School Desegregation

Ever since Benjamin Roberts, an African-American printer, sued the Boston School Committee in the mid-nineteenth century for the unlawful exclusion of his daughter from the city's white elementary schools, the struggle for racial equality in education has been closely bound up with the demand for school desegregation. Not until the post–World War II era, however, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) legal campaign, the growth of black political power, and the rise of the civil rights movement prompted government action to address the demands of those denied equal educational opportunity, did desegregation move from the periphery to the center of educational policy. From the time of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing state-mandated segregation in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION through the 1970s, no other educational issue provoked as much conflict or so preoccupied students, parents, and public officials responsible for making educational policy.

The results of this struggle for desegregated schools have been ambiguous. From one perspective, the fight for desegregated schools accomplished much that it set out to do. At the time the Court handed down its decision in Brown, seventeen southern and border states as well as the District of Columbia had laws requiring separate schools for blacks and whites, and segregation was widespread in the North even though several northern states had provisions prohibiting it in local schools. A decade after Brown, this system of racial apartheid in the South was still intact, while in the North, increasingly vocal protests had won only minor concessions from school officials who argued that segregation resulted from housing patterns and not their own actions. But, largely because of the Johnson administration's enforcement of strict guidelines prohibiting the distribution of federal funds to segregated schools, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' insistence that school districts comply with these guidelines, and a series of Supreme Court decisions that banned freedom of choice plans and approved busing, southern schools desegregated rapidly between 1964 and 1972, as did many school districts in the North and West. Whereas 64 percent of African Americans nationwide attended schools with 90 to 100 percent minority enrollment in 1968, the percentage had dropped to 33 percent by 1980 and was even lower in the South.

By almost any historical standard, this constituted an extraordinary achievement. But because compliance was left in the hands of local school officials, it typically occurred on terms advantageous to whites. Faced with federal pressure to desegregate, southern school districts complied by closing black schools, demoting African-American principals, and dismissing African-American teachers. At the same time, as African Americans began to go to school with whites, southern school officials sought to assuage white fears that interracial contact would increase and academic standards would deteriorate by disproportionately placing black students in the least desirable academic programs, a practice that was widespread in the North as well. As a result, even though desegregation offered African Americans access to educational resources previously denied them, many began to question its benefits.

Desegregation reached its legal high water mark in 1973 when, in Keyes v. Denver School Board No. 1, the Supreme Court extended desegregation requirements to northern and western cities and included Latinos as well as African Americans in desegregation plans. But this victory also turned out to be a partial one. Although the Court's decision ended the practice whereby cities had sent Mexican-American and African-Americans to school together and called it desegregation, it did little to end urban segregation. Because suburbanization and white flight increasingly left so few white students in most big city school systems, few could accomplish any meaningful desegregation within their own borders.

One way advocates proposed to remedy this was through mandatory metropolitan-wide desgregation. By the early 1970s, however, governmental support for such strong measures had begun to wane. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter all opposed busing, as did a majority of Congress. They passed legislation barring the use of federal funds for busing to overcome racial imbalance and considered an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the reassignment of students to schools outside their immediate neighborhood. In 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, a reconstructed Supreme Court with four Nixon appointees began what was to become a long retreat from its demand that violating school districts take aggressive action to overcome segregation and reversed a lower court ruling that ordered urban–suburban desegregation in Detroit. Without compelling evidence that suburban boundaries had been drawn with discriminatory intent, a five to four majority of the Court argued, local autonomy should take precedence over the right of African-American and Latino students to a desegregated education.

Because school districts in many large metropolitan areas in the South are countywide, this decision did not resegregate southern schools. Outside the South, however, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, where school district boundaries correspond to urban/suburban political jurisdictions, Milliken effectively excluded white suburbs from the requirements of desegregation. Subsequently, desegregation plans in northern and midwestern cities focused instead on voluntary city–suburban transfers and special magnet programs designed to hold white students in the city or to entice them from the suburbs to attend urban schools. These plans offered some African-American and Latino students an alternative to segregated, inner-city schools, but, since they did not require much of whites, they did little to alter the racial composition of urban schools or of those in surrounding communities.

Despite the limitations of these programs, additional action to promote desegregated schools attracted little support. Instead, beginning in the 1980s, equal opportunity was increasingly redefined to mean greater choice in schooling, and proposals such as SCHOOL VOUCHERS and CHARTERSCHOOLS were promoted as the best way to expand educational opportunities for low income and minority students. In some case, these proposals, which were initiated primarily by white policymakers who favored market-based solutions to social problems, also won support from a growing number of African-American and Latino parents who were disillusioned by the slow pace of desegregation and who viewed SCHOOL CHOICE as a way to escape deteriorating inner-city schools.

In this climate, segregation persisted or got worse between 1980 and 2000, though patterns varied by group and region. For African Americans, the South remained the most desegregated region of the country. But after a series of Supreme Court decisions between 1991 and 1995 that allowed districts to return to neighborhood schools before desegregation requirements had been fully met, the proportion of African Americans in schools with 90 to 100 percent minority enrollment in the South began to rise again, though black segregation remained most intense in big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Latino segregation was also greatest in urban schools in the Northeast, where the majority of Latinos were from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. As the migration of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to cities in other regions of the country increased after 1970, however, Latino segregation also intensified in the South and West. In 1996 35 percent of Latino students nationwide were in schools with 90 to 100 percent enrollment, compared to 23 percent of Latino students in 1968.

Some observers at the turn of the twenty-first century seized on this evidence to pronounce desegregation a failure and urge that it be abandoned. But the lesson that history teaches is more complex. In essence, the struggle for desegregated schools sought to make the benefits of education equally available to all citizens. By ending Jim Crow in southern education and winning recognition for the right of Latinos as well as African Americans to a desegregated education, it accomplished a good deal toward the realization of that goal. What was equally clear, however, was that without governmental support for complementary changes in the distribution of power, control, and resources, desegregation based on equality of academic and social status in the classroom would remain an illusory goal.

See also: African-American Children and Youth; Law, Children and the; Magnet Schools.


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Bell, Derrick, ed. 1980. Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cecelski, David S. 1994. Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Donato, Rubén. 1997. The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans During the Civil Rights Era. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Orfield, Gary. 1978. Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Orfield, Gary, and Susan Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: Free Press.

Orfield, Gary, Mark Bachmeier, David James, et al. 1997. "Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools: A Special Report from the Harvard Project on School Desegregation." Equity and Excellence in Education 30: 5–23.

Patterson, James T. 2001. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rossell, Christine, and Willis D. Hawley, eds. 1983. The Consequences of School Desegregation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie. 1979. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration: 1954–1978. New York: Oxford University Press.