In the years leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools were both unequal and racially segregated—by law in the South and in practice in the Northeast and West. In 1950, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), long concerned with education, decided to mount a direct challenge to state-sanctioned segregation in schooling. The result was the Brown case, which joined together lawsuits begun by Black parents and students in Delaware, Washington, D.C., South Carolina, Virginia, and Kansas. Many of these plaintiffs paid a price for their advocacy. Indeed, the NAACP struggled to find Black parents willing to join lawsuits, given the possibility that workers would be fired from their jobs and their children attacked on the streets.
In its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate educational facilities” for Black and White students are “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional. This ruling overturned a decision by the Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation in public facilities through “separate but equal” accommodations would satisfy the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The Brown Court initially declined to specify a remedy for the public schools. When it took up the case again the next year, in Brown II, the Court rejected a request by the NAACP to order immediate action and counseled instead that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.”
More than a half century later, public schooling in the United States continues to function as a two-tier system. In large metropolitan areas across the nation, students in central cities attend high-minority, high poverty schools with very few White students. Many of these schools are overcrowded, lack the resources they need to meet students’ needs, and are struggling to meet federal student achievement benchmarks. This entry focuses on the short and long-term impacts of the landmark ruling.
Not surprisingly, school districts throughout the South interpreted the Court’s open-ended “all deliberate speed” timetable as “never.” Virtually no desegregation took place in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy during the first decade after Brown. On the tenth anniversary of the decision, only about 1 percent of Black children in the South attended racially integrated schools. Not until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Johnson administration used its authority to cut off funds and initiate lawsuits did school districts take steps to dismantle segregation.
The Supreme Court stood behind Brown for several decades. For example, in Green v. School Board of New Kent County (1968), the Court ordered “root and branch” eradication of segregated schooling and specified several areas, including students, teachers, transportation, facilities, and extracurricular activities, in which desegregation was required. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971), the Court struck down allegedly race-neutral student-assignment plans that produced segregated schools as a result of residential segregation and legitimated the use of busing to desegregate urban school districts. Between 1968 and 1972, the percentage of Black students in predominantly minority schools in the South dropped from 81 percent to 55 percent, and in intensely segregated minority schools (more than 90 percent) from 78 percent to 25 percent, which made the schools in the South the most integrated in the nation.
A critical blow to desegregation efforts came in 1974 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley. The case involved public schools in Detroit, where an exodus of middle-class families had created an overwhelmingly Black district in the city, surrounded by overwhelmingly White suburban districts. Because almost no White people lived within the city limits, integrating the schools was impossible. Parents in the city sought approval of a plan to merge the urban and suburban districts into one metropolitan system that would allow for integration.
A 5–4 Supreme Court majority acknowledged “disparate treatment of White and Negro students” but objected to an “interdistrict remedy” in the absence of evidence that the suburban districts had expressly intended to discriminate against students of color in Detroit. In holding that the suburbs could not be involved in a desegregation plan unless it was clear that they had participated in a segregation scheme, the Court effectively let heavily White suburbs off the hook—and rendered Brown almost meaningless for most of the metropolitan North and West.
Throughout these regions, city limits coincide with school district boundaries, with city schools serving largely students of color and suburban schools serving largely White students. If district boundaries could not be crossed, desegregation could not be accomplished. The Supreme Court sent the Detroit case back to a federal district court and three years later approved a modified desegregation plan that affected only schools within the city limits and required the state to help pay for some remedial and compensatory programs.
Reversal And Resegregation
The Brown court not only declined to provide a timetable for desegregation but also left open the interpretation of educational opportunity, which it called “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Was this a directive simply to end state mandated segregation in public schooling, or a directive for states and districts to act affirmatively to integrate public schools? Supreme Court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s tended to affirm the broader interpretation; later decisions did not, and so paved the way for the subsequent resegregation.
With Milliken, the goal shifted from integration to some form of reparations for the damage allegedly caused by segregation. The question was no longer how society could realize the promise of equal educational opportunity for all, but rather how school districts could return to the status quo. In a series of decisions in the 1990s, the Supreme Court essentially answered this new question and laid out a procedure for dismantling desegregation. As a mandate for desegregation, Brown was over. Allowed to jettison busing plans in favor of a return to neighborhood schools, many school districts did.
In Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991) and Freeman v. Pitts (1992), the Supreme Court outlined the conditions under which desegregation orders can be lifted. For example, a court supervising a school district’s desegregation plan can free the district from oversight if it meets some, but not necessarily all, of the requirements laid out in Green. In Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), the Court then said that a district need not show that changes have actually improved minority students’ academic achievement.
Racial and ethnic segregation in the nation’s public schools intensified throughout the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century, as the nation’s diversity increased. Although schools in parts of the South have been the most integrated for many years, and schools in metropolitan areas in the North the most intensely segregated, Black communities in every part of the country are now experiencing increasing segregation. In addition, segregation of Latinos has increased steadily since the late 1960s, when the first national data were collected. More than one out of every three Black and Latino students now attend schools that are overwhelmingly (90 to 100 percent) minority.
