In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous opinion ruling that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and therefore in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As Peter Irons wrote of the Brown case and the opinion of newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974) in particular, “it was a promise to America’s black children of an education ‘available to all on equal terms’ with that given to whites” (2002, p. xi). However, within a year of Brown, southern legislatures and school officials had already begun to defy the Court’s firm but vague ruling that schools be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.”
In 1956 this resistance to integration was epitomized by the state of Arkansas when the state legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution commanding the Arkansas General Assembly to oppose “in every Constitutional manner the Un-constitutional desegregation decisions” in Brown. In 1957, when the first nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock’s Central High School in accordance with the court ordered desegregation plan, they were turned away by armed Arkansas National Guardsmen dispatched by Governor Orval Faubus (1910–1994). This defiance of federal law by state and local officials ultimately culminated in Cooper v. Aaron (1958), a Supreme Court case where the court reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to racial equality articulated in Brown. In a rare opinion bearing the signature of all nine justices, the Court wrote, “The principles announced in [the Brown ] decision and the obedience of the States to them, according to the command of the Constitution, are indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us. Our constitutional ideal of equal justice under the law is thus made a living truth.”
The ruling in Cooper marked the end of the Court’s patience with attempts to delay the integration of public schools. While southern states and school districts continued to challenge court-ordered school integration, the justices handed down decisions ordering schools to continue along the path toward racial equality under the law.
Some scholars argue that the federal government’s shift from a prosegregation position to one in support of racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s stemmed more from foreign policy interests and a desire to reshape the cold war world in the image of the United States than from any earnest desire to bring an end to racial discrimination (Dudziak 1988–1989). This may explain why, beginning in the late 1970s and more rapidly since the early 1990s, school segregation is increasing rather than decreasing, yet the federal courts, legislature, and executive branch appear reluctant to intercede on behalf of integration efforts. Nonetheless, for nearly thirty-five years following the Brown decision, the law of the land was that race needed to be taken into consideration when assessing the quality and fairness of public education in the United States.
In the decades following Brown, federal support for desegregation appeared to be working, albeit slowly. For example, the percentage of black students attending majority white schools nationwide rose from slightly over 23 percent in the 1968–1969 school year to slightly more than 37 percent in the 1980–1981 school year. Similarly, over 64 percent of black children attended schools that were 90 percent or more minority in the 1968–1969 school year. However, this percentage decreased to fewer than 39 percent by the start of the 1974 school year, and was 32 percent by 1988 (Brown 2005).
After decades of court orders and state and local laws mandating school integration efforts, as well as resistance to these efforts by primarily white citizens and citizen groups, by the middle of the 1980s, progress toward integration had been made. Yet, American schools in many areas remained starkly segregated, and those that had made strides toward greater integration were rapidly become resegregated by the end of the Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) era in 1989 (Frankenberg and Lee 2002). After touring schools across the nation in 1988, Jonathan Kozol observed in his classic Savage Inequalities, “What startled me the most … was the remarkable degree of racial segregation that persisted … In no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children” (1991, pp. 2–3). The reasons observed by Kozol for this continued segregation include: white flight to suburbs, the establishment of private and parochial education for white children, continued housing discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, some self-segregation by racial and ethnic minorities, and significant shifts in judicial interpretations of desegregation and antidiscrimination law.
Throughout many parts of the United States, white children are conspicuously underrepresented in public education. According to the 2000 census, slightly over 68 percent of the under-eighteen U.S. population was non-Hispanic white. However, in the 2001–2002 school year, only about 60 percent of public school children were non-Hispanic white (Brown 2005). Los Angeles, California, provides an even more stark example of this dearth of white children. While approximately 47 percent of the city’s population is white, fewer than 9 percent of students enrolled in Los Angeles Unified schools in the 2005–2006 school year were white. Among the reasons for this disparity are the exodus of white people from areas that are becoming increasingly minority and the proliferation of private and parochial schools as an alternative to desegregated public schools.
In the 1960s and 1970s, cities across the country saw radical changes in the demographic makeup and location of their populations. For example, in the 1960s, the white population of Detroit declined by 350,000 people, while the white population of the surrounding suburbs increased by 350,000. At the same time, Detroit’s black population grew by approximately 170,000 people (Irons 2002). As Irons writes, “The phenomenon of ‘white flight’ had already begun in Detroit, as white families with school-age children either moved to the suburbs or sent their children to private or parochial schools” (2002, p. 237). In The Agony of Education (1996), Joe Feagin, Hernán Vera, and Nikitah Imani note that in U.S. society, whites are more likely to self-segregate even when opportunities exist to interact with minorities, blacks in particular. This separationist behavior is due, in part, to negative stereotypes that whites harbor about blacks.
