Race and Education: An Interview With Professor Raymond Wolters
Brown vs. Board, Govt. vs. People: The Curious Course Of
The Desegregation Wars,
by F. Roger Devlin]
of Missouri Press), an examination of the impact of
desegregation of public education in the post-Brown v Board era. His other
The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School
Right Turn: William Bradford Reynolds, the Reagan
Administration, and Black Civil Rights;
Du Bois and His Rivals,
Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of
Economic Recovery; The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s.
recently interviewed Professor Wolters.
What is your academic
background? How did you become interested in the issues
surrounding the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions on
race, desegregation and education policy?
My special interest in
school desegregation came about by chance.
In 1978-79 the federal courts ordered my county, New
Castle County, DE, to implement one of the most
wide-ranging of all of the plans of busing for racial
balance. At that time, 90 percent of the students in
Delaware`s biggest city, Wilmington, were black, and on
standard tests the high school seniors in Wilmington
were scoring at about the level of 8th grade
students in the suburbs, where students were 90 percent
white. The hope was that this
"racial-achievement gap" would be reduced if
students were bused so that the enrollment at each
school in the county was about 80 percent white.
On May 17, 1954, the date of
Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court
had decided five cases that presented a similar
issue—not only the
Brown case from Topeka, KS, but also cases from
Wilmington, DE, Summerton, SC, Prince Edward County, VA,
and Washington, D.C. As it happened, Wilmington had
desegregated its schools
but between 1954 and 1975 the racial balance in
Wilmington`s public schools
from 73 percent white to only 9 percent white.
That led me to question the view that seemed to prevail
in most books and articles. Most writers depicted
desegregation as a great success, but
the policy had not worked well in Wilmington. I
wondered if the policy had also failed in the other
places whose cases were decided on May 17, 1954.
It turned out that, with the possible exception of
Topeka, desegregation had also failed in these other
districts, and I told the story of this failure in my
book, The Burden of Brown, published in 1984.
What prompted you to revisit
the topic of
"race and education" having written
The Burden of Brown? How
does your new book differ from the work of other
scholars who have broached the topic of the
in educational achievement, such as Stephan and Abigail
Thernstrom, James T. Patterson, and Diane Ravitch.
Instead of focusing monographically on what happened in
Race and Education is more of a synthesis. In
addition to drawing on my own research, it summarizes
the work of several other scholars. It also covers a
longer time frame, 1954 to 2007.
Although I have cited and benefited from the work of the
Thernstroms, my work differs from theirs. In
categorically deny the importance of IQ and
the racial achievement gap entirely to dysfunctional
black and Hispanic subcultures and to bad teachers and
schools. In Race
and Education, on the other hand, I am more
describing (and only implicitly
what has happened. I do make it clear, however, that
personally I consider
IQ thesis" plausible even if it has not been
proven conclusively, and I am less censorious when it
comes to teachers and schools.
Personally, I agree with the Thernstroms` emphasis on
the importance of culture, but I don`t share their
belief that school reforms (like the
KIPP program) can be brought to scale.
My book also differs from that of
James Patterson. Patterson`s assessment of the legal
cases is similar to my own. We both emphasize that,
between about 1966 and 1991,
liberal officials and
judges interpreted the Constitution and the Civil
Rights Act to require racial balance—and that in doing
so they went far beyond anything that the
in mind in 1954 or that Congress had anticipated when it
Civil Rights Act in 1964. Patterson, however, says
almost nothing about what desegregation and integration
actually wrought in the schools—the disorder, the
de-emphasis on academics, the growing emphasis on
I admire Diane
Ravitch`s work and am not sure we have any major
differences. I sense, though, that
Prof. Ravitch and I may differ on the potential of
she thinks the achievement gap would be eliminated if
teachers did a better job. I doubt that.
The most I would hope for is some reduction in the
achievement gap. I think it`s possible to teach most
students how to read and compute at an elementary level.
But I don`t think it is possible to eliminate (or even
to sharply reduce) the disparities in group averages on
The post-Brown period has
been largely defined by a perpetual need for educational
Nation at Risk" to
Child Left Behind".
Why have these
reforms been so largely ineffective in
America`s educational system?
