For many, the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004 provided an opportunity to celebrate the decision as a victory for racial justice and to presume that large-scale racial inequality was an artifact of the past, of little concern to us today. Yet it is clear that segregated or near-segregated schools continue to exist and that school resegregation has been on the rise since the 1980s.
Public school segregation has increased over the past two decades not because we have learned that desegregation failed or because Americans have turned against it. In fact, there is now more information about the benefits of integration than ever before, and public support for integrated education remains high, particularly among those who have personal experience with desegregated schools. Rather, resegregation has been primarily a result of the changing legal and political landscape, which in recent years has severely limited what school districts must—or may—do to promote racial integration in their schools.
I. Why Desegregation?
II. The Development of School Desegregation Law
III. Judicial Retrenchment
IV. Trends in Desegregation and Resegregation
V. Current Status of the Law
Why should we care about segregation? Public school segregation can have a powerfully negative impact on students, an impact that prompted the Supreme Court to declare segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954. One of the common misconceptions about desegregation is that it is simply about seating black students next to white students in a classroom. If skin color were not systematically and inextricably linked to other forms of inequality, perhaps segregation would have less educational or legal significance. But when we talk about schools that are segregated by race, we are also usually talking about schools that are segregated along other dimensions as well, including poverty and English language learner status.
Racial segregation is highly correlated with the concentration of student poverty, and the differences by race and ethnicity in students’ exposure to poverty are striking. Nationally, about half of all black and Latino students attend schools in which three-quarters or more students are poor, while only 5 percent of white students attend such schools. No fewer than 80 percent of students in schools of extreme poverty are black or Latino. As a result, minority students in these segregated schools are isolated not only from white students but from schools with students from middle-class families, and exposure to students with middle-class backgrounds is a predictor of academic success. Further, Latino English language learner students are even more isolated from whites than their native-speaking Latino peers and, as a result, have little exposure to native English speakers who could aid their acquisition of English.
Racially isolated minority schools are also often vastly unequal to schools with higher percentages of white students in terms of other tangible resources, such as qualified, experienced teachers and college preparatory curriculum, as well as intangible resources, such as lower teacher turnover and more college-bound peers—all of which are associated with higher educational outcomes. Social science research, then, confirms that the central premise of Brown remains true: Racially minority segregated schools offer students an inferior education, which is likely to harm their future life opportunities, such as graduation from high school and college. While a handful of successfully segregated minority schools certainly exist across the nation, these schools represent the exception to the general trend and are typically places with stable, committed leadership and faculty that are difficult to replicate on a large scale.
Desegregation has offered an opportunity to study how interracial schools can affect the education of students. Research generally concludes that integrated schools have important benefits for students who attend these schools and for the society in which these students will one day be citizens and workers. While early studies of the effects of desegregation focused on its impact on minority students, more recent research has revealed that white students, too, benefit from racial integration. Of course, these benefits depend on how desegregation is structured and implemented within diverse schools.
Over 50 years ago, Harvard University psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias.
Additionally, black and Latino students in desegregated schools have higher achievement than their peers in segregated schools, while the achievement of white students in racially diverse but majority white schools remains unaffected. Some evidence also suggests that diverse classrooms can improve the critical thinking skills of all students.
Benefits from such environments extend beyond the time spent in schools to improved life opportunities. Students in integrated schools are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college than their segregated peers, meaning that integrated schools result in a more highly skilled workforce. These students are also connected to social networks that give them information about and access to competitive colleges and higher-status jobs. Perhaps because of this access or the fact that students who attend integrated schools tend to be more likely to attain graduate degrees, labor market studies show that African Americans who attend integrated schools have higher salaries than their peers from segregated schools. Finally, students who attend racially diverse schools are more likely to be civically engaged after graduation and to feel comfortable working in diverse settings.
There are important benefits for communities with racially diverse schools. For example, students who graduate from integrated schools will have experience and will be adept working with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, an important skill for the demands of the workforce in the global economy. Research also indicates that communities with extensive school desegregation have experienced declines in residential integration. Further, desegregation that encompasses most of a region can stem white flight. Communities with integrated schools tend to experience higher levels of parental involvement in and support for the schools.
It is no wonder, then, that over the years, many school districts have come to realize the value of racial and ethnic diversity and its important influence on educating future citizens. A number of these school districts, as a result, have voluntarily enacted policies and student assignment methods designed to promote racial integration in their schools. In other words, more and more school districts are trying to create diverse learning environments not out of legal obligation but on their own accord as an essential part of their core educational mission. They do so in recognition of the critical role schools play in fostering racial and ethnic harmony in an increasingly heterogeneous society and of the significance of an integrated school experience in shaping students’ worldviews. Yet even these efforts may be imperiled.
