Resegregation of Schools is Causing a Spike in Violent Crime Among Young Black Men

The search for better economic policy.
April 9 2013 7:00 AM

Brown v. Board Reduced Crime

And now resegregation is leading to a spike in violent crime among young black men.

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Whereas previously all students had attended racially mixed schools, after 2001 some schools ended up mostly black, others mostly white. The study compares the experiences of students who lived in the same neighborhoods—potentially just across the street from one another—but ended up at schools with different racial mixes as a result of the zoning change. What’s so intriguing about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg study is that in this case, resegregation was accompanied by increased funding to minority-dominated schools, to diminish the impact on student performance in high-poverty neighborhoods. This might account for the fact that, at least as measured by graduation rates and college attendance, the end of busing didn’t hurt minority students too much. (Academic performance by nonminority students zoned into minority schools declined considerably, however.)

Despite cushioning minority students from academic decline, the resegregation of Charlotte schools nonetheless led to a jump in arrests and incarcerations of minority students—particularly among poor black males, who are most at risk for crime. According to the authors’ calculations, a poor black male was 15 percent more likely to get arrested if assigned to a school that had 60 percent minority students rather than 40 percent minority.

The study’s authors (which include my Columbia colleague Jonah Rockoff, along with UNC’s Stephen Billings and David Deming of Harvard) can’t pin down the exact mechanism by which the roll-back of integration caused poor black students to commit more crimes. They’re pretty sure it’s not just that teenagers were spending less time on buses, and hence had more time to get in trouble (among other things, I was surprised to learn that around 40 percent of disciplinary incidents recorded by the school district took place on school buses, which calls into question the idea that rides prevent kids from getting up to no good); nor was it the result of dislocation for students forced to switch schools—the researchers find the same patterns among sixth and ninth graders, who would be attending new schools anyway.

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They suggest that peer influence—which drives so much of what teens do more generally—likely plays a role in their findings on crime. Their reasoning is as follows: The impact of resegregation on crime is driven entirely by shifts in the prevalence of poor black males. And these changes only affect the crime rates of other poor black males. There’s no effect on women, nonminorities, or better-off minority males. The study’s findings suggest that clustering those already most vulnerable to turning to crime—poor black males—in certain schools may lead to their acting as negative influences on one another. These findings also underscore the fact that desegregation isn’t the zero-sum game that it’s often portrayed to be, with benefits to black students coming at the expense of whites. White students didn’t commit fewer crimes with the end of busing, while black students committed significantly more.

If these conclusions are correct, it means we likely can’t offset the effects of segregation on crime simply by pumping more dollars into inner city schools—that may help boost graduation rates, but won’t keep at-risk kids from negatively influencing one another, and won’t keep them out of legal trouble. The study also points up a further cost of the past decade’s resegregation of American schools: It undercuts a crime-reducing policy that’s now been shown to be very effective.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.