The idea of racial balance is a product of the desegregation of public schools in the years since brown v. board of education (1954–1955). The term refers to the racial distribution of students in particular schools in relation to the racial distribution of school children in an entire district. If a district's children are seventy percent white and thirty percent black, then a hypothetically perfect balance would produce these same percentages in each school. By extension, the notion of racial balance may be used in discussing other institutions: a housing project, a factory's work force, a state university's medical school. (See affirmative action; racial quotas.)
In the school cases, the Supreme Court has held that racial balance is an appropriate "starting point" for a lower court to use in fashioning a remedy for de jure segregation. (See de facto / de jure; swann v. charlotte-mecklenburg board of education.) However, even where segregation has been deliberately caused by school board actions, there is no constitutional requirement of racial balance throughout the district's schools. Although one-race schools are presumptively to be eliminated, the school board will be allowed to prove that the racial distribution in those schools results from something other than the board's deliberate policy. school busing over very long distances, for example, would not be required under this approach; distance alone would be a racially neutral explanation for the board's failure to remedy racial imbalance.
In the absence of previous legislation commanding or authorizing school segregation, or school board actions with segregative intent, the fact of racial imbalance in a district's schools, standing alone, does not amount to a constitutional violation. However, intentional acts of segregation by the board in the remote past, coupled with current racial imbalance, will place on the board an almost impossible burden of proving that it has dismantled its "dual" (segregated) system. (See columbus board of education v. penick.)
The term racial balance is sometimes used in a different sense. Some discussions of school segregation use the term to describe a school that includes a "critical mass" of students from each race. Social scientists disagree over the educational value to minority students of having a significant number of white students in the classroom. The suggestion that minority students learn better in the company of whites has roots in the Supreme Court's pre-Brown decisions on graduate education. (See sweatt v. painter.) And where segregation is imposed by official action, Brown itself takes the view that the resulting stigma impairs minority students' ability to learn. But the abstract proposition that minority students cannot learn effectively outside the presence of whites is more than a little patronizing. And the notion of racial balance in this sense is immensely complicated in a multiethnic community: is a school integrated if it contains significant numbers of both white and minority students, or should the category of minority students be broken down into its black, Hispanic, and other components? Merely to ask this question is to understand why the Supreme Court has avoided speaking of racial balance in this latter sense and has used the idea in its mechanical racial-percentages sense only as a "starting point."
Kenneth L. Karst
Fiss, Owen M. 1975 The Jurisprudence of Busing. Law and Contemporary Problems 1975:194–216.