Prophet without Honor

March 31, 1995

It was the fate of sociologist James S. Coleman, who died of cancer last week at the age of 68, to be an unhappy Cassandra of America's social policy debate. Like the mythical daughter of Trojan King Priam, whose gift of prophecy went unheeded, Dr. Coleman foresaw a future at variance with the conventional wisdom and was reviled for his vision, though everything he predicted eventually came to pass.

Dr. Coleman, a renowned scholar who founded the Department of Social Relations at the Johns Hopkins University, was thrust to national prominence in 1966 as a result of a report he submitted to Congress that concluded disadvantaged black children learned better in integrated classes. Dr. Coleman's findings became the basis for political and court actions across the country, and were widely cited in support of busing to achieve racial balance in public schools.

Yet a decade later Dr. Coleman apparently reversed himself. In 1975, he published another study that suggested busing had been a failure because it had prompted a massive departure of whites from public schools. The study warned that such "white flight" would undermine the racially integrated education in public schools.

The 1975 study set off a storm of controversy among government policy makers, civil rights leaders, education experts, sociologists and parents. Critics disputed his data and attacked his motives, saying he had abandoned his commitment to desegregation. Through it all, Dr. Coleman steadfastly maintained the validity of his findings and the integrity of his methods.

In retrospect, it is clear Dr. Coleman ran afoul of what we now call the prevailing dogma of "political correctness." In this, his experience was similar to that of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in the Johnson and Nixon administrations and was among the first to sound the alarm over the fragmentation of the black family. If left unchecked, Mr. Moynihan warned, the rise in black single-parent, female-headed households posed a grave threat to the gains being won by the civil rights movement.

Mr. Moynihan was pilloried for his views much as was Dr. Coleman. Yet both men ultimately were vindicated by events. The tragedy was that by then the problems they foresaw had been so abetted by neglect that they were more intractable than ever. We are still living with the legacy of that failure, and the need for the kind of clarity and intellectual honesty James Coleman brought to these social concerns.

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