More than a century of public policies and institutional practices have built a system of separate and unequal schools and neighborhoods in the US. That system has been sustained by the choices white people make about where to live and send their children to school.
Policymakers who want to advance neighborhood and school integration need to better understand these choices to design initiatives that influence white families to make more prointegrative choices. Doing so could produce more diverse neighborhoods and schools in the near term and expand white people’s support for more structural reforms to dismantle the separate and unequal system over the long term. But understanding why white people make the choices they do—many of which go against their expressed values—and how to change them will require better evidence.
We suggest four areas for research that could accelerate potential solutions aimed at influencing white people’s choices and dismantling the system of separate and unequal neighborhoods and schools built over generations:
- Measure the long-term impacts for white people of attending integrated schools. Efforts aimed at encouraging white families to choose more diverse neighborhoods and schools would benefit from evidence documenting the circumstances under which integrated schools produce better long-term outcomes for students. New research could take a long-term perspective and examine the kinds of outcomes white parents can expect their children to achieve if they attend integrated schools.
- Develop better measures of school quality. Encouraging families to choose high-quality diverse schools will require better measures of school quality that are less likely to confound school quality with the effects of structural racism, as many test-based measures currently do. Research could develop more differentiated measures of school quality that provide families with information about how students from their socioeconomic group fare.
- Identify and analyze stable neighborhood and school integration. Local planners and school administrators need to know what actions they could take to expand the supply of stably integrated neighborhoods and schools. A rigorous collection of in-depth case studies focused on census tracts and schools that have achieved and maintained stable integration, particularly the integration of white people with Black people, could help fill this knowledge gap.
- Estimate the potential effectiveness of different mortgage financing incentives. One avenue for promoting integration is enticing homebuyers to consider diverse neighborhoods. But we know little about whether incentives like down payment assistance or below-market interest rates would induce homebuyers to choose neighborhoods in which their race or ethnicity does not predominate. One strategy for filling these knowledge gaps would be to launch a pilot program, testing the effectiveness of alternative incentive packages under different market conditions.
Changing white people’s behavior alone cannot dismantle segregation, but meaningful and sustainable neighborhood and school integration is unlikely to be achieved without changing white people’s choices. Changing white people’s choices could contribute to a larger portfolio of tools for dismantling today’s system of separate and unequal neighborhoods and schools. Filling the knowledge gaps we have identified would be an important step in that direction.