically, and socially wrong. The U.S. government has offered token remuneration ($20,000 per person interned) as partial restitution for the misery and oppression endured by those Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned.24

Despite these important changes, all is not rosy for Asian-Americans. Several factors suggest that Asian-Americans are not as economically successful as they appear to be. Typically, median household income and average level of educational attainment are used as measures of economic success. And the median household income of Asian-Americans is higher than that of other groups, including whites. But median household income is a misleading indicator of success. Per capita income among foreign-born (and some native-born) Asian-American groups is lower than that of whites. Moreover, Asian-American populations are concentrated in geographic areas where incomes are higher than the national average (e.g., in urban areas and on the West Coast). Yoshiwara notes, too, that the figures for median household income do not take into account the fact that a Japanese-American household usually has two or three wage eamers.25 There are also indications that Asian-Americans are concentrated in certain occupational sectors of the economy, such as family businesses. In the mid-1980s, according to The Corporate 1000: A Directory of Who Runs the Top 1000 U.S. Corporations, Asian-Americans accounted for only 159 of the 29,000 officers and directors of the 1,000 largest U.S. firms.26

In schools, the high expectations now held for Asian-Americans produce mixed results. On the one hand, they encourage Asian-American students to achieve at high levels; many of these youngsters stand at the top of their classes and receive impressive academic prizes and scholarships. The number of Asian-Americans entering law school or preparing for careers in other professions is increasing rapidly.27

On the other hand, these high expectations push some Asian-American students into behaviors that earn them the label, “neurotic overachiever.” Peter Rose discusses the ramifications of this outcome:

Close observers have begun to note that both pressures on the young from within the communities and expectations from others outside it are beginning to take their toll. Asian youths, finding themselves on rather narrow career trajectories (requiring a major in math or science, for example) that demand high grades and unstinting effort, and that emphasize the necessity to stay the course or lose face, are feeling the effects of psychological and emotional strain. Reports from college health services indicate that more and more Asian-American students are seeking counseling and that their concerns are usually related to the fear of failure.28

Educators’ high expectations for Asian-American students carry the seeds of another negative outcome as well. There has been talk of establishing quotas that would limit the number of Asian-American applicants admitted to some of the nation’s most selective public and private universities.29

The shift from blatant to subtle forms of racism is also affecting Hispanics and Native Americans. In Let All of Them Take Heed, Guadalupe San Miguel analyzes the long history of negative attitudes toward Mexican-Americans. He argues that the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War legitimized the stereotype of Mexicans as “eternal enemies” of the state, encouraged their denigration, and justified — in the minds of Anglos — the inferior status to which Mexicans were relegated. These events, he suggests, also account for the disparagement by Anglos of Mexican culture and the Spanish language.30

Today, Hispanics are no longer regarded as eternal enemies of the state. But they continue to be victims of subtle racism in the wider society and in the schools. With regard to the schools, San Miguel observes:

In the 1980s Mexican Americans continued to be placed in segregated and inferior schools, in vocational programs, and in remedial programs. They also continued to be denied equal access to special education programs such as those for the gifted and to advanced classes in English, mathematics, and computers . . . . Further, the curriculum in most schools continues to be assimilationist in theory and fact. The unchanged nature of the curriculum is reflected in efforts to teach primarily English in bilingual education and in the decline of Mexican-American classes at secondary and postsecondary educational institutions.31

Attitudes toward Native Americans have also improved over time, but Native Americans continue to struggle for autonomy and self-determination. Francis Prucha has described the prevailing perceptions of, and attitudes toward, Native Americans:

For some people — a majority perhaps of Americans — Indians are still a romantic topic. Iconographic symbols of Indians that everyone recognizes all come out of the past — bows and arrows, smoke signals, tomahawks, peace pipes, long braids, fringed buckskin shirts, feathered headdresses, beaded moccasins, and tepees. Indians themselves often play upon some of these attributes in order to be considered unmistakably Indian. But these residues of an earlier material culture, which no doubt are useful in maintaining the Indians’ pride in their heritage, should not obscure the reality of Indian existence in the last quarter of the twentieth century.32

Clearly, all groups of color can point to positive changes in race relations that have come about because of their continuing struggle for civil rights and for educational equality and equity. Today, society is quick to express its anger when a public figure displays racism. CBS sports commentator Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis, vice president and director of personnel for the Los Angeles Dodgers, were fired from glamorous and well-paid jobs because they made racist remarks in public.

