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The USA has a long history of providing racially segregated and unequal public education to its children. Racially separate and unequal public education was not an accident; it was created by public laws and policies enacted and enforced by state governments and local school systems. After a series of Supreme Court decisions eliminated the formal legal foundation for segregation, it was recreated through racially discriminatory practices in federal housing policies, lending for home purchases, employment, wages, and school assignment practices.
Desegregation is the process that removes the formal and informal barriers preventing students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds from learning in the same classrooms and schools. Since the middle of the twentieth century, various desegregation policies have been widely used to remedy de jure (by law) and de facto (by practice) segregation. Among the policies employed were mandatory and voluntary busing, pairing of white and minority schools, using magnet programs to attract diverse students to segregated schools, redrawing of school attendance boundaries, and siting new schools in areas between minority and white neighborhoods. Desegregation also involved creating racially diverse faculty and staff, employing multicultural curricula, and nurturing diversity in extra and cocurricular activities. These processes ensure that, once in desegregated schools, all children have equitable opportunities to learn.
The still-unfinished process of school desegregation commenced with the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court declared that ”separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ”a denial of the equal protection of the laws.”
The Brown decision was a sea change, overturning the essence of the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson case, which had legitimized racially ”separate but equal” public spheres. However, Brown only addressed public actions, not private behaviors. This tension between legal mandates for racial justice in education and private actions to preserve white educational privileges slowed effective school desegregation for decades. Arguably, the most enduring legacy of the Brown decision is not desegregated public schools – especially in light of nationwide trends toward resegregation and the continuing struggle for educational equity. Rather, Brown enshrined in US law the concept that all people are citizens of this nation and that state-enforced racial segregation is unconstitutional.
Southern schools remained segregated well into the 1960s and northern schools until the 1970s. Nevertheless, since the Brown decision, some regions of the United States were more successful in desegregating their schools than others. Southern and border states eventually experienced the greatest degree of desegregation. In some southern school systems the percentage of blacks attending extremely segregated minority schools dropped from 78 percent in the late 1960s to 25 percent at its lowest in the mid-1980s. Other regions of the country, where de facto segregation was the norm, also desegregated to a large degree. In the middle of the 1980s the national trend toward greater interracial contact in public schools stalled and began a slow reversal by the decade’s end.
There are a number of reasons that the significant strides toward desegregated public education began to reverse in the late 1980s. The convergence of white interests in economic growth through interracial tranquility with black interests in educational and occupational mobility that permitted desegregation in the first three quarters of the last century did not survive through the 1990s. Other reasons for resegregation trends include the lifting of federal court orders mandating desegregation, demographic shifts in the US population -especially the explosive growth in ethnic minority populations – and the suburbanization of US communities. As a result, school systems that were once relatively desegregated are now becoming resegregated. Much of current segregation is between districts – especially central cities and their metropolitan area suburbs – rather than among schools within a single district, as was historically the case. Some observers estimate that the levels of interracial contact in public schools will soon return to pre-Brown levels of racial isolation.
- Clotfelter, C. T. (2004) After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Rossell, C., Armor, D. J., & Walberg, H. J. (eds.) (2002) School Desegregation in the 21st Century. Praeger, Westport, CT.
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