The private school movement for whites was particularly evident in the South, where the rigid social customs prohibiting intermingling of the races allowed for blacks and whites to live closer to one another than in other parts of the country where de facto and de jure housing segregation kept the races apart. Thus, when desegregation of public schools was ordered, white people in the South found their children in precisely the same school district as black children. As a 2002 study at Duke University found, private schools have grown in the South since 1960 as a response to school desegregation and the region’s rising affluence.
School districts are often based on “neighborhood” boundaries. Accordingly, de facto school segregation is often the result of segregation in housing. Prior to Brown, whites were protected from living among minorities through laws restricting where minorities could live. In places where these laws did not exist, white homeowners often banded together and agreed to racially restrictive housing covenants—private agreements that prevented minorities from owning property in particular neighborhoods. These covenants were effectively deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948, however their intentions were kept intact by other social and business practices such as discriminatory mortgage lending; intimidation of blacks and other minorities who sought housing in white areas; steering—the funneling of home buyers by realtors to racially specific areas; and redlining—the practice of a lending institution denying loans, manipulating loan terms, or restricting loans for certain areas of a community. In The Ethnic Experience, Grace Pena Delgado and Troy Johnson sum up these processes well: “In the United States, Blacks have been forced into segregated suburbs and channeled into segregated cities through institutionalized discrimination in the real estate and banking industries, racially biased public policies, and persistent White prejudice” (2005, p. 258).
While most of these discriminatory practices were outlawed in 1968 when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, studies show that they are still practiced and their effects clearly linger. For example, as of 2000, on average in U.S. metropolitan areas nearly 65 percent of all African Americans would have to change residence in order for neighborhoods in these areas to achieve residential desegregation (Iceland et al. 2002).
To a lesser, but still significant extent, minority segregation in education can be attributed to self-segregation in housing by minorities. This is particularly true for recent immigrants who often find it easier to adjust to life in the United States when surrounded by people who are culturally similar. There is also some evidence that affluent black families often choose to live in expensive “all-black” suburbs rather than deal with potential prejudice in predominantly white suburbs.
In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the Supreme Court ruled against city-suburban desegregation and made real desegregation in education impossible in a growing number of cities experiencing an increase in their minority populations. In UC Regents v. Bakke (1978), a blow was struck to policies designed to increase minority representation in public higher education. However, it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that significant doctrinal shifts altered the way the Court would evaluate school desegregation. Between 1990 and 1995, the Supreme Court decided three cases in which the desegregation orders of lower-court judges were “terminated” and school officials were subsequently free to adopt “race neutral” school assignment policies and maintain segregated schools without fear of future judicial intervention (Irons 2002). The last of these cases involved a primarily black school district in Missouri in which the conditions were so deplorable that one school official “stated that he would not send his own child to that facility” (Irons 2002, p. ix). Over the 1990s as a whole, the Supreme Court increasingly looked unfavorably upon school desegregation decrees—court requirements that school districts aggressively pursue desegregation. As Kevin Brown writes, “Since school assignment policies are no longer motivated by a desire to maintain racial and ethnic integration, segregation inevitably increases” (Brown 2005, p. 7).
One of the most striking developments in school segregation at the national level has resulted from a transformation in race and ethnicity in U.S. society. At the time of the Brown decision, the racial debate was most often cast in terms of black and white. This was the case, in significant part, because the legacy of slavery in the South and racial intolerance in the North had long been a biracial issue dealing primarily with the interactions between former slaves and white Americans of European ancestry. Also, throughout the twentieth century, black people comprised the largest racial minority in the country.
However, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, educational discrimination against Latinos began to draw more attention as two things happened. First, Latinos began migrating in greater numbers from the western United States, where they had always been a significant presence, to the Midwest, South, and East. Secondly, Latinos in the United States continued to grow in numbers over these decades, ultimately surpassing African Americans as the single largest minority group in the United States. While issues of school segregation had been of significance in western state courts long before Brown ever made its way to the Supreme Court (see Alvarez v. Lemon Grove  and Mendez v. Westminster ), because of the growing number of Latinos in the United States, the school desegregation debate has become black, white, and brown.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, schools across the United States continue to be separated along racial, ethnic, and economic lines that are drawn primarily to the advantage of white Americans and to the disadvantage of African and Latino Americans. As Nanette Asimov writes, “Even though no board of education still has the power to exclude students based on ethnicity, the schools’ racial barrier lives on in the segregated lives of the rich and the poor” (2004). In states like California, where changes in state policy have eroded the property tax base, one of the traditional mainstays of educational funding for all public schools, affluent communities have used their economic and political resources to ensure that the schools serving their children have adequate learning materials, technological resources, less overcrowding, and qualified teachers. In comparison, poor and minority school districts without these resources have found themselves left behind. Asimov continues, “Today’s Linda Browns [the lead petitioner in Brown v. Board of Education ] are students whose parents cannot afford to supplement schools with computers, books, art classes and equipment as parents in wealthier communities do” (2004).