As long as racism and bigotry are kept in the closet or carefully camouflaged, they are allowed to persist.

But society does not display outrage or take such swift action against subtle racism. As long as racism and bigotry are kept in the closet or carefully camouflaged, they are allowed to persist. The lead of a special report in Newsweek , “Black and White in America,” illuminates this point and provides an accurate analysis of the situation faced by all people of color in the U.S.

Twenty years after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., America is a society less unequal but also less caring than it was in the ’60s. Blacks have gained a fragile new middle class and a troubled “underclass” where chronic unemployment and single-parent families are the rule. At the same time, the civil-rights movement itself has fallen into a neglect that hurts everyone.33

Many authors of color have pointed out the continuing existence of racism.34 Meanwhile, Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, and Lawrence Bobo conclude their comprehensive study of racial attitudes in America with the following assessment:

Considering all of the information we have reviewed, we cannot simply conclude that racial attitudes are characterized by a sweeping progressive movement. Nor can we draw the equally simple conclusion that racism is here to stay and remains fundamentally unchanged. . . . What has occurred is a mixture of progress and resistance, certainty and ambivalence, striking movement and mere surface change . The balance among these lies in the future, with political leadership one of the important elements that will detennine the shape of that future.35

Contact and racial prejudice

Thus far, I have argued that the desegregation process needs to be expanded to include all groups of color. I have pointed out that racism and bigotry persist in society and in the schools, although today they are often subtle and camouflaged. My final point is that we need to examine what we know about changing racial attitudes in positive ways — and we need to use this information to develop new approaches and practices aimed at eliminating racial prejudice.

In his classic book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport presented and critiqued six strategies (not including iegislative remedies) that are useful for changing prejudicial attitudes and improving race relations . Those strategies are: formal educational methods, contact and acquaintance programs, group retraining methods, mass media presentations, ex- hortation, and individual therapy .36 All these approaches are important and useful for eliminating racial prejudice, but the value of each has to be gauged in light of the particular individuals and the contexts involved. Since my focus in this article is on school desegregation — which implies, by its very nature, “contact” among different groups of people — it is logical to attend in particular to the strategy that has to do with contact and acquaintance (while at the same time recognizing the importance of the other approaches).

For many years social scientists have studied intergroup contact in an effort to determine the conditions necessary to eliminate racial prejudice. Desegregated schools have served as important and convenient laboratories for conducting this research. Indeed, the push for school desegregation was influenced to a significant extent by the “contact hypothesis” — the notion that increased contact between blacks and whites would reduce prejudice and eliminate negative stereotyping. In some cases, this effect has occurred.37 in other cases, it has not. Several researchers have made clear the problematic nature of this approach to reducing prejudice and stereotyping.38 Walter Stephan and David Rosenfield explain the problems thus:

Many desegregation plans are initiated under circumstances that do not fulfill the conditions for reducing stereotyping and prejudice. Intergroup contact in desegregated schools is often minimized because of resegregation that takes place within school. The assignment of students to different “tracks” based on test scores leads to the separation of blacks and whites when the two groups differ in test scores. In addition, considerable segregation occurs in desegregated schools due to ethnocentric choices in the selection of friends and the existence of in-group friendship cliques.39

Michael Williams takes an even more negative view:

Teachers and administrators have remained prejudiced against minority students; black students have received discriminatory suspensions and expulsions; there has been racially discriminatory placement of minority students in classrooms for the mentally retarded or in ability groups and tracking systems leading to manual jobs.40

