School Desegregation Research Paper

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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).

The Postdesegregation Era

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.

White Flight, and Parochial and Private Schools

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 nonHispanic white. However, in the 2001–2002 school year, only about 60 percent of public school children were nonHispanic 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.

Steering, Redlining, and other Forms of Housing Discrimination

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.

Changes in the Court

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).

School Segregation in the Twenty-First Century

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 [1931] and Mendez v. Westminster [1946]), 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).


  1. Asimov, Nanette. 2004. Brown vs. Board of Education: 50 Years Later. San Francisco Chronicle. May 16.
  2. Blau, Judith R. 2003. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  3. Brown, Kevin. 2005. Race, Law, and Education in the PostDesegregation Era: Four Perspectives on Desegregation and Resegregation. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Delgado, Grace Pena, and Troy R. Johnson. 2005. The Ethnic Experience in the United States. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  7. Dudziak, Mary L. 1988–1989. Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative. Stanford Law Review 4: 61–120.
  8. Feagin, Joe R., Hernán Vera, and Nikitah Imani. 1996. The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities. New York: Routledge.
  9. Frankenberg, Erika, and Chungmei Lee. 2002. Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating School Districts. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University. reseg_schools02.php.
  10. Iceland, John, Daniel Weinberg, and Erika Steinmetz. 2002. Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980–2000. housing/housing_patterns/pdf/censr-3.pdf
  11. Irons, Peter. 2002. Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking.
  12. Kozol, Jonathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Crown.
  13. Kozol, Jonathan. 2005. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown.
  14. Lewis, Amanda E. 2003. Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  15. Orfield, Gary, and Chungmei Lee. 2006. Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University. http://www.civilrightsproject.
  16. 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. edu/publications/idea/index.html.

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