Even in situations where white and minority children attend the same school, studies have shown that they do not necessarily receive the same quality of education. For example, educational tracking—the placement of students into courses based on their performance in standardized achievement tests—has been criticized for effectively segregating white students, who are more commonly placed on high-achievement tracks, from students of color. Further, there is evidence of teachers being more helpful toward white students and of differential grading of students favoring white students over their minority peers (Feagin et al. 1996)
In the early twenty-first century, most African American and Latino children attended predominantly minority schools, and nearly 40 percent of these children attended schools that are at least 90 percent minority (Brown 2005). These resegregated schools exist in the former Jim Crow South as well as the “liberal” North and the progressive West. The end result of resegregated education in America is an “opportunity gap” that has significant consequences for the educational and life chances of poor students and students of color. As Judith Blau notes in Race in the Schools (2003), public schools operate to the detriment of all students because they are racial settings that reproduce white advantage, rather than equalizing forces in U.S. society.
A 2006 report from the the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University indicates the gap between whites and minorities in education only seems to be widening, and doing so with the tacit support of government officials and the courts (Orfield and Lee 2006). Kozol writes, “the dual society, at least in public education, seems in general to be unquestioned” (1991, p. 4). UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (2004) adds that this widespread resegregation not only fails the promise for equality made in Brown ; these schools do not even live up to the pre- Brown doctrine of “separate but equal” set forth by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 ; Brown v. Board of Education, 1955 ; Desegregation; Segregation
Asimov, Nanette. 2004. Brown vs. Board of Education: 50 Years Later. San Francisco Chronicle. May 16.
Blau, Judith R. 2003. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Brown, Kevin. 2005. Race, Law, and Education in the Post-Desegregation Era: Four Perspectives on Desegregation and Resegregation. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Clotfelter, Charles T. 2002. The Resegregation of Southern Schools? A Crucial Moment in the History (and the Future) of Public Schooling in America. Conference paper presented at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, sponsored by the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC School of Law and the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University.
Clotfelter, Charles T., Helen F. Ladd, and Jacob L. Vigdor. 2003. Segregation and Resegregation in North Carolina’s Public School Classrooms. North Carolina Law Review 81 (May 2003), 1463–1511.
Delgado, Grace Pena, and Troy R. Johnson. 2005. The Ethnic Experience in the United States. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Dudziak, Mary L. 1988–1989. Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative. Stanford Law Review 4: 61–120.
Feagin, Joe R., Hernán Vera, and Nikitah Imani. 1996. The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities. New York: Routledge.
Frankenberg, Erika, and Chungmei Lee. 2002. Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating School Districts. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University. http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/deseg/reseg_schools02.php.
Iceland, John, Daniel Weinberg, and Erika Steinmetz. 2002. Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980–2000. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/housing_patterns/pdf/censr-3.pdf
Irons, Peter. 2002. Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking.
Kozol, Jonathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Crown.
Kozol, Jonathan. 2005. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown.
Lewis, Amanda E. 2003. Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Orfield, Gary, and Chungmei Lee. 2006. Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University. http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/deseg/Racial_Transformation.pdf
UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. 2004. Separate and Unequal 50 Years after Brown: California’s Racial “Opportunity Gap.” http://www.idea.gseis.ucla.
A. Rafik Mohamed
The attempt to end the practice of separating children of different races into distinct public schools.
Beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case of brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the United States' legal system has sought to address the problem of racial segregation, or separation, in public schools. In Brown, a unanimous Supreme Court found that segregating children of different races in distinct schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the fourteenth amendment, which guarantees that "[n]o state shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws" (§ 1). In writing the Court's opinion, Chief Justice earl warren stressed the crucial role education plays in socializing children, and he maintained that racial segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority" in children that will limit their opportunities in life. A related decision, Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955), (Brown II), empowered lower courts to supervise desegregation in local school districts and held that desegregation must proceed "with all deliberate speed."
A number of Supreme Court decisions in the decades since Brown have further defined the constitutional claims regarding desegregation first set forth in Brown. In many cases, these decisions have resulted in court-imposed desegregation plans, sometimes involving controversial provisions for busing students to schools outside their immediate neighborhood. Despite such judicial actions, desegregation in the United States achieved mixed success. Although many more children attend school with children of other races now than in 1954, in numerous cities, racial segregation in education remains as high as ever. Faced with the challenges of shifting populations, segregated housing patterns, impatient courts, and the stubborn persistence of racism, comprehensive school desegregation—long a hoped-for remedy to past discrimination against African Americans—remains an elusive goal.