The Development of School Desegregation Law
Most scholars and laypersons alike consider Brown v. Board of Education the most famous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. history. That landmark 1954 decision was the culmination of decades of civil rights litigation and strategizing to overturn the deeply entrenched doctrine from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) of “separate but equal,” which had applied to 17 Southern states where segregated schools were required. Brown held for the first time that racially segregated public schools violate the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Although an enormous moral victory for civil rights advocates—indeed for the entire nation—Brown itself did not require the immediate elimination of segregation in the nation’s public schools. In fact, one year later, in a follow-up decision popularly known as Brown II, the Supreme Court allowed racially segregated school systems to move forward in dismantling their segregative practices “with all deliberate speed”—an infamous phrase that, for many years, meant without any speed or urgency at all. Further, Brown II placed the duty to supervise school desegregation squarely on local federal district courts and then provided these courts little guidance.
Thus, despite the efforts of countless black communities across the nation demanding immediate relief in the wake of the Brown decision—often at the risk of grave danger and violence, and mostly in the segregated South, where resistance was greatest—a full decade passed with virtually no progress in desegregating schools. By 1963, when President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to pass legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in all programs receiving federal aid (including schools), well over 98 percent of Southern black students were still attending segregated schools.
A social and cultural revolution was sweeping the country during the civil rights era, however, and, by the mid-1960s and early 1970s, school desegregation too began to take hold. Congress enacted Kennedy’s proposed legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which empowered the Department of Justice to initiate desegregation lawsuits independent of private plaintiff s. The act also authorized the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to deny federal funds to segregating school districts. With these new governmental tools and allies, civil rights attorneys used the power of America’s courts and television sets against recalcitrant school districts that refused to comply with the law.
During these critical years, the Supreme Court, also frustrated by the lack of progress in school desegregation, issued a number of important decisions that lent valuable support and legitimacy to the cause. For instance, in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), the Court expressly defined what desegregation required: the elimination of all traces of a school system’s prior segregation in every facet of school operations—from student, faculty, and staff assignment to extracurricular activities, facilities, and transportation.
Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Swann v. Charlotte- Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) that lower courts supervising the desegregation of individual school districts could order the use of transportation, or busing, to achieve desegregated student assignments. In so doing, it rejected the argument that formerly dual school systems had discharged their desegregation duties by assigning students to segregated schools that happened to correspond with segregated neighborhoods.
Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), a case originating in Denver, Colorado, that extended school desegregation obligations to systems outside the South that had employed discriminatory policies. The Keyes case was also the first to order desegregation for Latino students. Federal district courts took guidance from these and other Supreme Court decisions as they ordered desegregation plans unique to the communities for which they were responsible. In response to these decisions, the federal judiciary began more actively issuing detailed desegregation orders and then monitoring the school districts’ progress, or lack thereof, on a regular basis. Segregation was on the run.
By the mid-1970s, significant changes in the Supreme Court’s composition rendered its reputation as a champion of civil rights relatively short-lived. In perhaps the most significant case from this latter era, Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the Court dealt a serious blow to school desegregation by concluding that lower courts could not order interdistrict desegregation remedies that encompass urban as well as suburban school districts without first showing that the suburban district or the state was liable for the segregation across district boundaries. The practical impact of the decision was the establishment of a bright line between city and suburban school systems beyond which the courts could not traverse in designing their desegregation plans. Whites who for decades had tried to fl ee school desegregation finally had a place to go where they could avoid it.
Just one year prior to Milliken, the Supreme Court had decided a case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), that seriously undermined a parallel strategy of the educational equity movement. The Court refused to strike down a public school financing scheme that resulted in significantly lower expenditures for poor and minority children who lived in school districts with lower tax property bases in comparison to their more affluent, white neighbors who lived in the neighboring district. In so doing, the Court foreclosed an important argument that civil rights lawyers had tried to advance in both school funding and segregation cases: that public education was a fundamental right under the Constitution, which must be available on an equal basis. With this legal avenue shut down by Rodriguez, and with interdistrict remedies effectively eliminated by Milliken, the Supreme Court’s brief, forward charge on school desegregation law had officially come to a screeching halt.
