In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that racial segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal.” At that time, desegregation efforts focused primarily on the South and the desegregation of black and white students. The South received attention because most of the seventeen states that had de jure, or legally sanctioned, segregation were located in the South; efforts were concentrated on black and white students because they comprised the majority of public school students at that time. Today, school segregation is a national issue that reaches across all regions of the country and stratifies what is now a multiracial student population by race, class, and language. School desegregation history in the United States is characterized by several decades of progress, peaking in the 1980s, and a subsequent retreat; this pattern is evident in both the judicial support of desegregation and the trends measuring progress in desegregation. Segregated schools are consistently linked to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes, while desegregated and diverse schools are associated with numerous benefits for students of all races. The causes of school segregation (and the re-segregation of previously desegregated schools) are complicated; they include residential segregation, legal constraints, termination of court orders, student assignment policies that deprioritize diversity, structural features of school and district boundaries, and unregulated forms of school choice. Given this complexity, it is not surprising that the policies for addressing segregation are similarly complex and must be carefully tailored to the local context and demography. Since the 1950s, school districts across the nation have implemented desegregation efforts in various ways, both voluntary and mandatory, with varying levels of success. However, creating and maintaining desegregation is not sufficient for truly achieving integration, which can occur through a comprehensive and deliberate structuring of classrooms and learning environments. “Desegregation” refers to a legal or political process of ending the separation and isolation of different racial and ethnic groups. Desegregation is achieved through court order or voluntary means. “Integration” refers to a social process in which members of different racial and ethnic groups experience fair and equal treatment within a desegregated environment. Integration requires further action beyond desegregation. This bibliography incorporates social science research from education, law, policy, and sociology to explore desegregation history, policies, trends, causes, and effects. It also reviews the arguments that have been made in opposition to desegregation.
Key Court Cases
This section traces the legal history of desegregation beginning with legally sanctioned school segregation for sixty years, little progress in the first decade following Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1955 before rapid progress through 1973, and a subsequent retrenchment and loss of desegregation tools during the subsequent four decades. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed for racial segregation in public schools. In 1947, the federal case Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County held that the segregation of Mexican American students in California was unconstitutional and helped to influence Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the first major US Supreme Court case to rule that segregation was unconstitutional. The Court concluded that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” From 1968 to 1973—and earlier in certain Circuit Courts— the Supreme Court continued to rule in ways that were supportive of desegregation efforts. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County specified the ways in which desegregation must occur and forbid the use of choice plans that did not create much desegregation. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved busing as a tool for desegregation, and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 extended the rights of desegregation to Latino students and was the first case outside the South. However, during the mid-1970s, a shift occurred that began to limit the extent to which desegregation could and would occur. Milliken v. Bradley limited interdistrict remedies for addressing segregation, Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell held that once a district was declared “unitary” it no longer had to maintain desegregation, and Freeman v. Pitts allowed school districts to be released from court order even if full desegregation had not been achieved. Most recently, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could not consider the race of an individual student when assigning students to schools. Together, the legal cases of the last four decades have constrained the ways in which school districts can attempt to achieve desegregation.
Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell. 498 U.S. 237 (1991).
In Oklahoma v. Dowell, the Supreme Court ruled that a school district could achieve unitary status when the district demonstrates that it no longer operates a dual, segregated school system, has complied in good faith with desegregation orders, and has eliminated past vestiges of discrimination to the extent practicable as measured by compliance with the Green factors (Green v. County School Board of New Kent County). Once unitary, the district is no longer under judicial oversight. This decision meant that districts could be released from court order even if they were not actually desegregated.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
This landmark Supreme Court decision struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, which had been in place since 1896. Brown ruled that segregation was unconstitutional and concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 349 U.S. 294 (1955).
Also known as Brown II, in this case, the Supreme Court required that desegregation occur with “all deliberate speed.” However, because enforcement of the ruling was vague, the “all deliberate speed” provision of Brown II did not occur until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 placed sanctions on districts that were not in compliance (see also Legislative/Executive Approaches to Desegregation).
Freeman v. Pitts. 503 U.S. 467 (1992).
In Freeman v. Pitts, the Court ruled that in order to be released from desegregation orders, school districts did not have to demonstrate compliance with all of the Green factors at the same time.
Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. 391 U.S. 430 (1968).
Green limited the use of freedom-of-choice plans, which allowed black students the choice to transfer to a predominantly white school. Instead, Green required segregation to be dismantled “root and branch.” The Green factors specified that desegregation must occur in six areas: student body, faculty, staff, facilities, extracurricular activities, and transportation.
Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1. 413 U.S. 189 (1973).
Keyes was the first school segregation case outside of the South. The Court held that if intentional segregation was found in part of the district, desegregation had to occur throughout the district. Keyes also explicitly extended the rights of desegregation to Latino students for the first time.
Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County. 64 F. Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal 1946), aff’d, 161 F.2d 744 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc).
In 1947, in Mendez v. Westminster, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the segregation of Mexican American students into separate schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision ended the segregation of Mexican American students in California.
Milliken v. Bradley. 418 U.S. 717 (1974).
In ruling that suburbs could not be included in metropolitan-wide desegregation plans if the suburbs were not guilty of intentional discrimination, Milliken limited the ability of predominantly minority central-city school districts to achieve desegregation by using interdistrict remedies that would cross district lines to include the suburbs. This decision made desegregation difficult in the North, which often had highly fragmented metropolitan areas, and was the first since Brown to limit what was required to desegregate.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
In Parents Involved, the Court reasoned that voluntary race-based student assignment policies in Seattle and Louisville violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that school districts cannot take an individual student’s race into account when assigning students to schools. It also held that districts have a “compelling” interest in creating diverse schools or reducing racial isolation but to do so districts must use different approaches.
Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 357 (1896).
The Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities were constitutional as long as the separate facilities were equal. The “separate but equal” doctrine allowed for segregation in public schools for the next sixty years even though separate schools were rarely equal.
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. 402 U.S. 1 (1971).
Swann required that districts desegregate their schools to the greatest extent possible and approved busing as a tool for achieving desegregation. This ruling was important for allowing students to be transported out of their neighborhoods in order to thoroughly desegregate schools.
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