The resegregation of the nation’s public schools reflects economic as well as racial isolation. More than three quarters of the intensely segregated schools are also “high-poverty” schools, which on the whole have less funding and lower student achievement than “low-poverty” schools. Nationwide, during the 2002–2003 school year, the highest poverty school districts had $907 less to spend in state and local revenues per pupil than the lowest poverty districts. Disparities are particularly stark in major metropolitan areas. For the 2002–2003 year, per-pupil spending in the Chicago schools (87 percent Black and Hispanic, 85 percent low income) was $8,482, but in the nearby New Trier district (2 percent Black and Hispanic, 1 percent low income), it was $14,909. In the Philadelphia area, per-pupil spending in the city schools (79 percent Black and Hispanic, 71 percent low income) was $9,299, but in the nearby New Hope-Solebury district (1 percent Black and Hispanic, 1 percent low income), it was $14,865. This pattern holds for large metropolitan areas across the nation. Students of color in high-poverty city districts have less than students in White, wealthier suburban districts of almost everything money can buy for schools: state-of-the-art buildings in good repair; well-qualified and adequately compensated teachers; and opportunities to participate in art, music, and sports programs as well as rigorous college-prep classes.
Although a direct correlation cannot be drawn between student achievement and integration, achievement measures have fluctuated with desegregation and resegregation patterns. Reading and math achievement among African Americans and Latinos climbed substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, a period of school desegregation and relatively well-funded antipoverty programs, and the Black-White achievement gap narrowed by more than half. Progress stopped in the mid-1990s, however, and the gap reopened.
The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), widely regarded as the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows that Black and Latino twelfth graders’ achievement in reading and math is on a par with White eighth-graders’ achievement. Nationally, only about half of all Black, Latino, and American Indian students graduate from high school in four years. Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, schools receiving Title I funding must show annual improvements in student test scores or risk sanctions. In many districts, poor children of color are bearing the brunt of this accountability “stick.” Schools in Houston, New York City, and Orlando have been called to task for retaining ninth graders regarded as unlikely to boost a high school’s overall test scores or of pushing low-performing students into GED programs—without counting them as dropouts. In starkly disproportionate numbers, these are poor and minority students.
Arguably both the 1954 Supreme Court decision that gave the dream of racial equality the stamp of the nation’s highest court and the White resistance to the declaration of an end to segregated schooling fueled the civil rights movement, which continues to shape life in the United States. At the same time, although considerable progress was made in the South after elected officials threw their weight behind Brown, there have been no significant policy initiatives to foster desegregated schooling for more than thirty years. The movement instead has been toward resegregation. Although no longer mandated by law, “separate” schooling for Whites and students of color is the predominant experience in public schools.
The Brown court did not address inequities in school funding. Nevertheless, its strong affirmation of education as “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and its belief that no “child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he or she is denied the opportunity of an education” invited attention to disparities. Forty-five states have now faced, or are facing, challenges to their systems of school funding, and plaintiffs have prevailed in more than half these cases. Nevertheless, funding gaps remain.
NCLB has refocused attention on the equity and adequacy of resources, in light of new accountability expectations. Intended to end what President Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and to close the racial achievement gap by holding all students to the same high standards, the law requires schools to show steady progress in student achievement toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency by the year 2014. Initial studies show little change, however, either in overall student achievement patterns or in racial/ethnic achievement gaps since 2001—that is, on the NCLB watch.
Propelled by the dream affirmed in Brown, some activists, such as Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, continue to work toward a vision of desegregated schooling. Others, such as Derrick Bell, visiting professor at New York University’s School of Law, argue that it’s time—past time—to focus instead on “desegregating the money,” whether or not schools are racially integrated. Given decades of “White flight,” Bell believes fairer funding is the best hope for millions of poor students of color still waiting for the equal opportunity that Brown promised but that the nation has not yet delivered. The ambiguous Brown decision—given its erratic and contested implementation, its heralded place in U.S. history, and persisting inequalities in educational opportunity—supports both commitments.
- Bell, D. (2004). Silent convenants: Brown v. Board of Education. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Education Trust. (2005). The funding gap: Low-income and minority students shortchanged by most states. Washington, DC: Author.
- Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown.
- Lau, P. (Ed.). (2004). From the grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American democracy (pp. 340–360). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Lee, C. (2006). Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth look into national and state reading and math outcome trends. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.
- Orfield, G., & Eaton, S. E. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.
- Orfield, G., & Lee, C. (2004, January 17). Brown at 50: Plessy’s nightmare? Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.
- Wald, J., & Losen, D. (2006). Out of sight: The journey through the school-to-prison pipeline. In S. Books (Ed.), Invisible children in the society and its schools (pp. 23–37). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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