Differences in status among students in some desegregated schools limit the quality and the amount of interaction that takes place. For example, busing for racial balance often brings together students who are not equal in economic status or in the educational opportunities they have received. These differences among student groups do not encourage the type of contact that results in positive racial attitudes and cross-racial friendships.41 The system of tracking in schools and the promotion of competition over cooperation both serve to block students from getting to know others who are different from themselves.42 Moreover, desegregated schools rarely develop and implement programs aimed at confronting and eliminating the prejudices of staff and students. Youngsters attending desegregated schools are seldom exposed to the histories and cultures of their classmates.43 Indeed, as Meyer Weinberg has pointed out, when desegregation is ordered, it is assumed that the school and its personnel will try their hardest to make a success of it. Yet “the empirical realities are frequently quite different.”44

Nonetheless, social scientists and educators have learned a good deal from experiments involving contact and acquaintance . In 1954 Allport noted, “Contacts that bring knowledge and acquaintance are likely to engender sounder beliefs concerning minority groups, and for this reason contribute to the reduction of prejudice.”45 He concluded :

Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal-status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom , or local atmosphere) and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interest and common humanity between members of the two groups.46

More recently, Stephan and Rosenfield summarized the findings from the research on contact. Like Allport, they concluded that “contact that is intimate, equal-status, cooperative, and sanctioned by authority promotes favorable relations between groups. “47 In desegregated schools, they said, cooperative groupings show some promise of reducing stereotyping as long as the racial composition is fairly balanced and cross-racial relations are encouraged. They added that cooperative groups that experience success on tasks at which the minority group is initially superior have the best chance of reducing stereotyping.48

Clearly, superficial contact between two racial groups is not enough to eliminate racial prejudice. Research suggests that the minimum requirements are equal-status contact, institutional support, and a common or cooperative interest shared by both groups. In designing and implementing desegregation plans, however, many schools overlook these important elements of the contact thesis. In the words of Michael Williams, “not only is contact important in achieving interracial harmony and justice, but also the context of that interaction — how it is structured — is extremely important. Yet few schools are actively engaged, both procedurally and in matters of curriculum, to bring it about.”49

The contact thesis, as it is presented in most of the literature, poses three major problems, however. Let us examine each of these problems in more detail.

The first problem is that the thesis seems to be based on a model of assimilation that would encourage groups of color to accept the norms, behaviors, and characteristics of the white culture. In the literature on school desegregation, “contact” between groups is rarely viewed from a pluralistic or multicultural perspective.

From a multicultural perspective, all students should receive an education that continuously affirms human diversity — one that embraces the history and culture of all racial groups and that teaches people of color to take charge of their own destinies. From a multicultural perspective, group contact ought to help students understand how to eliminate race, class, and gender oppression. With regard to teaching, a multicultural perspective assumes that teachers will hold high expectations for all students and that they will challenge those students who are trapped in the cycle of poverty and despair to rise above it. Teachers must also be willing to develop home/school ties.

When the contact thesis is interpreted from a white perspective, by contrast, it is implemented so as to bring together white students and students of color who share the same socioeconomic status and similar levels of academic achievement. Such arrangements may be necessary in some circumstances, and their effects can be offset by a curriculum that deals directly with the issues of racism. Similarly, faculties that include people of color as administrators or as teachers in the core subject areas help to promote successful contact.

Institutional support for a multicultural perspective is important. And any administrator in his or her right mind would certainly say, “My school treats all students equally and recognizes their diversity.” Yet the literature on school desegregation suggests that schools have paid minimal attention, at best, to multicultural concerns. For example, many of the ethnic studies courses of the 1960s and 1970s were introduced primarily because of pressure from outside the schools, so and they were short-lived (lasting from one to three years). Moreover, most of these programs focused on blacks; other groups of color had no presence in the ethnic studies sequences.

The second problem with the contact thesis is that we have not yet studied contact between different groups of color; the studies to date have dealt only with blacks and whites. Yet many predominantly black urban schools are now experiencing rising enrollments of Hispanic and Asian-American students. Our understanding of contact needs to include what happens (and what needs to happen) when students from different groups of color come together — without white students (or with only a small number of them) but with a teaching staff that is predominantly white, as it is projected to become.51 Michael Thornton and Robert Taylor have argued the need for a better understanding of intergroup attitudes among groups of color.52 Their own survey showed that a majority of black respondents did not feel close to Asian-Americans — information that would be useful in planning school desegregation efforts involving African-American and Asian-American students.

