Harming our Common Future

America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown

UCLA Civil Rights Project Research Details Increasing Segregation in a Transformed School Population

BY JOHN MCDONALD

As the nation marks the 65th anniversary of the land­mark Brown v. Board of Education ruling declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the UCLA Civil Rights Project has published new research detailing school segregation in the nation’s schools amid a rapidly changing student population.

Since 1988, the share of intensely segregated minority schools —schools that enroll 90–100 percent non-white students—has more than tripled from 5.7 percent in 1988 to 18.2 percent in 2016.

The report details the transformation of the nation’s public school enrollment from primarily a two-race white and black school population, to one that is truly multiracial, reshaped by a surging Latino population and the emergence of a significant population of Asian students. Despite increased diversity in the U.S. popu­lation, the new research finds the segregation of Black students expanding and intensifying across the nation.

FROM THE REPORT

INTENSE LEVELS OF SEGREGATION— which had decreased markedly after 1954 for black students—are on the rise once again. In the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions led to the end of hundreds of desegregation or­ders and plans across the nation. This report shows that the growth of racial and economic segregation that began then has now continued unchecked for nearly three decades, placing the prom­ise of Brown at grave risk.

Research shows that segregation has strong, negative relationships with the achievement, college success, long-term employment and income of stu­dents of color. At a time of dramatic demographic transformation, the impli­cations of these trends and research are important for us to address.

We are a country that has always been racially diverse with a large ma­jority of white residents for many gen­erations. That majority is rapidly coming to an end and already is over among the school age population. All the trends show that this change will continue. When the nation last focused seriously on racial segregation of our schools, we were a country largely white with about an eighth black students and were at a historic low point in immigration. As we become a country without a majority population, an absolutely central ques­tion for our future is how well are we managing our diversity? The basic sta­tistics show profound and enduring gaps in educational and economic success in a country that is also very deeply po­larized in terms of attitudes and politi-cal beliefs.

People protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., while the Supreme Court is considering whether school districts in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, are violating the U.S. Constitution in their efforts to integrate their classrooms. Both districts have limited the ability of parents to choose schools by imposing numerical ranges for racial composition. (Photo by Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images)

A central belief in our democracy is that educational opportunity is the key to fairness in a society that does not support broad social policies, ex­cept for the elderly. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision held that seg­regated education was “inherently un­equal” and created irreversible harm to segregated students. The Court was talking then about schools segregated by law in 17 states, but research shows that the impact of segregation is similar whether caused by law or by local pol­icies and practices. This study reports on our progress in creating integrated education 65 years after Brown. Sadly, it shows that we are not making significant progress, as racial change affects every part of our society in all of the settings, from our small rural towns to the great metropolises, where the large majority of our children are growing up.

INTEGRATING THE WHITE MINORITY

In the West today there are already more Latino than white students in the public schools, and in California only about a fourth of all students are white. In the South, the white minority in the region continues to decline as a share of total enrollment. There are trends in this direction in many parts of the coun­try. Historically there were few whites in schools with a substantial nonwhite majority and large numbers attending schools where more than nine-tenths of the students were white. Today the growing sectors of enrollment are Latino and Asian and mixed race. A significantly larger share of whites are now minori­ties in nonwhite schools, and the num­ber of schools that are over 90 percent white has plummeted. These trends are continuing. They mean that in many places white young people need to learn how to function effectively in situ­ations where they will be in the minori­ty. Parents say they favor their children learning to deal with people from other groups, but white parents often seek homes far from nonwhite communities and schools.

Nineteen years after Brown, in 1973, the Supreme Court opened the door to desegregation lawsuits outside the South for both black and Latino desegregation but created … far more demanding standards of proof of violations than in the South …

BLACK SEGREGATION

The desegregation of black students in 17 states with segregation mandated by law was a central objective of the civil rights revolution. After more than a de­cade of bitter resistance and very limited change, the passage of the most sweep­ing civil rights law in U.S. history, enforce­ment by the Johnson Administration, and powerful unanimous decisions by the Supreme Court, there was a huge breakthrough, and the Southern schools became the most integrated region of the country for several decades.

