The Effect of Brown v. Board of Education on Blacks' Earnings

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Better schools and school desegregation tended to raise the earnings of southern-born African-American men, but not all of that progress can be attributed to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The public profile of that landmark ruling overshadows the slow, long-term process that raised the quality of schooling available to southern black children. In Evaluating the Role of Brown v. Board of Education in School Equalization, Desegregation, and the Income of African-Americans (NBER Working Paper No. 11394), co-authors Orley Ashenfelter, William Collins, and Albert Yoon study the labor market implications of, first, providing more equal resources for black schools in the South and, later, bringing about school desegregation.

The earnings gap between southern-born black men and non-southern-born black men in the same birth cohort narrowed by about 10 percent in the post-desegregation group.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court affirmed the right of states to enforce racial segregation "for the promotion of the public good." During the first third of the twentieth century, wide racial disparities in basic measures of school inputs, such as the length of the school year and students per teacher, were the norm in the South. In Alabama in 1910, for example, the average school year for white students was more than 30 days longer than for blacks, and there were approximately 12 more black students per teacher than white students per teacher. These disparities began to narrow twenty years before the Brown decision. As legal pressures mounted, southern state and local governments took the "equal" part of "separate but equal" more seriously.

The authors ask: If black workers who were born in the South in the 1920s and 1930s had attended schools with the same measurable characteristics (for example, length of school year and students per teacher) as white schools, how much higher might their income have been later in life? To answer this question, the authors use individual-level data from the 1970 census to estimate the average labor market returns to school quality for southern-born black men. The results suggest that southern-born black men from the 1920s birth cohorts would have earned 6 to 9 percent more than they actually did in 1970 if they had gone to "equal" schools. For southern-born black men from the 1930s birth cohorts, income would have been 2 to 5 percent higher. The relatively small difference indicates that this later birth cohort attended schools that were fairly similar to white schools in terms of school-year length and students per teacher. The link between school quality and income is forged largely by the connection betw een school quality and years of educational attainment - southern-born black men who went to better schools completed more grades and therefore earned higher incomes. Thus, the disparities in school resources were a significant factor in determining the earnings gap between southern-born blacks and whites, but a large earnings gap remains after accounting for differences in school quality.

Ashenfelter, Collins, and Yoon argue that the education level of black parents is an important consideration in this long-run context. Their analysis suggests that parental education had a strong influence on children's educational attainment and subsequent earnings. In this sense, discrimination in the allocation of school resources in one generation tended to spill over to the education and earnings of the subsequent generation of African American workers.

In the second part of the paper, the authors examine the impact of post-1964 southern school desegregation. On the eve of the Brown decision in 1954, the Southern Education Reporting Service found that essentially no black children attended school with white children in public schools in the Deep South and that very few black children in Border States did. In 1956, one poll found that only 14 percent of Southern whites thought that black and white students should attend the same school, and that poll included whites in the Border States and Washington, D.C. With that public opinion in the background, southern states and local governments exercised a variety of legal tactics to forestall any meaningful school integration. The Civil Rights Movement was making inroads through the courts, but even five years after the infamous 1957 standoff in Little Rock, Arkansas, only 1 percent of southern black students attended school with whites. Starting in the mid-1960s, however, school desegregation in the South proc eeded rapidly as a combined result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and a series of federal court orders.

Ashenfelter, Collins, and Yoon use individual-level data from the 1990 census to evaluate the impact of this sudden and widespread pattern of desegregation on the earnings of southern-born black males. Essentially, the authors compare the earnings of southern-born black men who would have completed their schooling under the segregated regime with the earnings of those who followed behind them in school by a few years or more and therefore, most likely, would have attended desegregated schools. Controlling for several factors, they find that the earnings gap between southern-born black men and non-southern-born black men in the same birth cohort narrowed by about 10 percent in the post-desegregation group. This finding is consistent with "an economically significant, positive effect on blacks' income and high school completion rates." The authors stress that the pattern is suggestive, not conclusive, and they encourage further scrutiny of the hypothesis.

--David R. Francis