Soon the executive branch of government, which had been fairly aggressive in litigation and enforcement of school desegregation cases, followed the increasingly more conservative federal courts. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration adopted a new philosophy that focused on school choice—rather than on the firm insistence of compliance with court orders requiring mandatory student assignments—to accomplish school desegregation. As a result, scores of school districts abandoned busing as a remedy and began more actively employing strategies and tools such as magnet schools and “controlled- choice plans” as the primary means of advancing desegregation. In general, the government’s focus during this era turned away from educational equity and toward other issues—namely, an emphasis on standards-based accountability to improve student achievement.
The 1990s ushered in another phase of judicial retreat from school desegregation. Between 1991 and 1995, the Supreme Court handed down three important decisions: Oklahoma City Board of Education v. Dowell (1991), Freeman v. Pitts (1992), and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995). Taken together, these cases essentially invited school districts to initiate proceedings to bring their desegregation obligations to an end. They permitted federal district courts overseeing desegregation plans to declare a school system “unitary” if they determined that the system had done all that was feasible to eliminate the effects of past racial discrimination. In contrast to earlier decisions, now, according to the Supreme Court, a good faith effort to desegregate along with reasonable compliance with prior desegregation orders for a decent period of time were considered sufficient for a school district to achieve unitary status and thus have its desegregation orders permanently dissolved—even if severe racial isolation or other racial disparities remained. Advocates of school desegregation view these changes as a significant dilution of the desegregation obligations the Supreme Court had placed on school districts in the previous decades.
In the years since that trilogy of cases was decided, a large number of school systems have been declared unitary. In some instances, the school district itself sought to end federal court supervision, arguing it had met its constitutional obligations. In others, parents opposed to desegregation led the attack to relieve the school district of any continuing legal duties to desegregate, leaving the district in the awkward position of having to defend the kinds of policies that it had, ironically, resisted implementing in prior decades. Recently, in fact, a handful of federal courts have declared districts unitary even when the school district itself argued that its desegregation policies were still necessary to remedy past discrimination.
Once a school district has been declared unitary, it is no longer under a legal duty to continue any of the desegregation efforts that it had undertaken in the decades when it was under court order. The school district remains, of course, under a broad constitutional obligation—as do all districts—to avoid taking actions that intentionally create racially segregated and unequal schools. However, courts presume that the school district’s actions are innocent and legal, even if they produce racially disparate results, unless there is evidence of intentional discrimination. The past history of segregation and desegregation is completely wiped away in the eyes of the law. These fully discretionary, “innocent and legal” policies in many instances have contributed to a disturbing phenomenon of racial resegregation in public schools, which are more racially separate now than at any point in the past two decades.
Trends in Desegregation and Resegregation
As a result of the courts’ guidance, there were dramatic gains in desegregation for black students in the South, a region with the most black students and the most integrated region of the country by the late 1960s due to court-ordered desegregation and federal enforcement of desegregation plans. Desegregation of black students remained stable for several decades; by 1988, 43.5 percent of Southern black students were in majority white schools. During the 1990s, however, the proportion of black students in majority white schools in the region steadily declined as desegregation plans were dismantled. In 2003, only 29 percent of Southern black students were in majority white schools, lower than any year since 1968.
When there was a concerted effort to desegregate black and white students in the South during the mid- to late-1960s, there was major progress, demonstrating that desegregation can and has succeeded. We are experiencing a period of steady decline in desegregation since the late 1980s, and much of the success that led to several decades of desegregated schooling for millions of students in the South is being undone. Nevertheless, black and white students in the South attend schools that are considerably more integrated than before the time of Brown.
The judicial changes discussed above have had a major impact on the desegregation of schools at a time of racial transformation of the nation’s public school enrollment. Since the end of the civil rights era, the racial composition of our nation’s public school students has changed dramatically. The United States was once overwhelmingly white, but that is no longer the case. Minority students now comprise more than 40 percent of all U.S. public school students, nearly twice their share of students during the 1960s.
Not only are there more minority students than ever before, but the minority population is also more diverse than it was during the civil rights era, when most nonwhite students were black. Black and Latino students now comprise more than a third of all students in public schools. The most rapidly growing racial /ethnic group is Latinos, whose numbers almost quadrupled from 1968 to 2000 to 7.7 million students. Asian enrollment, like that of Latinos, is also increasing. Meanwhile, by 2003, whites comprised only 58 percent of the public school enrollment. There were 7 million fewer white public school students at the beginning of the 21st century than there were at the end of the 1960s. As a result of this growing diversity, nearly 9 million students in 2003 attended schools with at least three racial groups of students.
U.S. public schools are more than two decades into a period of rapid resegregation. The desegregation of black students has now declined to levels not seen in three decades. Latinos, by contrast, have never experienced a time of increased integration and today are the most segregated minority group in U.S. schools.