Nineteen years after Brown, in 1973, the Supreme Court opened the door to desegregation lawsuits outside the South for both black and Latino de­segregation but created both far more demanding standards of proof of vio­lations than in the South and, in 1974, protected the suburbs from involvement in desegregation remedies, although many central cities had already lost the great bulk of the white population. By the 1980s there was a full-scale attack on integration plans by the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments and a lead­ing opponent, William Rehnquist, be­came Chief Justice. Since the early 1970s there have been no expansions of federal desegregation law and no real creation of federal programs or policies to support integration of schools and neighborhoods. Segregation has en­gulfed central cities, spread far out into sectors of suburbia, and is now serious in our small metros and even our small towns. Most court orders in large dis­tricts ended in the 1990s.

The success for black students growing up in integrated schools was substantial, as recounted in Professor Rucker Johnson’s 2019 book, “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works,” based on sophisticated long-term studies of large numbers of African American students who were either seg­regated or desegregated. He found higher achievement, college success at more selective colleges, higher income, better jobs, less incarceration, and bet­ter long-term health for students in inter­racial schools.

The data in this report shows a dis­concerting increase of black segrega­tion in all parts of the country. This is true even though African Americans are a slowly declining share of the total student population, and many now live in suburban areas. It shows a very sub­stantial loss from the high point of de­segregation in the late 1980s. We also see that in the West where blacks are now only 5 percent of the total enroll­ment, most are attending schools that are predominantly Latino. This pattern is evident in many areas including parts of the South, traditionally the heartland of the African American community, where there are now larger numbers of Latinos than blacks. Very little attention has been given to these trends.

A troubling development has been the enormous growth and intensifying segregation by ethnicity and poverty of the Latino students, who are now by far the largest nonwhite community. They are now more segregated in their own group than are blacks; and often, par­ticularly in the Southwest and the West, African American students are not only isolated from whites and from the middle class but they are, on average, attending schools where they are a minority group within a Latino school. Latino students now are typically in schools with insignifi­cant white and middle-class populations, a particularly dramatic historic change in the West. Sometimes they are also seg­regated from students whose home lan­guage is English.

Schools of choice have played a greatly increased role in public educa­tion. There was a huge growth of inten­tionally integrated magnet schools in the 1970s. Since 1990 most of the deseg­regation requirements in choice plans have been dropped, and there has been a vast expansion of charter schools, which are schools of choice. Typically they have no integration policies and are even more segregated than regular public schools, though unlike those dis­tricts and schools, they often are not tied to particular segregated neighborhoods.

THE SUBURBS ARE EXPERIENCING PROFOUND CHANGES.

At the time of the civil rights movement the suburbs were white, and significant racial change did not develop until the 1970s. The data in this report shows that the change has been faster and more sweeping than most Americans under­stand, and there is now a majority of nonwhites in the suburban rings of our largest metros. Many of these subur­ban communities never had a desegre­gation plan, and many of their residents came to the suburbs after leaving racial­ly changing city neighborhoods. White suburbs usually have much smaller school systems and not much diversi­ty among teachers and administrators, and there has been little training or plan­ning in communities now facing threat of resegregation. There have been no significant programs or policies to help these communities deal successful­ly with diversity either in education or housing policy.

CURRENT BARRIERS TO FURTHER INTEGRATION

Due to the changing federal judiciary and a series of Court decisions, many districts are being released from court oversight, which is contributing to reseg­regation in the South for black students. Further, because states and districts no longer have laws and policies that ex­plicitly assign students to schools on the basis of their race to maintain racial segregation and because the Supreme Court has limited and ended remedies, there are few new federal cases chal­lenging segregation, though there are a range of ways in which decisions by policymakers and by families contribute to the segregation in schools that we describe here.

Desegregation struggles have often focused on urban districts that dis­proportionately enrolled more students of color. In a decision two decades after Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the extent to which courts could in­clude suburban districts in desegre­gation remedies—a decision that was especially constraining outside of the South where metropolitan areas were fragmented into more districts. This mat­tered because urban districts required to desegregate were often surround­ed by many largely white districts un­touched by similar desegregation obli­gations, creating an incentive for white families to settle there.