Race and Education
notes that the racial gap in average academic
achievement has persisted, despite more than 50 years of
desegregation and integration. This has forced many
reformers to recognize that they can no longer regard
getting the "right" racial mix as the key to better education. They have no
choice but to experiment with other approaches. In my
next book I plan to discuss this turn toward
Russlynn Ali, incoming
Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, is
vice president of the Education Trust, an organization
established in 1990 by the American Association for
Higher Education to support K-12
efforts with an emphasis on
achievement gap". The website of Education Trust
Things Every American Needs to Know about Brown v. Board
of Education" and concludes that
"Brown v. Board
is part of a long legacy of unmet promises". Do you
I`d characterize Ms. Ali`s comments as the sort of
rhetoric that one is expected to utter but that few
informed people really believe. By now most
knowledgeable observers recognize that our educational
problems do not stem so much from bad schools as from
bad students. The problem is not a lack of equal
opportunity. It is a lack of either the ability or the
culture, or a combination of the two, that is needed to
achieve success in school.
This point is reinforced when impoverished immigrant
students from China and Vietnam and Russia do very well,
on average, even when they attend crime-ridden schools
where most of the black and Hispanic students are below
Because most reformers recognize this, the reformers are
trying to instill new cultural values in under-achieving
students. So far the reformers have had some success in
individual schools, such as the KIPP schools, but they
have not been able to bring this success to scale.
There is a body of research
in the social and behavioral sciences, such as
behavioral genetics, that rarely penetrates the public
domain or informs public policy [The controversy that
The Bell Curve
is one exception, see
here.] Will this taboo ever be lifted?
I believe it has been a mistake
to quarantine research on IQ and racial differences.
In Race and Education I made a point of discussing these subjects. I
think the research on IQ is one of the most important
bodies of work that must be pondered in order to
understand the history of American education.
You make an interesting point
about radical egalitarians—historians, educators, and
social scientists —who have confused skepticism about
racial inequality with a belief in racial equality. For
John P. Jackson, a social scientist and author, is
someone you point to as
"crudely" obscuring this distinction.
You compare your view of race differences in mental
Dr. Dwight Ingle`s position of accepting the
possibility of a genetic basis underlying racial
differences in IQ levels. Ingle urged scientists to
carry out research that would shed further light on the
From your vantage point, is the scientific research
reasonably conclusive one way or the other?
In my book I have
written that in the 1950s and early 1960s
questioned the evidence that had been presented to show
that Caucasians were superior to Negroes intellectually.
[But] it did
not follow that they thought the earlier claims had been
disproved". Among well-informed scholars and
scientists, the prevailing view was not that the races
were equal but that the evidence of Negro inferiority
was not conclusive. The scientific skepticism arose
because social scientists cannot control for all the
racial differences in environmental opportunities and
Henry Garrett, a president of the American
Psychological Association, acknowledged that the matter
of the Negro`s alleged intellectual inferiority had not
been proved beyond question. But Garrett nevertheless
reported that the gap in IQ and other test scores did
not disappear when black and white subjects were paired
in terms of fourteen social and economic factors. The
persistence of the gap, and the regularity of results
from many studies, made it
"extremely unlikely [in Garrett`s opinion] that environmental opportunities can possibly explain
According to Garrett,
between the two racial groups in a variety of mental
tests are so large, so regular and so persistent under
all sorts of conditions that it is almost unthinkable to
conclude that they are entirely a matter of environment".
White Differences in Mental Ability in the United States,"
65, 9 October, 1947]
Dwight Ingle expressed a similar view:
"The concept that
the White and Negro races are approximately equally
endowed with intelligence remains a plausible hypothesis
for which there is faulty evidence. The concept that the
average Negro is significantly less intelligent than the
average White is also a plausible hypothesis".
[Dwight Ingle, "Comments on the Teachings of Carleton
Putnam," Mankind Quarterly 4 (1963): -.]
Ingle went on to say that he thought the evidence for
the second hypothesis was
With the passage of time, many scholars came to believe,
or at least to say, that the races were equally endowed.
The Harvard historian
Oscar Handlin expressed this opinion when he said,
in 1963, "There
is no evidence of any inborn differences of temperament,
personality, character, or intelligence among races".
And the Berkeley historian
Kenneth M. Stampp similarly asserted, in
are after all,
only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing
Your question is: did Handlin, Stampp, and other
egalitarians have an ideological ax to grind? Or did
they mistakenly think that the absence of conclusive
proof of inequality sufficed to establish the existence
I don`t know. Some
however, were careful to qualify their statements. One
such was the anthropologist
Ashley Montagu. In 1942
Montagu published a book that was widely considered
an egalitarian manifesto. The thesis of his book was
implicit in its title,
Man`s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.
