Brown at 50

Are Schools Returning to the 1950s?

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If the U.S. Supreme Court justices who is­sued Brown and Brown II were to survey the last half century, what would they see?

They ordered that desegregation be initiated “with all deliberate speed,” yet they understood that many school districts would be more intent on finding ways to subvert than to implement the court’s mandate to eliminate racial separation in public education.

But could they have imagined 50 years later that some school districts’ desegregation plans would still be under court supervision? Did they have any idea of the intract­ability of some hurdles to integration—not only overt resistance but also geography, economics and competing interests for government dollars?

On the other hand, could they have imagined some of the successes of their monumental opinion: That in many schools and communities, children of different races and ethnicities attend school, play sports and frolic together on playgrounds? After all, for many children, the idea that this togetherness is noteworthy is as foreign as the concept of legal segregation.

One effect the court would likely notice, and that a Harvard University study documents this year, is the reversal in the rate of desegregation. In fact, after a peak in school integration in the late 1980s, there was a slow decline in many states.


Experts are calling the phenomenon resegregation —a polarizing of the racial mix in public schools. Many schools remain populated by students of a single race, with only a handful of students of other races in attendance. That’s not enough, say critics, to allow whites or minorities the full flavor of an integrated school system.

“We’ve lost our target,” says Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. “This is not the world that Justice [Thurgood] Marshall and [Charles Hamilton] Houston imagined.”

Indeed, integration at many public schools waned in the 1990s as courts ended their supervision of many districts’ desegregation programs, according to the study, “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare,” issued in January by the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

The study encompasses the decade since the Supreme Court issued Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237 (1991), which held that desegregation decrees “are not meant to operate in perpetuity.” Dowell said that in determining wheth­er to dissolve a decree, courts should look at wheth­er school districts have complied in good faith and whether discrim­ination has been eliminated “to the extent practicable.”

In some instances, the end of court supervision meant the district was integrated. In others, however, it represented a recognition that desegregation efforts had plateaued and further efforts would not significantly increase racial diversity, the study suggests.

“The courts assumed that the forces that produced segregation and inequality had been cured. This report shows they have not been,” says Gary Orfield, a professor of education and public policy at Harvard and one of the authors of the study.

The study offers some telling statistics. In the South, the percentage of black students in majority white schools rose from none in 1954 to a high of 43.5 percent in 1988. The percentages decline after that, to 30.2 percent in 2001.

In addition, in 1968, 77.8 percent of black students in the South attended schools with 90 percent to 100 percent minority enrollments. The figure dropped to 24 percent in 1988, but then rose to 31 percent in 2001. Other regions, except the Northeast, show similar trends.

The Harvard study also considers the status of the four school districts represented in Brown. The results of desegregation efforts are mixed, the study says. In Topeka, Kan., home of case namesake Linda Brown, whites comprised about 59 percent of students in 1991. By 2001, the percentage dropped to 51, as Latino students began to appear in significant numbers in the Topeka district. The district’s court-ordered desegregation monitoring plan was ended in 1999.

In Delaware, a 1980 Supreme Court-approved solution yielded a combined city-suburban school district in the Wilmington area that was later divided into four pie-shaped districts, each of which included city and suburban areas. Though the percentage of white students in each district fell during the 1990s, all districts maintained at least a 60-40 racial mix of black-to-white students by 2001. The cross-district solution in this case made Del­aware one of the most integrated states in the country in terms in public education.

In Prince Edward County, Va., from 1959 to 1964, segregationists closed all public schools in the county rather than integrate them. In 1964, the Supreme Court ordered the county to reopen its public schools, but for years they remained mostly all black because whites continued to attend private schools. But, after one of the county’s prominent private schools closed, the public schools showed a surge in integration. By the 1990s, whites made up about 39 percent of public school students, a figure that remained steady through 2001, the last year of the Harvard study.

Things turned out less rosy in Claren­don County, S.C., however. The school district there also saw most white students flee to private schools in the immediate aftermath of Brown. Unlike Prince Edward County, though, the private schools in Clarendon County remain the primary educators of white students. By 2001, the public schools were about 95 percent black, a figure down only 4 percentage points from the peak of 99 percent black enrollment in 1991.

