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The Uniforming of Students and the Construction of Multiracial Identity

A visit with David Brunsma, Assistant Professor of Sociology

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: school uniforms race rights sociology

There are a lot of anecdotal claims about school uniforms helping to level economic status, increase attendance rates, create a healthier school environment, curb school violence, increase academic achievement, and so forth. Unfortunately, none of them have been substantiated. And yet, according to recent estimates, today “roughly 25% of our elementary public schools have mandatory school uniform policies,” observes David Brunsma, whereas in the mid-1990s only 5% had such policies. Wanting to determine whether these claims about school uniforms have any truth value, MU sociology professor Brunsma, along with colleague Kerry Ann Rockquemore (University of Illinois, Chicago), decided to analyze data collected in 1988 and 1990 by the National Education Longitudinal Study, which followed students from eighth grade through high school and into the labor force. Looking specifically at the effects of uniform policies on high school students, as indicated by the available data, they actually found that uniforms had no significant effect on attendance or behavioral issues. In fact, Brunsma specifies that they found “a small negative effect on academic achievement.” Several years later, armed with wonderful new data on elementary schools in the United States, Brunsma updated all previous analyses and reported his findings in The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education: A Symbolic Crusade (2004)— currently the most comprehensive study of school uniform histories and policies.

The negative effects that Brunsma and Rockquemore identified in the early years, particularly implications for achievement, will be difficult to explain until the children can be followed for a longer period of time, but remain suggestive nonetheless. They would seem to directly contradict the popular and persistent beliefs in the United States about school uniforms. When data from higher grades becomes available, Brunsma will be watching to see what is revealed.

While measuring such abstract aspects as school climate and culture on a social group is not without difficulties, Brunsma has uncovered “some concerning facets of the school uniform movement.” For example, some of “the most salient differences that impact our students in public schools are race and gender,” yet it is clear that “you cannot erase someone’s race or ethnicity by having them don a uniform, and the uniforms are almost always gendered.” Also, explains Brunsma, “contrary to what people think, this policy is overwhelmingly implemented in poor and predominantly minority, very disadvantaged school districts […] without parental input.” And the data provide no evidence of school uniforms eliminating economic difference. Wealthier students, who are capable of purchasing multiple uniforms made by corporate clothiers as Land’s End, Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger, wear clean, freshly pressed clothes, whereas if a student is unable to afford multiple uniforms, the status distinction becomes clear as his or her uniform becomes tattered and faded. In light of the increasingly obvious corporate presence in schools—students being inundated with soda machines, fast food, billboards, and televised advertisements – one might also be disturbed to learn that several of the studies claiming the supposed positive effects of uniforms actually have been financed by such corporate retailers as Land’s End.

Brunsma recently has turned his attention to the issue of the multiracial movement in the U.S. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews with black/white biracial individuals, the sociologist looked at how these individuals understand themselves and “how they position themselves within a society that has historically divided the races along various lines,” the most salient and potent division being the line between black and white. Sadly, the stories told during these interviews generated “a lot of tears and a lot of hardship,” admits Brunsma. “And yet we find that there’s a lot of agency and human creativity that goes into being in this position in the United States.” While people located themselves in a variety of different social spaces, Brunsma found that most of these individuals “understand themselves as bi-racial […]—not black, not white, but a third category—that has a unique existence and set of experiences in this country in its own right.” The unique social space inhabited by such individuals is discussed in Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America (2001), which he coauthored with Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

Brunsma’s most recent book, Mixed Messages: Multiracial Identities in the “Color-Blind” Era (2006), explores what Brunsma calls the “post-civil rights present,” where it has become unsafe to talk openly about race for fear of being labeled racist. “People want to argue these days that we’re all part of the human race,” says Brunsma quoting from a colleague, “but only certain members of the race can catch a cab on 42nd street in Chicago.” “While we may like to think that […] race no longer matters in our minds, it matters in our streets, and in our homes, and in our schools, and in our places of work, and in our communities,” he reminds us.
For this book Brunsma decided to gather together top scholars in the field to think critically about the multiracial movement and identities in the post-civil rights era. Seeking to avoid purely academic questions, he asked the scholars to think about what the multiracial movement could mean for the future of social justice in the U.S. if we insist that race no longer matters. “The boundaries of whiteness have opened and closed all throughout our history,” cautions Brunsma. “Some people are let in; others are kept out.” Italian Americans are a good example of this boundary, which opened to include an immigrant population now considered to be white. This system allows at certain times a sort of “honorary white” status. Several authors of Mixed Messages argue, in fact, that the U.S. may be moving through this multiracial movement to a model that resembles the South African one—with a collective white on top (based on skin color as well as class, linguistic ability, and degree of assimilation) and a middle category that might include multiracial, light-skinned Latino, and other groups. At the bottom of this hierarchy, of course, is “the collective black” (including African Americans, dark-skinned Latinos, and most Native Americans)—“locked in a continued struggle for […] equal opportunity.” “I don’t like categorizing people,” says Brunsma, “but if you look at the data, [you see that] this is starting to happen.”

Trying to understand this middle ground, Brunsma’s current research concerns multiracial identity. He intends to conduct qualitative interviews with parents “to try to understand what kinds of tools they’re drawing on […] to transfer their understanding of race and racial identity to their mixed-race children. What kinds of stories do they tell their children about what their life will be like?” To this end, Brunsma has been gathering a pool of volunteers to interview for a study to take place in Columbia--home to a lot of mixed-race families. “This isn’t just research for me,” explains Brunsma. “In this post-civil rights era, we don’t really talk about race and yet these people are faced with these issues on a daily basis. They really want to and need to talk with other people about their experiences.” It’s not clear to them how to raise the children who inhabit this unique position. As far as the “color-blind” notion goes, Brunsma argues that “race is not going away. It’s actually re-entrenching itself even deeper.”