Meanwhile, educators of color tend to assume that, for one group to obtain educational extras (e.g., computers, special programs), other students of color will have to do without. The outcome of this assumption is competition among groups of color rather than cooperation. It is very important that the different groups of color find ways to work together; thus it is imperative that we study contact among racial and ethnic groups more broadly than we have done to date.

The third problem with the contact thesis is that “contact” is most often used to mean interaction among individuals. However, many U.S. schools outside the 20 largest school districts are predominantly white or totally white. It is important that the students and faculties in those schools have meaningful and ongoing “contact” with experiences and materials that help them examine their feelings about peoples of color, that help them expand their knowledge of the histories and cultures of nonwhite groups, and that help them develop accepting attitudes toward human diversity. Weinberg has addressed this point:

According to the prevailing theory, the black children in the all-black school must be desegregated. But also, many other changes are prescribed for the curriculum, teaching strategies, inservice training, extracurricular activities, textual materials, and much else. But none of these changes is prescribed for the white children in all-white districts, except by osmosis. How can this be justified educationally?53

Clearly, this situation cannot be “justified educationally.” The problem of race relations is every American’s problem. When groups are isolated from one another, the outcomes are negative attitudes and racial incidents like those we have witnessed recently in New York City, in Boston, and in Wisconsin (over fishing rights) — and like those that have flared up during the last few years on many college campuses.

School desegregation is far from complete. Unless attitudes toward desegregation become more positive, unless all groups of color become actively involved in the desegregation process, and unless educators and the society at large commit themselves to fostering positive contacts among the various population subgroups, the educational fruits that truly desegregated schooling could offer will be unavailable for harvesting.

My class has decided to continue to meet informally through the years, as the participants work out their strategies for implementing multicultural education in their desegregated schools. I hope that the issues raised in this article — increasing the .number of actors in the desegregation process, focusing on covert racism, and developing positive intergroup contact — will capture attention and inspire debate among my former students and among others engaged in similar desegregation efforts. I know that our minds will have to be open and our attitudes ripe for change. Otherwise, we will continue to hamper the development of students of color — and thereby the development of the entire society.



