Race and Education: An Interview With Professor Raymond Wolters

[See also Brown vs. Board, Govt. vs. People: The Curious Course Of The Desegregation Wars, by F. Roger Devlin]

Raymond Wolters, Thomas Muncy Keith Professor of History at the University of Delaware, is the author of Race and Education, 1954-2007 (University of Missouri Press), an examination of the impact of desegregation of public education in the post-Brown v Board era. His other books include: The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation; 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.

VDARE.COM's Kevin Lamb recently interviewed Professor Wolters.

Lamb: 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?

Wolters: I was educated at Stanford (B.A., 1960) and Berkeley (Ph.D., 1967) and have been a member of the faculty at the University of Delaware since 1965.

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 immediately after Brown, but between 1954 and 1975 the racial balance in Wilmington's public schools "tipped" 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.

Lamb: 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 "racial gap" in educational achievement, such as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, James T. Patterson, and Diane Ravitch.

Wolters: Instead of focusing monographically on what happened in five districts, 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 No Excuses, they categorically deny the importance of IQ and attribute 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 interested in describing (and only implicitly explaining) what has happened. I do make it clear, however, that personally I consider "the 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 Brown Court had in mind in 1954 or that Congress had anticipated when it passed the 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 remediation.

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 "school reform"—that she thinks the achievement gap would be eliminated if schools and 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 academic tests.

Lamb: The post-Brown period has been largely defined by a perpetual need for educational "reform"—from "A Nation at Risk" to "No Child Left Behind".  Why have these reforms been so largely ineffective in "reforming" America's educational system?

Wolters: 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 "school reform".

Lamb: 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 "reform" efforts with an emphasis on "closing the achievement gap". The website of Education Trust contains "10 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 agree?

Wolters: 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 grade level.

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.

Lamb: 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 engulfed The Bell Curve is one exception, see here and here.] Will this taboo ever be lifted?

Wolters: 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.

Lamb: 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 example, 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 ability with 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 issue.

From your vantage point, is the scientific research reasonably conclusive one way or the other?

Wolters: In my book I have written that in the 1950s and early 1960s "most scholars 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 historical experience.

Thus 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 all the differences".

According to Garrett, "the differences 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". [Henry E. Garrett, "Negro- White Differences in Mental Ability in the United States," Scientific Monthly 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 "somewhat stronger". 

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 memorable language, "Negroes are after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less".

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 of equality.

I don't know. Some "egalitarians", 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, PDF]

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 "range" of intelligence differed from the "distribution". In using the former term, Montagu said, he was referring only "to individuals—where each race possesses a great range, from the retarded to the genius". Montagu went on to say, "during 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 views openly.

Lamb: 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?

Wolters: I do indeed distinguish between desegregation and integration. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955), the Supreme Court held that schools must be "desegregated"—in the sense that students must be assigned to public schools on "a racially nondiscriminatory basis". However, subsequent cases [Green (1968). Swann (1971), and Keyes (1973)] redefined "desegregation" to mean that students must be assigned "affirmatively", on the basis of race, to achieve racially-balanced integration. Still later, in a series of cases beginning with 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 "glossed over" the distinctions. Scholars associated with "the civil rights community" are especially likely to equate "desegregation" and "integration".

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.

Still others, I suspect, liked to lord it over others—and derived special pleasure from trying to force "bourgeois" whites to send their children to school with lower-class blacks.

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 "desegregation", 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 "white flight", most people—blacks as well as whites—turned against racially balanced integration and instead began to demand other approaches to achieve "school reform".

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 emphasize "school reform" rather than "integration".

Lamb: Hypothetically, if you could become America's "Education Czar" tomorrow, what would policies would you implement and what reforms would you adopt to improve America's educational system?

Wolters: If I were "America's Education Czar", I'd be tempted to try to alter the anti-academic values that are prevalent in the African American, Hispanic, and 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 for manualists.

Another problem stems from the influx of immigrants who have 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 industry and immigration.

If I were to plump for one school reform, it would be "choice". I 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 "Education Czar". 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 Newsweek and managing editor of Human Events. He was also assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, which involved no contact with Novak.