At the turn of the millennium, a young black man was four times more likely to be arrested for a violent offense than a young white man. Shocking as that figure may be, it actually represented an enormous gain since 1969, when the chances of an under-18 black man getting arrested for a violent crime was 12 times that of a white man.
Many explanations have been put forth to explain the declining racial “crime gap” and the fall in crime rates more generally—they’ve been linked to everything from better and more policing to legalized abortions to decreased urban air pollution. The shrinking crime gap also came on the heels of the many civil rights gains that began with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which held that racially “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. A growing body of social science research is now reaching the conclusion that school desegregation should get some direct credit for the drop in black crime. Indeed, as courts have begun overturning these rulings over the past decade, we’ve seen an alarming uptick in crimes by young black men. It turns out that integrating schools wasn’t just a matter of turning them into melting pots or providing equal access to education. It was also an effective way of fighting inner-city crime.
A lot has changed in America over the past century, so it wouldn’t be right to attribute changes in crime rates—or anything else—to the civil rights movement alone. But the aftermath of the Brown decision in 1954 turned out to be a social scientist’s dream. Many school districts had to be pulled kicking and screaming into acknowledging Brown, adopting desegregation plans only when forced to do so by individual cases filed in federal court. In some instances, even court orders were insufficient until the enactment of federal legislation in 1964-65 prohibiting the distribution of federal aid to schools that didn’t follow desegregation orders. It was a long slog, fought city to city by NAACP lawyers. As a result, cities desegregated their schools at different times, but once a case was won, a district had to integrate in a hurry lest it lose its federal and state funding. The staggered adoption of integration allows researchers to see whether anything changed in cities where integration was taking place, compared to those that had yet to integrate (and also to cities where integration had already happened).
There are now many credible studies that highlight the benefits to black students of court-ordered desegregation—a 2004 article in the prestigious American Economic Review by Northwestern’s Jonathan Guryan found that integration led to a 25 percent fall in black dropout rates during the 1970s, while leaving the rate for whites unchanged. A more comprehensive 2011 study by Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson looked at the longer-run effects of desegregation on children of the civil rights era, using a range of methodologies, each of which generates the same set of findings: Desegregation led to higher earnings, better health, and a better chance of staying out of prison for black males. Johnson’s findings on crime echo the results of earlier research, which found that desegregation reduced violent crimes by young (15-24) black men by as much as one-third.
You might think that this isn’t so surprising—of course you’d have a better shot at good health, wealth, and a clean rap sheet if you go to a decent school. Rucker acknowledges that many of the gains associated with desegregation come from districts that “leveled up” spending at formerly black schools, leading to more resources per student. So the drop in crime can be chalked up, at least in part, to the “better schools, less crime” philosophy.
But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story, based on the findings of a recent study—as yet unpublished—that evaluates the effects of the past decade’s resegregation. The study focuses on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, the site of a decisive NAACP victory in 1971 that resulted in race-based busing to achieve integration. This mandated busing policy was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2001, leading the district to redraw its school boundaries to ignore racial considerations, and, as a result, to reassign half of its students to new schools the following year. Prior to the 2001 ruling, a school’s zone might include, in addition to the neighborhood immediately surrounding it, pockets of students drawn from elsewhere in the city, who were added to ensure racial balance in each grade or classroom. With the end of busing, zone boundaries now included only the neighborhoods surrounding the school.
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.
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.