Remarkably, almost 2.4 million students attend schools that are 99–100 percent minority, including almost one in six of black students and one in nine Latino students. Nearly 40 percent of both black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools (90–100 percent of students are nonwhite); yet less than 1 percent of white students attend such schools. Nearly three-fourths of black and Latino students attend predominantly minority schools.
Whites are the most racially isolated group of students in the United States. In a perfectly integrated system of schools, the racial composition of every school would mirror that of the overall U.S. enrollment. The typical white public school student, however, attends a school that is nearly 80 percent white, which is much higher than the white percentage of the overall public school enrollment (58 percent). This means that white students, on average, attend schools in which only one in five students are of another race, which, conversely, reduces the opportunities for students of other races to be in schools with white students. Schools with high percentages of white students are also likely to have overwhelmingly white faculties, meaning that such schools have few people of color.
Black and Latino students are also extremely isolated from students of other races, and they are particularly isolated from whites. Blacks and Latinos attend schools where two-thirds of students are also black and Latino, and over half of the students in their schools are students of their same race. Despite earlier progress in desegregation, the percentage of white students who attend schools with black students, another measure of school desegregation, has been declining since 1988. Asians are the most desegregated of all students; three-fourths of students in their schools are from other racial and ethnic groups, and only a small percentage of Asian students are in segregated minority schools.
The resegregation of blacks and Latinos is a trend seen in almost every large school district since the mid-1980s. One reason is that the public school districts in many of the nation’s largest cities, which educate one-tenth of all public school students in the 26 largest districts, contain few white students—without which even the best designed desegregation plans cannot create substantial desegregation. While the largest urban districts (enrollment greater than 60,000) enroll over one-fifth of all black and Latino students, less than 1 in 40 white students attend these central city schools.
Minority students in suburban districts generally attend schools with more white students than their counterparts in central city districts, although there is substantial variation within the largest suburban districts. In over half of the suburban districts with more than 60,000 students, the typical black and Latino student attends schools that, on average, have a white majority. However, black and Latino students in these districts are more segregated from whites than was the case in the mid-1980s. In some large suburban districts, there has been drastic racial change in a short time span, and these districts are now predominantly minority like the urban districts discussed above. Countywide districts, or districts that encompass both city and suburban areas, have often been able to create stable desegregation. In rural districts, there is generally less segregation since there are fewer schools for students to enroll in, although, in some rural areas, private schools disproportionately enroll white students, while public schools remain overwhelmingly minority.
Current Status of the Law
In recent years, a number of school districts that have been released from their formal, constitutional desegregation obligations—as well as some that had never had any legal duty to desegregate in the first place—have adopted voluntary measures to promote integration in their schools. These voluntary school integration measures, in other words, are designed not by courts to be imposed on school districts, with the goal of curing historical, illegal segregation, but rather by the districts themselves, often with the support of and input from parents, students, and others in the community. They are future-oriented and are intended to assist the school districts realize Brown’s promise and vision of equal opportunity and high-quality integrated public education for all.
Odd as it may seem, however, it may turn out that a unitary school district’s voluntary consideration of race for the laudable goal of stemming resegregation and promoting integration is illegal. Despite the success and popularity of well-designed voluntary school integration plans, opponents of desegregation in a handful of communities have sued their school systems for adopting them, alleging that such efforts violate the same constitutional equal protection guarantees that outlawed segregated schools 50 years ago in Brown. Indeed, in June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated and sharply divided ruling in two cases challenging voluntary integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. The court struck down aspects of the student assignment plans because they were not sufficiently tailored to achieve those goals. But a majority of justices left the window open for school districts to take race-conscious measures to promote diversity.
Even though it dramatically changed the landscape of school integration, this Supreme Court decision did not provide a clear set of rules and principles for school districts, creating some confusion about what can be done to promote integration. How communities and school districts will react to the ruling, and whether they choose to forge ahead with new ways to fulfill Brown’s promise of equal, integrated public education, remain open questions.
Erica Frankenberg and Chinh Q. Le
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- Clotfelter, Charles T., After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Dunn, Joshua M., and Martin R. West, eds., From Schoolhouse to Courthouse: The Judiciary’s Role in American Education. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009.
- Frankenberg, Erica, and Gary Orfield, eds., Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of Racial Diversity in America’s Schools. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
- Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 2004.
- Orfield, Gary, and Chungmei Lee, Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation. Cambridge, MA: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006.
- Smrekar, Claire E., and Ellen B. Goldring, eds., From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2009.