  1. Carl A. Grant and Christine E. Sleeter, Turning on Learning: Five Approaches for Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender, and Disability (Columbus: Merrill, 1989); and Christine E. Sleeter and Carl A. Grant, Making Choices for Multicultural Education (Columbus: Merrill, 1988).
  2. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Economic Status of Americans of Asian Descent: An Exploratory Investigation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 24.
  3. Kati Haycock and M. Susana Navarro, Unfinished Business: Fulfilling Our Children’s Promise (Oakland, Calif.: The Achievement Council, 1988), p. 6.
  4. M. Beatriz Arias, “The Context of Education for Hispanic Students: An Overview,” American Journal of Education, November 1986, p. 50.
  5. Ibid. p. 46.
  6. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, p. 24.
  7. Florence Yoshiwara, “Shattering Myths: Japanese-American Educational Issues,” in Don T. Nakanishi and Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, eds., The Education of Asian and Pacific Americans: Historical Perspectives and Prescriptions for the Future (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1983), p. 25.
  8. Isauna Santiago, “Santiago Aspina v. Board of Education Revisited,” American Journal of Education, November 1986, p. 186.
  9. Gary Orfield, Franklin Monfort, and Melissa Aaron, Status of School Desegregation: 1968-1986 (Alexandria, Va.: National School Boards Association Council of Urban Boards of Education, 1989), p. 20.
  10. Haycock and Navarro, p. 6.
  11. Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), p. 477.
  12. Yoshiwara, pp. 23, 25.
  13. Linda Pertusati, “Beyond Segregation or Integration: A Case Study from Effective Native American Education,” Journal of American Indian Education, January 1988, pp. 10-20.
  14. Ethel Simon-McWilliams, ed., Resegregation of Public Schools: The Third Generation (Portland, Ore.: Network of Regional Desegregation Assistance Centers and Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1989), p. 12.
  15. William Grier and Price Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 21.
  16. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1953), p. 266.
  17. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 54.
  18. Donald R. Kinder and David 0. Sears, “Prejudice and Politics: Symbolic Racism Versus Racial Threats to a Good Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 40, 1981, p. 416.
  19. For a recent discussion of this point, see “The Politics of Race,” Newsweek, 6 November 1989, pp. 32-34.
  20. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 2.
  21. Christine E. Sleeter and Carl A. Grant, “Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Current Textbooks,” in Michael W. Apple and Linda ChristianSmith, eds., Politics and the Textbook (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, forthcoming).
  22. Carl A. Grant, “Equity, Equality, and Classroom Life,” in Walter G. Secada, ed., Equity in Education (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1989), pp. 89-102; and Walter G. Secada, “Equity in Education Versus Equality of Education: An Alternative Conception,” in idem, pp. 68-88.
  23. Peter L. Rose, “Asian-Americans: From Pariahs to Paragons,” in Nathan Glazer, ed., Clamor at the Gate (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1985).
  24. For a full discussion of this redress, see U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office of Redress Administration, The Civil Liberties Act of 1988: Questions and Answers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988).
  25. Yoshiwara, p. 25.
  26. For a detailed discussion of these points, see U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, op. cit.
  27. Rose, p. 183. 28. Ibid.’ p. 184.
  28. Don T. Nakanishi, “A Quota on Excellence? The Asian American Admissions Debate,” Change, November/December 1989, p. 39.
  29. Guadalupe San Miguel, Let All of Them Take Heed (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987), p. 33.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Francis Paul Prucha, The Indians in American Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 81.
  32. “Black and White in America,” Newsweek, 7 March 1988, p. 18.
  33. See, for example, San Miguel, op. cit.; Nakanishi and Hirano-Nakanishi, op. cit.; Bob H. Suzuki, “Asian Americans as the ‘Model Minority’: Outdoing Whites? Or Media Hype?,” Change, November/December 1989, pp. 12-19; and Takaki, op. cit.
  34. Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, and Lawrence Bobo, Racial Attitudes in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 212.
  35. Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958).
  36. Carl A. Grant and Christine E. Sleeter, After the School Bell Rings (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1986).
  37. See, for example, Meyer Weinberg, Research on School Desegregation (Chicago: Integrated Education Association, 1965); Walter G. Stephan and David Rosenfield, “Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes,” in Arthur Miller, ed., In the Eye of the Beholder (New York: Praeger, 1982), pp. 92-136; Michael C. Thornton and Robert J. Taylor, “Intergroup Attitudes: Black American Perceptions of Asian-Americans,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, November 1988, pp. 474-88; and Michael R. Williams, Neighborhood Organizing for Urban School Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989).
  38. Stephan and Rosenfield, p. 121.
  39. Williams, p. 86.
  40. James S. Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966); Nancy H. St. John and Ralph G. Lewis, “Race and the Social Structure of the Elementary Classroom,” Sociology of Education, vol. 48, 1976, pp. 346-68; David Rosenfield et al., “Classroom Structure and Prejudice in Desegregated Schools,” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 73, 1981, pp. 27-32; and Weinberg, op. cit.
  41. Jeannie Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); and Stephan and Rosenfield, op. cit.
  42. Grant and Sleeter, After the School Bell Rings.
  43. Weinberg, p. 108.
  44. Allport, p. 268. 46. Ibid.’ p. 281.
  45. Stephan and Rosenfield, p. 128.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Williams, p. 86.
  48. Raymond H. Giles, Black Studies Programs in Public Schools (New York: Praeger, 1974), p. 11.
  49. Teaching Teachers: Facts and Figures (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1987).
  50. Thornton and Taylor, p. 487.
  51. Weinberg, p. 330.


Citation: Grant, C.A. (1990, September). Desegregation, racial attitudes, and intergroup contact: A discussion of change. Phi Delta Kappan, 72 (1), 25-32.

CARL A. GRANT is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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