A half century after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most education reform has a pre-Brown sensibility. Conservative reforms (private-school vouchers and corporate-run charter schools), liberal reforms (reduced class size and better teacher training), and centrist reforms (No Child Left Behind and the standards movement) are essentially about the task of making "separate but equal" work. While almost no one would defend laws segregating students by race, an equally small number would put racial desegregation at the centerpiece of education reform. In his book After Brown, Charles Clotfelter (a professor of public policy, economics, and law at Duke University) notes that some students told him they take his seminar on school desegregation because their parents experienced it and the students "were curious to find out what it had been all about."
How did we arrive at this point? Should we worry that school integration is off the menu of mainstream education reforms? And are there any signs of hope for integration on the horizon?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Kluger's classic history of the Brown case, Simple Justice, illustrates the backward slide. The book, first published in 1975 and now republished by Knopf, provides a stirring story of an American triumph: the centuries-long effort to recognize black humanity and eventually overturn legal sanction for the humiliating policy of setting African-Americans apart from others. While the first edition ends the story in 1955, the reissued volume includes a new final chapter, which traces the way in which desegregation has withered over the past three decades, in large measure because of the courts.
William Rehnquist, who as a Supreme Court clerk wrote a memo supporting the doctrine of separate but equal, is now chief justice. Thurgood Marshall, who as a lawyer led the brilliant legal effort in Brown and was later elevated to the Supreme Court, has been replaced by Clarence Thomas, whose opinions take a black nationalist view of integration. In a series of decisions in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that racial desegregation was meant to be a temporary remedy, no matter the degree of actual integration achieved. And across the country, districts from Buffalo, N.Y., to Charlotte, N.C., have been released from desegregation orders. Moreover, under the Rehnquist Court's leadership, voluntary efforts to promote school integration have been found unconstitutional where they use race in deciding which student attends which school. Slowly but steadily, our nation's schools are resegregating.
In many respects, this judicial retreat on Brown was simply a reflection of the larger public resistance to integration. Clotfelter observes in his "arithmetical history" of interracial exposure since Brown that genuine progress has been offset in part by new ways of avoiding integration. Enormous strides were made in integrating Southern schools during the late 1960s and early 1970s: The share of blacks in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90 percent to 100 percent non-white) fell from 78 percent in 1968 to 25 percent in 1972, making Southern schools the most integrated in the country. But that level has risen some since then—up to 31 percent in 2001—and integrated school buildings have often become resegregated into tracked classrooms. Even extracurricular activities are frequently segregated. Case studies find that blacks dominate basketball and football; whites, swimming and golf; and Latinos, soccer and baseball. School band tends to be more integrated.
In the face of ongoing white resistance, many African-Americans began to question the value of racial school integration and to raise the issue of racial stigma in reverse. Just as compulsory laws that called for separate institutions for black and white students were deeply degrading to blacks, so did many African-Americans come to see the call for integration as insulting. In the 1960s Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality complained that integration implies if you "mix Negroes with Negroes ... you get stupidity." In 1995, Clarence Thomas echoed the view: "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."
As an empirical matter, these critics are half right. Judged narrowly on the question of whether desegregation fostered greater black achievement, the evidence is mixed. In places like Boston, where desegregation mingled working-class whites and working-class blacks, achievement gains were not significant. But in many communities, where low-income blacks attended school with more affluent whites through metropolitan plans—Hartford, Conn., Wilmington, Del., Charlotte, N.C., St. Louis, Mo., Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., among them African-American achievement did rise.
While blacks don't need to sit next to whites to learn, the research shows, poor kids of all races do better in a middle-class environment. As the famous Coleman Report of 1966 found, "the beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites." Poor kids benefit from middle-class schools because they are surrounded by more academically engaged peers (who are also less likely to act out), by the most active parents, and by the most able teachers.
Unfortunately, the class-mixing potential of racial integration was largely stymied in the North by the Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Milliken v.Bradley, which held that in most cases, desegregation orders could not reach across district lines from city to suburb. But in the South, where countywide school districts put city and suburb together, class-mixing often resulted from racial integration, and blacks made their largest gains in achievement. By contrast, efforts to equalize spending across economically segregated schools go only so far because the "resources" that make for a good school include not only per capita expenditure, but the peers, parents, and teachers who make up a school community.
Fortunately, as Clotfelter observes in his closing chapter, not all school districts are surrendering to resegregation. In North Carolina, he notes, while districts like Winston-Salem/Forsyth are becoming more segregated, Wake County, which includes Raleigh and its surrounding suburbs, has adopted a policy that no school should have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, or more than 25 percent of students reading below grade level. The policy is similar to economic integration programs in San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; St. Lucie County, Fla.; La Crosse, Wisc., and elsewhere, most of which were initiated in the past few years. In all, about 500,000 students attend schools with economic integration programs, up from about 20,000 in 1999. That total is more than 10 times the number who participate in the publicly funded private-school voucher programs that receive so much attention in education and policy circles. Most of these districts rely on some sort of public-school choice or magnet-school approach to achieve economic integration and avoid old-style compulsory busing. In Wake County, overall test scores are rising, and the achievement gap is narrowing.