Prudence Carter Delivers 16th Annual Brown Lecture

October 2019

Prudence L. Carter

On October 24, Prudence L. Carter delivered the 16th Annual AERA Brown Lecture, “‘A Shade Less Offensive’: School Integration as Radical Inclusion in the Pursuit of Educational Equity,” to an overflow audience of more than 900 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. The talk was followed by a discussion forum and was watched by 740 online viewers from around the world.

Carter, an eminent education researcher and sociologist and a national expert on inequality in education, is dean and professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on factors that shape and reduce economic, social, and cultural inequalities among social groups in schools and society.

Carter is an AERA Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Education. She is the author of the award-winning book Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White and of Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools, and co-editor of Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance. In addition, she has also published numerous journal articles, book chapters, and essays.

AERA President Vanessa Siddle Walker
welcomes attendees

AERA President Vanessa Siddle Walker welcomed the audience, noting, “Given the challenges we continue to face regarding injustice and racism in many education settings, institutions, and communities around the country, it is timely that we hear tonight from our colleague Dr. Carter.”

In her talk, Carter examined why societies marred by social and economic divides continue to struggle with the realization of integration in schools and communities. She highlighted policies and evidence-based practices that have the potential to bring us closer to equity in schools and society.

She began her talk with a personal narrative of attending a segregated school with mostly African American classmates and teachers in her youth.

With teachers who fought hard for students, “the expectation was that greater mobility and success was available to us, was embodied in us by our ancestors,” said Carter. Nonetheless, she added, “I knew enough to question whether I was getting a rigorous enough education.”

Using metaphoric images of a speedy elevator, a smooth-riding escalator, and a broken stairwell, Carter discussed how ingrained opportunity gaps in the United States drive achievement gaps. While there has been “some movement toward escalators and elevators” within low-income and minoritized racial/ethnic groups, “most are still on the broken stairwells,” said Carter, noting that two thirds of Black, Latinx, and Native American children under 18 live at, below, or within striking distance of the poverty line.

“There's a need for us to have a multidimensional understanding of inequality in order to solve its attendant social and economic problems,” said Carter.

Awareness of “structural competency”—macro-level and institutional forces that influence outcomes—“has to be paired with an understanding of meso- and micro-level forces when it comes to inequality,” Carter said.

Discussion Forum Participants (left to right):
Lauren Camera, Prudence Carter, Ary Amerikaner,
and Wade Henderson

Carter referenced recent research by “big data” experts, including researchers sean reardon and Raj Chetty, that shows how socioeconomic status, race, and gender inequities in opportunity indicate macro structural forces at work. However, Carter said, these forces cannot fully explain enduring racial differences in outcomes.

Carter then turned to what she terms meso-level inequality, a dimension of inequality that is embedded in our social networks, communities, voluntary associations, and other conduits of information and resource sharing among individuals.

“Meso-level inequality shows up even in how our children orient themselves in their classes,” said Carter, citing the example of students who gravitate toward others who look like them in informal school environments. This relational inequality, which is inherent in intergroup and interpersonal dynamics, sustains residential and school segregation, Carter said.

Referencing the title of her talk, Carter explained that in the final opinion of the landmark school segregation case Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the U.S. Supreme Court justices intentionally used the term “desegregation” rather than “integration” to soften the ire of those opposed to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision; the justices thought the former term would be “a shade less offensive” than the latter.

Carter quoted the legal scholar John Powell in noting that desegregation is simply about demographic change, while true integration is about deep organizational change where no group languishes or perishes on the margins.

“Have we really had school ‘integration’ in U.S. society? I mean, really?” asked Carter. “If so, when and where? What will it take for each of us individually to do to get there? If it matters, then what are some changes that we need to attend to and where does research have to go to help us attain this goal?”

AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine
offers closing comments

Carter turned to micro-level inequality, which consists of the beliefs, attitudes, and idea systems of individuals. She cited a Pew research study that shows a majority of Americans would prioritize local schools over integrated ones, commenting, “Prevalent cultural attitudes embedded in the education and schooling landscape impede our progress.” 

The treatment of education as a private good without any attention to how that approach may adversely affect the public good, and political resistance from parents when they are asked to consider sharing and distributing schooling resources in an equitable way, Carter argued, are driven by the “ideology of testing.”

In calling for “radical inclusion” in schools and communities, Carter argued that “society has reached a ceiling of progress with the gradualist and reformist approaches that lawmakers have implemented. Achievement disparities, which are really about opportunity gaps fertilized by decades—no, centuries—of racial and economic exclusion, marginalization, oppression, discrimination, are not moving significantly in terms of relative group-based progress.”

“In the contemporary era, I declare that rather than ‘desegregation,’ it is ‘radical inclusion,’ full participation and access to the economy, government, and schools, that is a shade less offensive,” said Carter.

Carter’s lecture set the stage for a discussion forum in which the audience and online viewers were invited into a “living room” setting for a conversation with Carter and leaders from policy sectors.

Lauren Camera (U.S. News & World Report) moderated the discussion, and Ary Amerikaner (The Education Trust) and Wade Henderson (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights) served as commentators. Open microphones in the theater allowed members of the audience, which included teachers, school administrators, congressional staff members, advocacy and nongovernment representatives, and AERA members, to ask questions.

During a highly engaging discussion, Amerikaner, Henderson, Carter, and audience members examined a wide range of issues, including the interplay of housing discrimination, educational inequality, and poverty; the challenges of changing cultural attitudes; the importance of moving beyond tests to measure student success; and improving the recruitment and retention of minority teachers.

AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine adjourned the formal program, underscoring the importance of the Brown Lecture as an annual reminder that research can be a powerful force for social change. Levine welcomed attendees to continue the conversation at the reception.

The lecture was made possible through the generous support of the 25 Friends of Brown: American Anthropological Association; American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; American Institutes for Research; American Political Science Association; Educational Testing Service; Foundation for Child Development; George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development; Institute for Educational Leadership; Learning Policy Institute; Miami University College of Education, Health and Society; National Communication Association; Pennsylvania State University; Russell Sage Foundation; SAGE Publications; Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues; Society for Research in Child Development; Spencer Foundation; Stanford University Graduate School of Education; University of Arizona; University of California, Berkeley; University Council for Educational Administration; University of Houston College of Education; University of Maryland College of Education; University of Michigan School of Education; and William T. Grant Foundation.

The 2020 AERA Brown Lecture and discussion forum will be held on October 22, 2020. The Brown Lecture Selection Committee is currently accepting nominations for next year’s lecture.