Understanding Integration

Social integration occurs when an established system changes to reflect the impact of a participating social group(s). It is usually a given that the social group seeking integration adapts in some way to be included in the system, but if the system itself remains the same, in policy and practice, as it was before the participation of the social group, integration has not taken place. In this era of aggressive political correcting, political terms must be defined accurately lest we be under the misconception that we’ve achieved something we haven’t.

Integration is used frequently to describe the inclusion or participation of a group in a previously segregated system. This is a dangerous misconception, because it encourages those who would seek systems change to stop short of their ultimate goal, and it releases the system of any obligation to fundamentally restructure itself. Due to this misunderstanding, partial integration can cause more damage than segregation, because the onus of assimilation occupy the thoughts and efforts of the group that is seeking equity, meanwhile anyone who demands change from the system may be met with the incredulous ardor of those who believe they already participate in an integrated system. (See post-racial society)

Calculus defines integration as the inverse of differentiation. Likewise the common understanding of social integration is as the inverse of segregation when in fact inclusion is a more accurate antonym. Part of the trouble with understanding integration as a social concept is that it is a mathematical term. Mathematics allows for exact inverses, resolvable inequalities, and absolutes whereas social systems do not. Social systems are continuously evolving as the people, ideas, and politics that shape the systems evolve. There are no absolutely true things one can say about any aspect of a socially constructed system, which is why socially constructed topics such as race, gender, and sexuality will continue to smolder in the heat of popular discourse.

Another specific factor that contributes to the misperception of social integration was the media’s portrayal of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One example is the so-called integration of the education system after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Contrary to common understanding, this ruling did not legislate integration; it legislated the right of African-Americans to participate in, and thereby be included in, previously segregated schools. Essentially, the ruling desegregated the education system, but it did not integrate it. The famous ruling decreed that even in cases in which resources are comparable, “separation is inherently unequal.” Furthermore, it stated that the currently adhered to statute of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. In other words, black students were granted the right to occupy the same physical space as their white counterparts, because being forced to attend separate schools created an inequality; however the inequity that existed and still exists for African-Americans under the education system was not addressed. There was no legislation to ensure that African-American cultural interests would be represented in the classroom, or that the education system would transform in any way to ensure that less dramatic forms of segregation and discrimination did not occur in these newly so-called integrated schools. Teachers who had previously taught only white students did not receive cultural competence training to learn about the cultural nuances of the African-American community, or about their own biases toward teaching black children.
The effects of policies that stopped short of integration in Brown v. Board of Education are partially reflected in the lower test scores, lower graduation rates, and higher drop-out rates for African-Americans and Latin-Americans. In addition, today many school districts resemble pre-1954 segregation due to gerrymandering and the repeal of previously effective local desegregation legislation.

People engaged in systems change work should take care not to feel that the struggle has ended when participation is granted, or inclusion has taken place. Participation and inclusion stand in such stark contrast to segregation that it is easy to become comfortable and satisfied with the hard work that was done to achieve these very visible, tangible components of change. Those who seek integration must stay vigilant to pursue the more subtle, more permanent, and more comprehensive components of change. We must continue our demands, which put pressure on the system to learn from the experiences afforded it by the inclusion of marginalized groups, and to incorporate the knowledge gained from those experiences in the restructuring of itself into a new and integrated whole.

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