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School Desegregation

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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 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.

Further Readings

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.

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