Review: Children of the Dream, by Rucker Johnson

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One of the conclusions of Brown v. Board of Education was that school desegregation was the only way to dismantle the longstanding policy of separate but equal.

Sixty-five years later, the prevailing notion is that school integration was an abysmal failure. After more than a decade of resistance, followed by 20 years of mostly court-ordered desegregation, our country gave up on Brown in 1988, the high point of integration, and our schools are as segregated now as they were during Jim Crow, particularly in the North.

But why has school desegregation failed? Is it because it doesn’t work, as many Americans believe, or is it because we never fully committed ourselves to the task?

In Children of the Dream, Prof. Rucker C. Johnson makes a strong, well-argued case that the only reason that integration failed is that we did not try long and hard enough.

Most important, Prof. Johnson offers new and extremely persuasive evidence that African American students who attended desegregated schools experienced drastically better educational and life outcomes, when compared with African American students of similar backgrounds who attended segregated schools.

His data set is large and expansive, spanning thousands of people and following them through their lives. Controlling for a range of other factors that may also correlate with success, Prof. Johnson was able to simulate a double-blind experiment with a high degree of reliability.

His findings are sharp and clear cut. In short, for Black students, more years of integrated schooling meant the following:

  • A higher graduation rate

  • A lower rate of poverty

  • A lower incarceration rate

  • A longer life expectancy

For white students, integrated schooling did not help or hinder their educational and life outcomes, thereby countering the fears of white parents.

In addition, Prof. Johnson considered the potential effects of two additional variables: equitable school funding and early childhood education (e.g., Head Start). The conclusions again were clear. The benefits of school integration for African American students were amplified when they also attended equitably resourced schools and have access to educational services before age 5.

The conclusions are stark. The data is sound. And the policy recommendations are as plain as day. But what makes this book outstanding isn’t just the hard-hitting numbers and the well-rendered charts and graphs. What I appreciated just as much was Prof. Johnson’s ability to tell a compelling story of the people behind the numbers.

Most of the book, after all, is a well-written account of the resistance to school desegregation, first in the South and then in the North, and the hard-fought battles, and momentary successes, of communities determined to integrate their schools. I appreciated the chapters on Boston, Jefferson County, and Memphis. Sure, the story ends dismally, but for some reason, this book did not leave me paralyzed.

Instead, Prof. Johnson was successful in getting me to ask the big questions, like Is my work the right work? and Am I making the right impact?

Therefore, if you work in education, or if you’re a parent, or a fan of American history, I highly recommend this book. If you do, please let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts!