The Resegregation Puzzle

by Reihan Salam

There’s one little issue that’s been puzzling me for a while. There are many on the left who are concerned about the supposed resegregation of U.S. public schools. Yet we also know that the demographic composition of the school-age U.S. population is changing fairly rapidly, for fairly straightforward reasons. The median age for non-Hispanic whites is 42, that of Asians is 35, that of African Americans is 32, and that of Hispanics (of any race) is 27. Given that a larger proportion of Americans belonging to minority groups are still in their child-bearing years, it should come as no surprise that minority births have surpassed non-Hispanic white births. Even if we were to correct for this discrepancy, there is a substantial gap in total fertility rate across groups. Demographers predict that while non-Hispanic white and Asian women will have 1.8 children over the course of their lives, Hispanic and black women will have 2.4 and 2.1 children respectively. I bring all of this up because as the proportion of America’s under-18 population that is non-Hispanic white shrinks, it stands to reason that there will be many more schools with few or even no non-Hispanic white children. That is, in the absence of any racist design, majority-minority schools will become supermajority-minority schools.  

In a paper published in 2013, the University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Jeffrey E. Fiel explored the implications of this demographic shift for the racial composition of schools. He observed that from 1993 to 2010, the chief driver of the declining presence of non-Hispanic white students in majority-minority schools was compositional change. That is, there were simply fewer non-Hispanic white students to go around. At the same time, however, whites and minorities were more evenly distributed across schools, and so minority students were more likely to at least encounter non-Hispanic white students than had been the case in earlier periods. Fiel finds that district-level desegregation efforts have actually been quite successful. To those who are most troubled by segregation, the larger issue is that different school districts in the same metropolitan area can have very demographic mixes. As demographic change marches on, however, this will prove a fleeting state of affairs, as virtually all districts, including predominantly white suburban districts, will continue to grow more diverse. 

So perhaps we need to reexamine the premise that there is something intrinsically wrong with the existence of majority-minority schools. One can certainly imagine a return to large-scale busing to forcibly redistribute the dwindling number of non-Hispanic white students across schools, as though sprinkling them liberally through a district will in itself improve educational outcomes. But if that’s your best idea, what will you do when there are fewer white students to spread around? 

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