1954–1970: School Desegregation After Brown
Brown and Brown II inspired a great deal of hope that the races would soon be joined in public schools and that the United States would take a giant step toward healing the racial animosities of its past. thurgood marshall, an African American who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund in its challenge to school segregation in Brown and later became a justice of the Supreme Court, predicted that after Brown, schools would be completely desegregated within six months.
Marshall's statement proved to be wildly optimistic. By 1964, ten years after Brown, a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) study indicated that only 2.4 percent of African Americans in the South were attending largely white schools. Such statistics indicated that Brown had led to only token integration. By the mid-1960s, many observers felt that the Supreme Court, and the United States as a whole, had lost an opportunity to more quickly create a desegregated society. De facto segregation (segregation in fact or actuality)—as opposed to de jure segregation (segregation by law)—remained a stubborn reality, and racism remained its leading cause. Whites who did not want their children attending school with children of another race found many ways to avoid desegregation, from gerrymandering school boundaries (adjusting school boundaries to their advantage) to manipulating school transportation and construction policies. And in a phenomenon dubbed white flight, many transferred their children to private schools or simply moved to suburbs where few, if any, nonwhites lived.
Congress joined the Supreme Court in its efforts to assist desegregation, by passing the civil rights act of 1964 (28 U.S.C.A. § 1447, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1971, 1975a to 1975d, 2000a to 2000h-6). Among its many features, the act authorized HEW to create specific guidelines with which to measure the progress of school desegregation. In 1966, for example, these guidelines called for specific levels of integration: 16 to 18 percent of African–American children in all school districts must be attending predominantly white schools. The act also allowed HEW to cut off federal funding to school districts that did not meet integration guidelines. However, this punishment proved difficult to use as a means of enforcement.
In the mid-1960s, a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, john minor wisdom, issued a number of influential opinions that strengthened the cause of racial integration of schools. Wisdom's rulings established that it was not enough simply to end segregation; instead, school districts must actively implement desegregation. In one of these cases, United States v. Jefferson Board of Education, 372 F.2d 836 (5th Cir. 1966), he wrote, "[T]he only adequate redress for a previously overt system-wide policy of segregation directed against Negroes as a collective entity is a system-wide policy of integration." Wisdom's ruling also detailed measures that the school district must take toward the goal of integration, including deciding how children were to be informed of the schools available to them for attendance, where new schools must be constructed, where transportation routes must run, and how faculty and staff were to be hired and assigned.
In 1968, the Supreme Court again addressed the issue of school desegregation, in Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716, which dealt with the schools of New Kent County, a rural area in eastern Virginia. In its opinion, the Court acknowledged that the integration guidelines set forth in Brown II had not produced adequate results. School districts such as those of New Kent County—where in 1967, 85 percent of black children still attended an all-black school—had avoided meaningful integration. It was not enough, the Court argued, to simply end segregation and allow a "freedom-of-choice" plan—by which African–American children supposedly had the freedom to attend predominantly white schools—to be the only means of combining the races in an educational setting. In comments during Court hearings on the case, Chief Justice Warren noted that though the "fence" of outright segregation had been taken down, socially constructed "booby traps" still prevented most children from attending integrated schools.
Green also introduced two concepts—dual school systems and unitary school systems—that remain a part of the school desegregation debate. A dual school system is a segregated school system. In other words, it consists of separate segments—one black, the other white— existing side by side but with widely different educational conditions and outcomes. The Court in Green identified six indicators of a dual
system: racial separation of students, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities. A unitary school system, on the other hand, is racially integrated at every level. In a later ruling, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19, 90 S. Ct. 29, 24 L. Ed. 2d 19 (1969), the Court described a unitary system as one "within which no person is to be effectively excluded from any school because of race or color."
Even more important, in its opinion in Green, the Court held that New Kent County would be expected to immediately begin remedying the lasting effects of segregation. "The burden on a school board today," the Court said, "is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now" (Green). Thus, the Court abandoned its previous position that school desegregation must proceed "with all deliberate speed" in favor of a call for immediate and prompt action.
The Court also held that the Fourteenth Amendment required action to remedy past racial discrimination—or what has come to be called affirmative action. It found an "affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch" (Green). Moreover, school boards would have to provide meaningful statistical evidence that their school district was moving toward the goal of integration.
In a footnote to its opinion, the Court advanced suggestions for achieving school desegregation, including combining all children in a particular age range, white and black, into the same building.
Green and subsequent judicial decisions through 1970 caused a remarkable change in school desegregation. By 1971, HEW statistics indicated that the South had become the most racially integrated region in the United States. HEW estimated that 44 percent of African– American students attended majority white schools in the South, as opposed to 28 percent in the North and West. In many communities, however, these changes resulted in white flight. In Mississippi, for example, white public school enrollment dropped between 25 and 100 percent in the 30 school districts with the highest black enrollment.
