October 2, 2023

Ending school segregation for Mexican Americans

Francisca Antman discusses the impact of desegregating Mexican American schools on educational outcomes in California.

Mexican American children eat lunch at a school in Penasco, New Mexico.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Public domain

Seven years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ended the legal segregation of Black schoolchildren, California ended the legal segregation of Mexican American schoolchildren.

That decision, known as Mendez v. Westminster, had a rapid impact across the state and led to significant educational benefits, according to a paper in the Journal Economic Literature

Authors Francisca M. Antman and Kalena E. Cortes found that in areas more likely to practice segregation, the Mendez decision caused Mexican American children to significantly increase their years of schooling.

Antman recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the history of Mexican American school desegregation and the lessons the authors’ work provides for policymakers.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.


Tyler Smith: Can you explain the relevant background and history for understanding this move to desegregate Mexican American schools?

Francisca Antman: The Brown case is very salient in people's minds as the end of the de jure segregation of African Americans. This was when the Supreme Court said “separate but equal” is not a justification for segregating individuals in schools. However, [prior to that decision] the NAACP, along with many other civil rights groups, had begun to challenge “separate but equal” in many areas throughout the country. In California, they began to challenge it in the Mendez v Westminster decision, which was in 1947. It's more complicated in California where they're segregating Mexican American students, Hispanic students from non-Hispanic White students. It is more complex in California for a variety of reasons, in particular, that they're segregating people on the local level. And unlike the Brown case, California seems to transition much more quickly to being closer to integrated schools than in the South, where we know historically segregation did not end immediately after the Brown decision.

Smith: What was happening on the ground in these desegregated Mexican American schools?

Antman: I would say that it's a little bit more wide ranging than you would expect based on the experience of segregation in the South. You see anecdotes sometimes of separate schools being established when the Hispanic population in a certain area reached some critical mass. You see anecdotes that the non-Hispanic White parents would come and lobby for a separate school. Sometimes it would be more at the class level, within the same school structure, where separate classes were being made for Mexican Americans students. There's this idea that Mexican Americans, even US-born Mexican Americans, would be speaking Spanish and not be native English speakers. That was another justification for segregating them into different schools. You also see all of the ugly features that are more synonymous with racism.

Smith: How did you isolate the impact of the Mendez v. Westminster decision?

Antman: Ideally, what we would like to see is something like a treatment and a comparison group. A group that's exposed to the Mendez decision in this case, the desegregation decision, and a group that is not. However, there are areas that are basically practicing more segregation on a local level, and there are areas in which they are less likely to be practicing that. And that's what we have gleaned from the historical accounts. And although they don't give an explicit threshold, they do talk about this idea that in areas where a more significant share of the population were Hispanics, they were more likely to be segregated. And thus we went to the historical censuses and basically looked at extreme thresholds—whether they were above the 75th percentile in the Hispanic to non-Hispanic White population ratio. That's an area where they're more likely to be segregated versus where that ratio is very low—below the 25th percentile. We do a lot of robustness checks to those cutoffs, but that's basically the idea. We're trying to look at areas in which they're much more likely to be segregated and in areas in which they're less likely to be segregated before and after the Mendez decision.

Smith: When you compare these areas with low versus high proportions of Hispanic population before and after the Mendez decision, what do you find?

Antman: We find that it made a very significant improvement in the educational attainment of Hispanics through this period. You can really see a very dramatic increase, especially in Hispanic educational attainment in those areas which were most likely to be segregated. You see a dramatic rise that really coincides with the Mendez decision. You don't see the same kind of increase in areas where Hispanics were less likely to be segregated, even for that Hispanic population. 

Smith: Did the size of these effects surprise you at all?

Antman: Somewhat. We find an increase of almost 0.9 years of schooling for Hispanics in cohorts that started school after Mendez relative to cohorts that were born just ten years prior. That's a really dramatic change over a very short time period for these groups. If you go a little bit further back and compare it to those cohorts that would have completely finished school prior to the Mendez decision, you get even bigger effects, closer to 1.9 years of schooling. That is really dramatic compared to the average levels of educational attainment at the time. In those populations, it was close to ten years of education. That is the equivalent of getting them past high school.

While we cannot point to necessarily what the solution is, because we're not able to really dive into the mechanisms due to data limitations in this paper, it still really underscores how important integration of schools can be, especially for those groups that are historically disadvantaged.

Francisca Antman

Smith: Do you think this episode offers any lessons for policymakers today?

Antman: I think it does offer a lesson for the importance of school integration, and that is definitely something that we struggle with. It underscores the importance of integration because you see educational attainment rise so rapidly among that population where we think segregation was taking place. It is limited in that we have a case of an end to de jure segregation, but now we have funding limitations and a policy environment in which we know that a lot of location choice matters—to the extent that families are able to basically choose which schools they're sending their children to or the extent to which those school boundaries may limit some families choices. That really factors into how we can address the integration of schools in the United States today and the continued segregation of so many underrepresented students and students that are at a disadvantage historically and still remain at a disadvantage. While we cannot point to necessarily what the solution is, because we're not able to really dive into the mechanisms due to data limitations in this paper, it still really underscores how important integration of schools can be, especially for those groups that are historically disadvantaged.

Smith: How would you counsel young economists that are interested in studying race or ethnic identity?

Antman: I would encourage them. I would encourage them because I would say that in the time that I have been an economist, I have seen the field evolve really impressively in terms of the questions that are asked. Many researchers before me laid the groundwork and showed that you can answer those questions and talk about issues that are policy relevant in the United States related to race and ethnicity and underrepresentation and disadvantage. I would say that there is a place for you here in economics. I was initially drawn to economics because of the rigor with which we attempt to answer questions and address important policy questions. I would just say that economics can be as broad as the people who are within economics and what questions we want to study. So we want to bring in as many people who study as many varied issues as are relevant to them. I hope we will continue to increase representation in economics so that we will continue to broaden the field.

The Long-Run Impacts of Mexican American School Desegregation” appears in the September 2023 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.