In 1944 Montagu wrote,
"with some degree
of assurance that in all probability the range of
inherited capacities in two different groups is just
about identical". And in 1950 Montagu was
the principal author of a
UNESCO statement that declared,
"`race` is not so
much a biological phenomenon as a social myth….
Biological differences between ethnic groups should be
disregarded….. The unity of mankind is the main thing".
[The Race Question,
Yet Montagu retreated in the face of criticism from
other anthropologists. In 1961 Montagu
said he had been misunderstood; that he had never
maintained that the races were
"equal in mental
abilities". He explained that the
intelligence differed from the
In using the former term, Montagu said, he was
"to individuals—where each race possesses a great range,
from the retarded to the genius". Montagu went on to
thirty-five years of reading on the subject I have
not more than once or twice encountered a writer who claimed that
`the races were equal in mental abilities`". Montagu
was reluctant to make these concessions—but he
apparently felt that he had to do so in order to
maintain the respect of his professional peers.
Times have changed. In 1988 Mark Snyderman and Stanley
Rothman [authors of The IQ Controversy] surveyed more than 600 experts in the
field of psychological measurement. They discovered that
most of the experts believed that IQ tests measured the
ability to solve problems and to reason abstractly; that
most of them believed that heredity accounted for much
of the variation within racial groups; and that most
also thought that the IQ gap between blacks and whites
was due in part to genetic inheritance.
But these responses were made anonymously on a survey.
By 1988 the force of political correctness was such that
only a few of these psychologists would state their
In your book you make a
careful distinction between desegregation and
integration. It is a difference that many scholars seem
to gloss over. Can American society can be fully
integrated and remain a free society with free
association? Do you think the matter of desegregating
public schools is finally a settled legal issue?
I do indeed distinguish between desegregation and
Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955), the
Supreme Court held that schools must be
the sense that students must be assigned to public
schools on "a
racially nondiscriminatory basis". However,
subsequent cases [Green
Swann (1971), and
Keyes (1973)] redefined
to mean that students must be assigned
on the basis of race, to achieve racially-balanced
integration. Still later, in a series of cases beginning
Dowell (1991) and continuing through
Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007), the Supreme
Court returned to
Brown`s understanding the students must be assigned
on a racially nondiscriminatory basis.
Many scholars have
the distinctions. Scholars associated with
"the civil rights
community" are especially likely to equate
Why they do so necessarily involves some speculation.
Some probably were influenced by the sociology of
James S. Coleman—who noted that students are
influenced by their peers, and predicted that blacks
would take school work more seriously if they attended
schools where most of the students were from the white
middle class. Others may have been skeptical of
Coleman`s sociology but were so desperate to
reduce the racial gap in academic achievement that
they were willing to try almost anything.
Whatever the reason, beginning in the late 1960s and
continuing for another 30 years, liberal social
scientists and judges glossed over the distinctions and
insisted that, to achieve
students should be assigned on the basis of race to
achieve racially balanced enrollments.
Yet when it became clear that these affirmative
assignments did not narrow the racial achievement gap,
but instead instigated
most people—blacks as well as whites—turned against
racially balanced integration and instead began to
demand other approaches to achieve
I believe the tide finally has turned against
affirmative assignments to achieve racially balanced
integration. In large part, this is because experience
has shown that affirmative assignments do not narrow the
racial achievement gap. In addition, the Roberts Court
has weighed in against affirmative assignments. Of
course, the personnel of the Court could change. But by
now most people, blacks as well as whites, have come to
reform" rather than
If I were "America`s Education Czar", I`d be tempted to try to alter the
anti-academic values that are prevalent in the
white working-class subcultures (and that are also
becoming more widespread among middle-class whites).
But then I`d back off—because I am leery of cultural
imperialism and because I think
many people should be working in
manual trades instead of more academic fields. There
is nothing wrong with manual work. What`s wrong is that
America has become so
"de-industrialized" that there are too few good jobs
Another problem stems from the influx of immigrants who
driven down the wages of America`s working people. I
think deindustrialization and immigration are bigger
problems than the much ballyhooed racial gap in academic
achievement. Admittedly, though, I know more about
education than about
If I were to plump for one school reform, it would be
would give every student (or the parents) a
voucher that could be used wherever they chose.
Maximizing freedom would not be a panacea, but I think
it would do more than anything else to
improve our system of education.
However, I should quickly add that I am not America`s
I am a professor of history, and as an historian my job
is to describe what has happened, not to prescribe what
should be done.
Kevin Lamb (email
him) is a former library assistant for
managing editor of
Human Events. He was also
assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political
Report, which involved no contact with Novak.