Experts are hard-pressed to identify a cause for the trend. “The problem of resegregation is that it’s multifaceted without the ability to specify one factor,” says Ogle­tree, who heads an ABA commission celebrating the anni­versary of Brown. “You have urban flight—whites going to the suburbs. What’s left is minorities with few options in all-minority schools. Then there’s choice. In some middle-class black communities, it’s seen as a good thing culturally to have an all-black school.”

One hurdle to desegregation came in the 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717. The Supreme Court found that forced desegregation across city and suburban school district boundaries was unreasonable where only the city district is found to have violated desegregation laws.

Justice Marshall, who argued Brown two decades earlier, dissented in Milliken, saying: “We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future. Unless our children begin to learn together there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

As a result of the ruling, many districts turned to magnet schools and voluntary desegregation programs to try to draw suburban whites into urban districts where virtually the entire pool of students was made up of low-income minorities. Suburban districts also opened their doors to minority students from inner city neighborhoods. These programs had varying degrees of success, due in large part to the long distances students had to travel to school to participate.

Ogletree says that to reverse the decline in integrated schools, Mil­liken should be overturned, despite the practical difficulties imposed by inter-district desegregation.

“Desegregation is always difficult, inconvenient and painful,” he says. “There must be mutual desegregation that spreads the inconvenience around to both black and white families for the greater good. There will always be resistance, but these things must be overcome.”


Orfield identifies a misperception of the societal need for desegregation. He says, in an increasingly pluralistic society, lack of familiarity with others’ perspectives will limit the ability of students of all races to compete successfully and live harmoniously when they are adults.

“We need to talk to parents. We need a vigorous campaign to white parents in particular about why their kids are disadvantaged if they attend a segregated school. We need to give the public a lot of information about why we need this—the benefits of desegregation,” says Orfield.

That reframing of the issue, from the rights of minority students to the best interests of all students, and of society at large, is key to jump-starting the dormant desegregation enforcement system, says Orfield.

He cites the Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bol­linger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), as indicative of the shift in thinking. In Grutter, the court recognized a compelling interest on the part of school authorities for diversity in the classroom in upholding an affirmative action admissions policy at the University of Michigan law school.

But even as scholars such as Ogletree and Orfield argue that the key to achieving integration is a reinvigoration of enforcement efforts, others argue that tactics such as man­datory busing are unworkable and unreasonable.

Instead, alternatives such as school choice are the key to better education for all, says Richard Komer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy organization. The institute has represented advocates of school voucher programs in many communities across the country.

“School choice offers an alternative in that private schools are considerably more integrated than most urban public school districts can be,” says Komer.

Komer says courts have struggled for years to define what constitutes an integrated school. Many have used proportionality tests that hold the percentages of each race of students in the majority of schools should be approximately proportionate to their representation in the district as a whole.

So, a district that is 60 percent white, 30 percent black and 10 percent Latino should represent those approximate proportions of the student bodies in the majority of the district’s schools.

The proportionality measure has obvious drawbacks, says Komer, especially in districts where a very high percentage of students are of one race, such as blacks in the South and in large urban cities in the North, and Latinos in many parts of the West and Southwest.

“Private schools, integrated through school choice programs, approximate the ideal of racial integration far closer than public schools in urban areas,” he says. But Orfield disputes the efficacy of programs such as vouchers to achieve integration. All students are entitled to a free public education, he says. That includes students whose parents may be unable or unwilling to place them in a voucher program. It also means students for whom the only local private schools are run by religious institutions whose beliefs vary from their own.

On a deeper level, both Orfield and Ogletree say that merely achieving a sort of economic integration that voucher programs promote by giving poor parents the opportunity to make private school affordable does not resolve the question of integration. It’s entirely possible that if more poor children had the opportunity to choose private schools, many private schools would end up segregated, they say.

“Economics can’t explain racial segregation. Middle-class blacks and whites don’t live in the same neighborhoods in most cities. Why? It’s not about money. These are deeply rooted systems of stratification,” Orfield says.

So what do the next 50 years hold for public education in America? Orfield says that question is very much in the balance.

“We can go back, or we can go forward. It depends on who is in office and how the issues are framed,” he says.

Ogletree agrees. He’d like to see congressional action recognizing the fundamental right of every child to an education adequate to prepare him or her for life and work. “This is not rocket science. It’s harder than that,” he says. “We salute the flag and talk abut ideals, but when it comes to implementing them we fall short. Ultimately it takes moral courage by our leaders to get to the heart of addressing the problem.”

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