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A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (review)

From: Social Forces
Volume 82, Number 3, March 2004
pp. 1242-1244 | 10.1353/sof.2004.0053

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Social Forces 82.3 (2004) 1242-1244

A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana. By Carl L. Bankston and Stephen J. Caldas. Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. 268 pp. Cloth, $49.95; paper, $24.95.

I have had the opportunity to talk with other parents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about desegregation. Most are quite familiar with the various problems outlined by Bankston and Caldas. Some hold on to the ideals of desegregation: equal opportunity, making amends for past injustices, fairness, and so forth. Others decry desegregation as another example of the federal government wresting from families and communities more control over children. Very few are aware of the role sociological theory has played in desegregation discourse (James Coleman's work in particular). A Troubled Dream uses the lens of Coleman's social capital theory to gain insight into family-level response to desegregation in Louisiana. The authors do a pretty good job explaining both why de facto segregation persists and why racial disparities in educational outcomes have actually increased. Families, it turns out, use social capital for rational self-interest, maximizing benefits to family, not community. The case studies of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette demonstrate how savvy parents (white and black) resisted perceived and actual disadvantage resulting from forced desegregation by abandoning public schools, relocated to neighboring school districts, and negotiating magnet and gifted programs.

I applaud A Troubled Dream for establishing a fair rendering of the historical context of unequal educational opportunity in segregated Louisiana. They nicely set up their theoretical straw man, the "harm and benefit" thesis attributed to Coleman's version of social capital, holding that integrated schools can benefit blacks but need not harm whites. Then they lay out their rational self-interest counter. The three primary case studies of desegregation in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette provide strong evidence in favor of rational self-interest. These case studies of desegregation are highly detailed. The authors combine more qualitative discussions and interviews with descriptive statistics on desegregation, demographic movements, enrollment patterns, and test scores. Chapter 6 presents further supporting evidence from other Louisiana school districts demonstrating that the proportion of minority students in a school negatively effects performance of both black and white students, contrary to the harm and benefit thesis.

This detailed study still left me feeling that some key dimensions of the argument were missed. First, the authors could have embedded their discussion on desegregation within the broader context of public schooling in Louisiana. This way, the reader might be able to discern whether issues such as funding, school quality, and teacher training are pertinent to the failure of desegregation. Second, I feel uneasy about the authors' emphasis on single-parent households. I commend the authors for pointing out the strong correlation between race, class, and family structure. In Louisiana, desegregation means combining whites with blacks, middle class with poor, and children from intact families with children from single-parent families. While it is interesting that the sophisticated regression analysis isolates single-parent families as the culprit, bringing down overall achievement levels, this path of inquiry serves to deflect blame from "racist, middle-class whites" to "immoral, poor blacks." Most likely, a combination of family-level factors have contributed to the trends. More important, the search for the "root cause" focuses too much attention on families, distracting from school and community complicity in the failure of desegregation. Did schools genuinely prepare for desegregation? Were teachers and administrators adequately trained in emerging pedagogical techniques for multicultural classroom settings? Did schools promote parental involvement? Did communities urge schools to capitalize on the value created by diversity? While I fundamentally agree with the authors' rational self-interest perspective, parents' decision-making calculations can be shaped by what schools and communities do. Third, and related to my second point, I hoped for a more elaborate discussion on institutional arrangements and incentives in the recommendation section. The recommendations themselves seem justified by the findings, but the larger unasked question remains "what institutional arrangements might make more parents see both school improvement and desegregation as being in their rational self-interest?"

My questions notwithstanding, I highly recommend A Troubled Dream for its rich...



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