School Desegregation Research Paper Starter

School Desegregation

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Segregation is the act of separating racial, ethnic, or gender groups by designating certain public spaces – such as schools or buses – for the use of one racial, ethnic, or gender group alone. Integration is the act of equally incorporating different racial, ethnic, and gender groups in public spaces. In the United States, the discussion of integration has often centered on racial integration in schools. Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made major strides against de jure segregation, though in many districts de facto segregation still continues. In recent years, research has actually shown an increase in de facto segregation.

Keywords Brown v. Board of Education; De Facto Segregation; De Jure Segregation; Desegregation; Integration; Plessy vs. Ferguson; Re-segregation; Segregation



Segregation is the act of separating racial, ethnic, or gender groups by designating certain public spaces – such as schools or buses – for the use of one racial, ethnic, or gender group alone. Integration is the act of equally incorporating different racial, ethnic, and gender groups in public spaces. While there are many spheres in which segregation and integration can occur, this article will focus on racial segregation and integration in American public schools.

The fight against discrimination and segregation began in the South. While discrimination in the North manifested itself in school closures and under-funding, its southern counterpart was more flagrant, with Jim Crow laws preventing whites and blacks from sharing public resources like schools and buses. Jim Crow laws were an elaborate system of customs and laws in the post-Reconstruction South meant to separate blacks and whites in daily life.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was the first significant legal case in which an African American challenged Jim Crow laws. Homer Plessy was a black man who was arrested under these laws for sitting in the white section of a Louisiana train. Plessy asserted that being forbidden to sit with white passengers was a violation of his Thirteenth Amendment rights and especially his Fourteenth Amendment rights, which call for equal protection of all citizens under the law (Robertson, 2006, p. 796).

The court ruled against Plessy, saying

…laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which have been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced (as cited in Robertson, 2006, p. 796).

The "separate but equal" doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson was not challenged in the court again until 1951 with Brown vs. Board of Education.

Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas

Brown v. Board of Education was a legal suit filed against the Topeka school board by Oliver Brown on behalf of his daughter, Linda, who, instead of attending the elementary school in her neighborhood, was bussed 21 blocks away from her home to attend an African-American elementary school. Brown lost initially; the judge ruled that white and "colored" schools were essentially equal in their offerings to children, so no child was suffering discrimination (McGrane, 2004).

But Brown persisted, and the case became the heart of a cluster of suits that would eventually rise to the Supreme Court. A number of black parents from other states – Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C. – joined him in suing for their children to attend white schools. And like Brown, they too were initially denied the right by a judge who cited the "separate but equal" doctrine first delineated in the landmark civil rights case, Plessy v. Ferguson (McGrane, 2004).

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon became involved in the Brown suit, assigning to the case its legal director of 15 years, Thurgood Marshall. He began by attacking segregation in post-graduate schools before working down to secondary and elementary education. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision. "In the field of education," wrote Justice Earl Warren, "the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" (as cited in McGrane, 2004, p. 1).

The Brown decision was directed at ending de jure, or lawfully imposed, segregation – not de facto, or "in practice" segregation. The Brown ruling affected southern schools more than northern schools, as most southern schools were practicing de jure segregation. Most northern states, however, were practicing de facto segregation – a more subtle form created by the choices of individuals and communities about matters like where they will live, shop, work, or go to school (Chapman, 2005 p. 33).

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Though the ruling did end de jure segregation, it did not end it immediately. There was confusion and debate after the ruling as to how individual school systems should go about complying with the new law. In 1970 the Supreme Court handed down the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision, a busing and integration plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, that would eventually be adopted across the country (Armor, 2006). Though the Swann ruling helped solve the problem in the south, it took another decision, Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1, to achieve comprehensive desegregation in the north.

Economic Factors

By the time of Swann, African-American parents in northern cities were already deeply embattled with their own school boards over de facto segregation. The 1950's and 60s were prosperous times for big cities and the populations living in them. Job growth in urban factories and warehouses drew many African-Americans into the cities. With the increase in wealth, urban schools were able to acquire better teachers and more resources, making them considerably superior to rural schools. In some cases, urban African-American schools even outperformed similar white schools (Chapman, 2005, p. 32).

But the late 1960s saw a precipitous decline in industry and many urban economies. Factories and plants were downsized, hurting cities with predominantly working class populations. Workers holding only high school diplomas or vocational degrees were increasingly unemployed. As urban economies declined, cities allotted less money to their schools. One way school boards dealt with shrinking budgets was by closing schools in minority neighborhoods while reducing funding to the remaining schools in those neighborhoods, causing overcrowding and diminishing the quality of education for minority students. The combination of the deterioration of the schools and rise of the civil rights movement led the first black parents in northern cities to challenge their school districts in court (Chapman, 2005).

But because de facto segregation was more difficult to prove in court, parents in many cities – like Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, St. Louis – would be in litigation for nearly thirty years (Chapman, 2005). One major step in bringing equal opportunity education to both northern and southern schools was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act

In 1963, nine years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown, President John F. Kennedy set forth a civil rights bill that would end de jure segregation in public schools and public spaces and protect the rights of African American voters. Kennedy would not live to see passage of the bill, but his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed it into law in a nationally televised ceremony on July 2, 1964. The act allowed the attorney general to sue for the desegregation of colleges and public schools. It banned segregation in public gathering places such as parks and museums run by state and local governments and made it unlawful for federally assisted programs to discriminate against race, color, and national origin. The act also gave more protection to the rights of minority voters and forbade employers from discriminating against workers and job candidates (Fonte, 1997).


Despite the progress made in the 60s and 70s, some experts say integration suffered a setback in the 80s. Two studies have revealed that resegregation is occurring in some school districts; one looked at schools nationwide ("New Study," 2001) while the second looked a resegregation in in districts formerly under a court order to desegregate, once that court order was lifted (Reardon, Grewal, Kalogrides, & Greenberg, 2012).

The first study, done by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, examined schools nationwide during the 1998-99 year. The study found that in southern states the percentage of black students in predominantly white schools declined steadily between 1988 and 1998 – though the level of segregation in these states is still less than what it was at the end of the 60s (28 percentage points less in 1999 than in 1969) ("New Study," 2001).

While findings concerning students of color were telling, the most startling data pertained to Hispanic pupils, who were more likely to attend minority schools than black students (Zehr, 2001). The segregation of Latinos – whose population in this country between 1970 and 1999 swelled by 245% – increased 13.5% between 1970 and 1999 ("New Study," 2001). During the 1998-99 school year, 70.2% of African-American students attended schools with mostly minority students, up from 66% in 1991-92, and up from 63% in 1980-81. But the number of Hispanics attending predominantly minority schools was even higher: 76% in 1998-99 and 73% in 1991-92. These figures constitute what Gary Orfield, co-director of the Harvard study, referred to as resegregation. "Segregation is actually increasing," Orfield was quoted as saying, in "Ignoring that reality leads to adoption of education policies that punish people who haven't had equal educational opportunities…it's a direct threat to the future of a multiracial society" (as cited in Zehr, 2001, p. 16).

Increase in Public School Segregation

White students, it was found, were most commonly separated away from other ethnic groups. Most attended public schools where at least 80% of the enrollment was Caucasian ("New...

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