The 1970s: Swann and Busing
In swann v. charlotte-mecklenburg board of education, 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed. 2d 554 (1971), the focus of school desegregation shifted from largely rural school districts to urban ones, a change of scene that offered new challenges to desegregation. In the rural South before the Brown decision, blacks and whites lived largely in the same communities or areas, and requiring that their children attend the same neighborhood schools could resolve segregation. In urban settings, however, blacks and whites lived in different neighborhoods, so combining the two races in the same schools meant transporting children, usually by bus, to institutions that were often far from their homes.
In Swann, the Court took the final step toward making busing a part of school desegregation plans, by giving the lower courts power to impose it as a means for achieving integration. Swann involved the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, in North Carolina, a district in which African Americans made up 29 percent of the student body. After the Supreme Court's decision in Green, a federal district judge ruled that the school district had not achieved adequate levels of integration: 14,000 of the 24,000 African–American students still attended schools that were all black, and most of the 24,000 did not have any white teachers. The judge called for the adoption of a desegregation plan that involved busing 13,300 additional children at an initial start-up cost of over $1 million.
The Busing Debate
Busing is a plan for promoting school desegregation, by which minority students are transported to largely white schools and white students are brought to largely minority schools. It is intended to safeguard the civil rights of students and to provide equal opportunity in public education. Busing is also an example of affirmative action—that is, the attempt to undo or compensate for the effects of past discrimination. Such action is sometimes called compensatory justice.
Busing was first enacted as part of school desegregation programs in response to federal court decisions establishing that racial segregation of public schools violates the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. In Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716 (1968), and swann v. charlotte-mecklenburg board of education, 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed. 2d 554 (1971), the Supreme Court established that federal courts could require school districts to implement busing programs as a means of achieving racial integration of public schools.
However, busing was nothing new in U.S. education. Even before these decisions, nearly 40 percent of the nation's schoolchildren were bused to school. And before 1954, when the Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, children were often bused to segregated schools that were beyond walking distance from their homes.
With the Supreme Court decisions in Green and Swann, busing became one of the most controversial topics in U.S. law and politics, particularly in the 1970s. Although the zeal for busing as a remedy for past racial injustice had waned greatly by the 1990s, busing remained a feature—if many times a limited one—of most school desegregation programs and continued to inspire heated debate.
Those who are in favor of busing claim, as did the Supreme Court in Green and Swann, that racial integration in and of itself is a worthy social goal and that busing is an effective means of achieving that goal in public education. Supporters point to the harmful legacy of segregation in education. Before Brown, African-American children were schooled in separate facilities that were usually inferior to the facilities used by whites, despite official claims that they were equal. Such segregation worked to keep African Americans at a disadvantage in relation to whites. It instilled feelings of inferiority in African–American children and seriously diminished their educational achievement and opportunities.
Supporters of busing also often claim that de facto (actual) segregation exists even decades after the civil rights movement and the striking down of racial segregation laws, which occurred in the 1960s. A largely white, wealthy upper class and a largely minority, poor under-class, they argue, are transported, employed, housed, and educated in different settings. Often wealthy people live in the suburbs, and the poor live in the cities. Growing up in their separate neighborhoods, children from higher socioeconomic levels thus have many advantages that poorer children do not: more space at home, better nutrition and health care, greater cultural and intellectual stimulation, and friends and acquaintances with higher social status providing better job and career prospects. Some even compare the isolation of impoverished minorities in the United States' inner cities with that of impoverished blacks under South Africa's former apartheid system.
Advocates of desegregation through busing assert that these existing inequalities must not become greater and that desegregation in education will go a long way toward ending them and creating a more just society. They also point out that U.S. education has historically worked to ensure a society in which class hierarchy is minimized and social mobility—both upward and downward—is maximized. Busing, they argue, will therefore help avoid the creation of a permanent underclass in the United States.
Supporters of busing also maintain that it is an affordable way to achieve school desegregation. While admitting that the initial start-up costs of a busing program can be large, they point to statistics that indicate the operating costs of compulsory busing are generally less than five percent of a school district's entire budget.
Those who oppose busing make a variety of different points against it, although they do not necessarily oppose integration itself. Opponents claim that busing serves as a distraction from more important educational goals such as quality of instruction. Busing, they hold, too easily becomes a case of form over substance, in which the form of racial integration of education becomes of greater value than the substance of what is actually taught in schools. Critics of busing would rather focus on the environment in a school and in its classrooms than on achieving a particular number of each race in a school. Justice lewis f. powell jr. echoed these sentiments in an opinion to a school desegregation case, Keyes v. Denver School District, 413 U.S. 189, 93 S. Ct. 2686, 37 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1973). In Keyes, he wrote that in an era of declining student achievement, it is wrong to turn the attention of communities "from the paramount goal of quality in education to a perennially divisive debate over who is to be transported where."
