Politically progressive university towns with racially integrated schools like Berkeley, California; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, might seem natural environments for black students to thrive. Each is home to a prestigious university with an activist, social justice-oriented school of education. Each school district has been a part of a network to promote equity for students of color. Each has a large community of well-educated African Americans.
Yet in a comprehensive analysis of the standardized-test scores in hundreds of districts nationwide, Berkeley and Chapel Hill have the widest and third-widest achievement gaps between black and white students. Even when controlling for socioeconomic disparities, the gaps remain: The 2016 study, conducted by researchers at Stanford, still placed Chapel Hill and Berkeley toward the top for test-score inequality. Ann Arbor for its part places among the 10 percent of districts with the widest racial achievement gaps, as do Evanston, Illinois; Oxford, Mississippi; and Charlottesville, Virginia—all homes to prominent universities.
Last fall I examined three high schools—one in Berkeley, near the University of California campus where I work; one in Chapel Hill; and one in Ann Arbor, where I graduated from high school a generation ago. I wanted to learn what factors might help explain this counterintuitive pattern—why racial inequality in schools is so prevalent in these socially progressive towns despite conscientious, if restrained, programs to increase the success of students of color.