Is Separate Actually Better Than “Equal”?

In 1896, in a case called Plessy v Ferguson, the US Supreme Court decided that:

A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races…The object of the [Fourteenth A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”

In 1954, it changed its mind and in Brown v Board of Ed. ruled that

“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does…We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

But now Alex Tabbarock of Marginal Revolution presents two studies that put the conclusion of Brown v Board into doubt. The first is a study that shows that white students perform better with white teachers and that black students perform better with black teachers. The study does not address the question of how much benefit each group derives from same-race teachers, but it does imply that students would be better off if they could select the race of their teachers.

The other study shows that women perform much better when they compete with other woman than when they compete with men. Male performance is unchanged. This study implies that women would perform better in all female environments. So it encourages single sex schools and firms.

We don’t have data about whether students perform better or worse with classmates of the same race, but it stands to reason that the more similar the students in a classroom are the easier it is for the teacher to pick a teaching method that works for them. The more the teacher is like the students, the more likely it is that the teacher will be able to choose such a method correctly.

That being said, it feels like there is a lot of benefit from learning about differences from peers. But, perhaps it is only white males who benefit from classroom diversity. What a depressing thought!


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