Critics also claim that busing causes white flight—where whites move their children from integrated public schools to private and suburban schools that are largely white—which results in an even greater disparity between white and black, rich and poor. According to this scenario, busing only exacerbates the current situation, making public schools and cities even more the exclusive province of the poor.
Some noted experts on the issue of busing have concluded that although they favor a society that is racially integrated, the social costs of busing and the resulting white flight are too high. Others have sought a middle ground on the issue by arguing that judges should choose carefully the districts in which they decide to implement busing. For example, they claim that white flight is more likely to occur in communities and schools where whites form a small minority, and that as a result, busing has higher social costs in such districts.
Another prominent complaint in the anti-busing opinion is that court-ordered busing programs represent an abuse of judicial power. According to this view, busing is an example of undesirable judicial activism. The large-scale social changes caused by transporting thousands of children many miles each day should be imposed only by an elected body of representatives such as a state legislature or Congress. Moreover, adherents of this view argue that supervising school desegregation programs only bogs down the courts and takes time away from other pressing legal matters.
Critics of busing also point out that many times, the same court that requires busing does not provide guidance as to funding it, thereby creating financial headaches for school districts. Related to this issue is the claim that busing is too costly, especially when school districts are forced to purchase new buses in order to start a busing program. In financially strapped school districts, spending on busing sometimes takes away funding for other educational priorities.
Some of those who oppose busing favor racial desegregation but do not view busing as a good way to achieve that goal. Instead, they support a gradualist approach to social reform. According to the gradualist view, it will take generations to achieve the goal of racial desegregation in education and in society as a whole. Busing only interferes with the overall goal of integration, because of the sudden and disruptive changes—including white flight—that it imposes on society.
Others oppose busing on the ground that neighborhood schools are the best way to educate children. In this camp are both those in favor of racial integration in education and those against it. Neighborhood schools, it is argued, allow parents to have a greater influence on their child's education by making it easier, for example, to visit the school and speak with a teacher. Such schools also give children a sense of identity and instill pride in their community. Busing children to a school across town, they argue, will not inspire pride in their school. Advocates of neighborhood schools also point to statistics that indicate that bused students are more alienated from their school and thus experience greater problems, including poorer academic performance and increased delinquency.
An even more fundamental question related to busing is whether racial integration is in itself a valuable goal for public schools. Those who take opposite sides on this question marshal different sociological evidence. In the 1950s and 1960s the Supreme Court was influenced by the "contact" theory of racial integration. According to this theory, the better one knows those of another race, the more one is able to get along with them. Sociologists reasoned, therefore, that integrated schools would increase understanding between the races and lower racial tensions.
In the same years, many studies claimed to show that racial integration would boost the self-esteem, academic achievement, and ultimately opportunities and choices of members of minorities. For example, a well-known report issued by sociologist James S. Coleman in 1966, Equality of Educational Opportunity, concluded that minority children improve their academic performance when they attend classes where middle-class white pupils are the majority. Coleman's report also claimed that the most important indicator of the academic performance of minority and lower-class students is the educational level of their classmates. The report was seized upon by many as a reason to institute court-imposed busing plans for school districts.
By the 1970s and later, other sociologists challenged the liberal theories that school desegregation would lead to greater racial harmony and improved academic performance by African Americans. Coleman, too, became more skeptical about busing and argued that voluntary programs were more effective than government-imposed plans in achieving school desegregation. Others went so far as to claim that integration only increases hostility and tensions between the races. African–American students who are bused, they argued, experience a decline in their educational achievement in school. Some studies have in fact shown that students who are bused grow more rather than less hostile toward the other race or races. In addition, some studies have indicated that in many schools where the desired percentages of races have been achieved through busing, students interact largely with those of their own race and thus segregation within the school prevents true desegregation.
By 2003 the anti-busing viewpoint appeared to have prevailed. During the 1990s federal courts released many school districts from supervision by declaring these districts free of the taint of state-imposed segregation. The 1999 release of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district from court supervision was a symbolic moment, marking the end of an almost 30 year experiment in which the courts used busing to attempt the desegregation of public schools. That same year the Boston public schools, which had endured years of conflict over busing, ended race-based admissions and its busing program. Even cities such as Seattle, which voluntarily adopted a busing program in the 1970s, abandoned the practice in 1999.
"Judge Orders End to Busing in N.C. School District." 1999. Minneapolis Star Tribune (September 11).
Kluger, Richard. 1974. Simple Justice. New York: Knopf.
