Current State of Desegregation

Suggested Readings:

Resegregation in American Schools: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University

Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University

"Did Brown matter? On the fiftieth anniversary of the fabled desegregation case, not everyone is celebrating, Cass R. Sunstein, The New Yorker p. 102 (May 3, 2004)

AUDIO: Charles Ogletree -- on Tavis Smiley Show

Rewriting Brown v. Board of Education: Here is What the Decision Should Have Said, Cass R. Sunstein, National Constitution Center

Supreme Court's Retreat from Brown's Principles and the Resegregation of Public Schools

The tide turned against desegregation of public schools in Milliken v. Bradley.[1]  In Milliken, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a federal court order imposing a multidistrict desegregation order encompassing the city of Detroit and fifty eight surrounding suburban communities.[2]  The order sought to remedy de facto segregation in the Detroit public schools though there was no evidence that the suburban school districts had engaged in de jure segregation.[3]  The district court found that, given the racial composition of Detroit’s urban and suburban areas, integrating students from the inner city with those from the surrounding suburbs would be the only realistic way to integrate the school system.[4]  The Court of Appeals affirmed reasoning that excluding suburban school districts from desegregation efforts would render any desegregation within the Detroit city limits ineffective because most of Detroit’s public schools were black and most of the suburban schools are white.[5]  The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the scope of integration remedies is limited to individual school districts that previously engaged in de jure segregation.[6]  Because the plaintiffs presented no evidence of prior de jure discrimination in the suburban school districts, the Court held than an inter-district remedy extended beyond the district court’s remedial powers.[7] 

More recent Supreme Court decisions have shifted the focus away from discrimination and segregation choosing instead to focus on the intended temporary nature of district court supervision of desegregation in public schools.  Specifically, in Freeman v. Pitts, the Court noted that the goal of district courts is to remedy violations but also “to restore state and local authorities to the control of a school system that is operating in compliance with the Constitution.” [8]  In Freeman, the court held that a district court may relinquish its supervision over aspects of a school system where there has been compliance with the remedial desegregation order, even if there has been noncompliance in other areas.[9]  In essence, the Freeman decision enables school systems to return to segregation without violating the law so long as they demonstrate that they have made “good faith effort” to comply with the requirements of desegregation plans to the extent they have done everything “practicable” to remedy the effects of a dual system of segregated schools.[10] 

The regression of integration and emphasis on local control culminated in Missouri v. Jenkins.[11]  In Jenkins the Court held that remedies implemented by the district court went beyond the scope of its remedial authority.[12]  Specifically, the Court determined that although student achievement levels in the district were below the national norm, improved achievement on test scores is not necessarily required for the State to achieve partial unitary status as to the quality education programs…”[13]  The Court further opinioned that several factors which affected test performance of minority students were outside of the school board’s control, and that remedies should not be guided by factors not a result of segregation.  Jenkins effectively changed the landscape of school desegregation cases in that it expressly pronounced the judiciary’s predilection of maintaining local school district autonomy over racial integration.

Over fifty years have passed since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision eradicated de jure segregation in America’s public schools.  Persistent opposition to Brown by those committed to the maintenance of racial segregation delayed effective desegregation nearly a decade.  Throughout the years, opposition to Brown has taken a variety of forms.  Most notably, the Supreme Court which once ardently sustained Brown’s egalitarian proclamations ultimately abandoned the decision’s goals and instead rendered case law to ensure control of public schools be returned to local boards.  The Supreme Court’s desertion of integrative ideals trickled to the nation’s federal courts as they fervently dissolved desegregation schemes in public schools without regard to whether integration had actually been achieved.  In light of the Supreme Court’s retreat from the goals of Brown and growing resistance of federal courts to enforce desegregation orders, it is plausible that we have reached the end of the desegregation era. 


[1] Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974)

[2] Milliken, 418 U.S. at 722-23


[4] Milliken v. Bradley, 345 F. Supp. 914, 918 (1972)

[5] Bradley v. Milliken, 484 F.2d 215, 263 (1973)

[6] Milliken, 418 U.S. at 745

[7] Id.

[8] Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (1992)

[9] Freeman, 503 U.S. at 490-491

[10] Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (U.S. 1992)

[11] Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70, 102 (1995)

[12] Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. at 92

[13]Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. at 101

[14] Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955); W. E. B. Du Bois, "Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?," Journal of Negro Education, 4 (July 1935), in The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (New York, 1996), 431.

[16] See Hampton v. Jefferson County Bd. of Educ., 102 F. Supp. 2d 358 (D. Ky. 2000)

[17] Public Agenda, Time to Move On: African Americans and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools

[18] Williston High:  Dedicated teachers.  Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High Expectations. Community and parental support.  See Thomas Sowell, Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Patterns of Black Excellence

[19] See Jonathan Tilove, Newhouse News Services

[20] Journal of Negro Education, A Traditional Model of Education Excellence: Dunbar High School of Little Rock, Arkansas.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. Of Educ., 111 F.3d at 535-36

[25] Drew S. Days III, Redefining Equality, Brown Blues: Rethinking the Integrative Ideal, Oxford University Press (1998)

[26] Id.