Now suburban districts are much less racially homogeneous, particular­ly in our largest metropolitan areas. As our population has suburbanized, sub­urban schools are enrolling a growing share of the metro enrollment, includ­ing students of color and low-income students. These demographic patterns have been layered on top of a maze of school district boundary lines, which are sorting students in the suburbs sim­ilar to racial change in cities in the 20th century. Black and Latino suburban stu­dents go to school with many fewer white children than white public school students. Differences in student com­position and perceived school quality get capitalized into home prices in un­even ways, resulting in vastly different tax bases that school districts can tap to support the public schools. Thus, we’re seeing patterns of segregation and in­equality spreading on a wider geograph­ic scale, and considerable complexity among suburban districts. These very districts, however, may only recently be diverse and lack policies, programs, or expertise to understand and address barriers to full inclusion and opportu­nity. Moreover, suburbs are less likely to have the same supports as cities do for low-income students or students of color. supports that can be crucial to en­suring policies like student assignment don’t exacerbate existing residential segregation. In a number of suburban districts—as well as countywide districts containing suburban areas—the increas­ing diversity has engendered conten­tious debates about student assignment policies, particularly those that would try to reduce segregation

Mindful of the segregation and in­equality across district boundary lines, some areas have sought regional ap­proaches to reducing racial isolation, either voluntarily or as a result of court orders. Such plans have dwindled in re­cent years, but remain popular where im­plemented and students generally had impressive social and academic gains.

DOUBLE SEGREGATION

Racial segregation and economic segre­gation frequently overlap in K–12 public schools. Black and Latino students on average attend schools with a far higher share of poverty, measured by eligibility for free/reduced-price lunch. New anal­ysis from the Kids Count Data Center shows that 28 percent of African Amer­ican children and 19 percent of Latino children are living in areas of concen­trated poverty, compared to 6 percent of Asian children and just 4 percent of whites according to American Commu­nity Survey data from 2013–2017. Other research has shown socioeconomic dis­parities by race, especially when mea­suring wealth, but these data suggest that part of the concerning inheritance of severe residential segregation is the dis­proportionate exposure to concentrated poverty, which then is a root cause of school segregation.

 
As our population has suburbanized, suburban schools are enrolling a growing share of the metro enrollment, including students of color and low-income students.

 

The reality in our schools is that seg­regation by race usually means segre­gation by concentrated poverty as well. This means that most students of color attend schools which reflect the prob­lems of poverty in many, less qualified teachers, peer groups, parent influence, and many other limitations, richly docu­mented in the research on the sociology of education. The fact that these children come from the families with least wealth, the most risk of hunger, homelessness, untreated health problems and many other forms of inequality means that the schools have less capacity to help the doubly segregated students or to provide the opportunities and con­nections routinely available in middle class schools.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Los Angeles, USA – May 10, 2013: People crossing street in Los Angeles Suburb

#1 Better training for school and community staff to understand and respect newcomer groups and to get training in techniques that produce positive outcomes in diverse settings.

#2 Universities must play a major role in assisting schools as well as ensuring that teacher and educational leadership preparation programs graduate educators and school/district leaders who have studied the many dimensions of how schools and districts should be structured.

#3 Strong affirmative action plans for faculty, administrative, and staff diversity are keys to successful interracial schools and positive relationships with diverse groups in the community. Once hired, districts need to make sure to retain diverse faculty and staff, and provide them with training to successfully welcome and teach in interracial classrooms and schools.

#4 Supporting regional approaches to desegregation is essential and would mirror the provision of other governmental services in metropolitan areas. Such efforts need to include housing but also need to consider how to facilitate student movement across district boundary lines to facilitate integration.

#5 Provide supports for suburban districts—that themselves vary widely—to adopt plans and policies to effectively respond to growing diversity.

#6 There should be federal and state funding and university sponsorship for the creation of integrated metropolitan-wide magnet schools that provide distinctive opportunities for regions and even states. States could play an important role in regional educational equity approaches, including incentivizing interdistrict cooperation.