The Supreme Court upheld the district court's plans. Just as in Brown II, it gave school authorities and district judges primary responsibility for school desegregation. This time, however, the Court provided more guidance. To create desegregated schools, it encouraged faculty reassignment; the redrawing of school attendance zones; and an optional, publicly funded transfer program for minority students. Most important, the Court recommended mandatory busing to achieve desegregation. It did note that busing could be excessive when it involved especially great distances. It also hinted at an end to court-imposed desegregation plans, saying, "Neither school authorities nor district courts are constitutionally required to make year-by-year adjustments of the racial composition of student bodies" (Brown II). In Court decisions decades later, these words would be cited in support of ending court-supervised school desegregation programs.
As a result of Swann, throughout the 1970s, courts ordered busing to achieve desegregation in many city school districts, including Boston, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. However, Swann was one of the last desegregation opinions in which all nine justices were in complete agreement. The Court's unanimity on the issue of school desegregation, which had been the rule in every decision since Brown, broke down in the next major case, Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 94 S. Ct. 3112, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1069 (1974).
Milliken shifted the scene of school desegregation from the South to the North—specifically, to Detroit. In Milliken, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether courts could bus suburban pupils to desegregate inner-city schools. The case dealt with federal district judge Stephen Roth's decision to join the Detroit School District with 53 of the city's 85 outlying suburbs in a desegregation decree. The proposed plan would have created a metropolitan school district with 780,000 students, of which 310,000 would be bused daily to achieve desegregation goals. The shocked white community, much like others in the South, and its elected representatives denounced the plan.
Detroit reflected the situation of many U.S. cities. Although African Americans made up only 23 percent of the city's population in 1970, they constituted 61 percent of its school-age population. Whites were underrepresented in the inner-city public schools for various reasons. Young white married couples, who constituted the demographic group most likely to have school-age children, were also the most likely to move to the suburbs. The whites who did live in the cities tended to be older people, singles, and childless couples. Urban whites who did have school-age children often sent them to private schools.
Such a situation caused Judge Roth to ask the question, "How do you desegregate a black city, or a black school system?" (Milliken). Busing within city limits alone would still leave many schools 75 to 90 percent black. The only solution was one that took into consideration the entire metropolitan area of Detroit by joining the city school district with the surrounding suburban school districts.
In support of this position, Judge Roth argued that a variety of causes had led to the concentration of blacks in ghettos. Governments, he wrote in his opinion, "at all levels, federal, state and local, have combined, with … private organizations, such as loaning institutions and real estate associations and brokerage firms, to establish … residential segregation throughout the Detroit metropolitan area" (Bradley). Residential segregation had resulted from a whole variety of types of discrimination that caused African Americans and members of other minorities to live in segregated neighborhoods and, as a result, attend segregated schools. Thus, Roth framed his metropolitan school desegregation plan as a remedy for past discriminatory conduct.
Judge Roth's plan promised to promote class as well as racial interaction, complicating still further the issue of desegregation. Mixing of the different classes of U.S. society became as much a goal of desegregation decrees as did mixing of different races. Such a plan, its proponents argued, might also remedy the funding inequities between different school districts and even end white flight.
In 1974, by a vote of 5–4, the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken that Judge Roth had wrongly included the suburbs with the city in his desegregation decree. The district court's plan, the Court held, could only be justified if de jure segregation existed in outlying suburbs; remedies to past discriminatory conduct must be limited to Detroit, since it was the only district that had such policies. Disagreeing with Roth, the Court also held that state housing practices were not relevant to the case. Writing the Court's opinion, Chief Justice warren e. burger argued for local control of school districts, over court control: "No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought
essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for public schools and to the quality of the educational process."
Many saw the Milliken decision as the first Supreme Court defeat for the cause of school desegregation. Some, including Justice Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Court, interpreted Milliken as an abandonment of the cause of racial justice. "Today's holding, …" Marshall wrote in his dissenting opinion, "is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough in enforcing the Constitution's guarantee of equal justice than it is the product of neutral principles of law." Supporters of the decision, on the other hand, pointed to the myriad potential problems a plan like Roth's might impose, including greater bureaucratic red tape, more white flight, and even greater racial tensions.
The 1980s and After
In the 1980s, the attitude of the public and of the courts toward activist school desegregation programs—and toward other forms of affirmative action, for that matter—became more skeptical and sometimes even hostile. Courts began to require that busing, for example, be used as a remedy only in school districts where there had been "deliberate" or "intentional" segregation. A large busing program that had been begun in Los Angeles in 1978 was ended in 1981 through a statewide referendum that banned compulsory busing except in districts where there had been deliberate segregation. By the late 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court, now having the influence of more conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents ronald reagan and george h. w. bush, established that court-ordered desegregation decrees, including busing plans, could end short of specific statistical goals of integration when everything "practicable" had been done to eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination.
Two court decisions in the early 1990s—Board of Education v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1991), which dealt with the Oklahoma City School District, and Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108 (1992), which covered the schools of DeKalb County, Georgia—addressed the manner in which court supervision of school districts and their desegregation programs might end. In Freeman, the Court identified three factors that may be used in such determinations: (1) whether the school system has complied with the desegregation decree's provisions, (2) whether continued judicial control is necessary or practicable to achieve compliance with any aspect of the decree, and (3) whether the school system has demonstrated to the once-disfavored race its good faith commitment to the whole of the decree. Ultimately, the school system must be held to have engaged in a good faith effort to comply with any judicially supervised desegregation program, and to have eliminated to the extent practicable any vestiges of discrimination. Freeman also established that courts may end desegregation decrees in incremental stages, gradually returning administrative functions and decisions to local authorities.
In another case—Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70, 115 S. Ct. 2038, 132 L. Ed. 2d 63 (1995), which dealt with the Kansas City (Missouri) School District—the Court stopped just short of ending judicial supervision of desegregation programs. However, the decision did strike down two requirements imposed by a district court on the state of Missouri, declaring them outside that court's authority. Those two requirements would have attempted to improve the "desegregative attractiveness"—in this case, the ability to attract white students from the suburban school districts—of the school district by requiring the state to fund salary increases for all staff in the school district, as well as "quality education" programs, including magnet schools. Such "interdistrict" remedies, the Court held, are beyond the scope of the district court. The Court, citing Milliken, disagreed with the contention that white flight justifies an interdistrict remedy to segregation. The Court also rejected student test scores as evidence for determining whether a school district has adequately responded to judicial desegregation decrees.
Those who supported these decisions saw them as returning to local authorities their proper control over their schools. They also saw these decisions as guiding the courts back to a more proper and limited social role. The courts, they argued, should not be engaged in programs of "social engineering." Others, both black and white, simply abandoned desegregation as a goal and instead focused on improving neighborhood schools, even when those schools remain largely segregated.
Critics of these decisions have seen them as a step backward for the civil rights of minorities in the United States. Such decisions, they argued, merely perpetuated racism by returning school districts to those who often do not share the goal of creating racially integrated public schools. Others have argued that the changing pattern in the judicial response to desegregation has been caused by the legal system's exhaustion and impatience in the face of complex and protracted desegregation plans. Accustomed to seeing more rapid results, district courts, according to this argument, have been eager to return the control of school districts to local authorities.
Others have argued that the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation have ignored the effect of discriminatory housing patterns. They have maintained that without a change in segregated housing patterns, desegregation, whether in schools or in the larger society, cannot be achieved. They claim that by ignoring housing as an issue, the Supreme Court enabled white America to escape its responsibilities in creating the urban ghetto.
Still others have argued that school desegregation can yet be achieved through the court system, maintaining that social change of the kind required for true desegregation will take many years. In the mid-1990s, organizations such as the american civil liberties union began to focus on making the case for school desegregation on the state rather than federal level. Some state constitutions, they pointed out, contain language more conducive to their cause. Connecticut's constitution, for example, declares that no person "shall … be subjected to segregation" (Conn. Const. art. 1, § 20), and Minnesota's requires that all students be given an adequate education. Lawsuits based on state constitutions have met with mixed success, prevailing in Connecticut but failing in Minnesota.
By 2003 most school districts had been released from federal court supervision. In addition, school districts had abandoned busing to achieve desegregation. The Minneapolis, Minnesota school district, which has a predominantly non-white student population, dropped busing in the late 1990s, opting instead to emphasize strong neighborhood schools. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which was at the center of the school busing controversy, ended its busing program after a federal judge ended supervision in 1999. School desegregation has not been the panacea that it was claimed to be in the heady days of Brown. Though significant success in integration has been achieved, as of 2003 there was little evidence that comprehensive school desegregation would come any time soon.
Farrown, Connie. 1999. "School Desegregation Deal Approved." Associated Press (March 12).
Hansen, Chris. 1993. "Are the Courts Giving Up? Current Issues in School Desegregation." Emory Law Journal 42 (summer).
"Judge Orders End to Busing in N.C. School District." 1999. Minneapolis Star Tribune (September 11).
Keynes, Edward, with Randall K. Miller. 1989. The Courts vs. Congress: Prayer, Busing, and Abortion. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.
Kluger, Richard. 2004. Simple Justice. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf.
Orfield, Gary, and David Thronson. 1993. "Dismantling Desegregation: Uncertain Gains, Unexpected Costs." Emory Law Journal 42 (summer).
Whitman, Mark, ed. 1997. The Irony of Desegregation Law, 1955–1995: Essays and Documents. Princeton, N.J.: M. Wiener.
Wilkinson, J. Harvie, III. 1979. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
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.
Arnez, Nancy. 1978. "Implementation of Desegregation as a Discriminatory Process." Journal of Negro Education 47: 28–45.
Bell, Derrick, ed. 1980. Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation. New York: Teachers College 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.