School segregation in the United States

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United States

School segregation in the United States began in its de jure form with the passage of Jim Crow laws in the American South in the late 19th century. It is influenced by the history of southern states as slave societies, patterns of residential segregation, and later school choice programs, and Supreme Court rulings regarding previous school desegregation efforts.

Historical segregation

Jim Crow laws formalized school segregation in the United States, 1877-1954

The formal segregation of blacks and whites in the United States began with the passage of Jim Crow laws following the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1877.[1] These laws, which were most prevalent in the South but also were passed by state legislatures in the Southwest and Midwest, segregated blacks and whites in all aspects of public life, including attendance of public schools.[2] Jim Crow laws did not exclusively apply to the segregation of whites and blacks; in Texas, for instance, Mexican-Americans, along with blacks, were prohibited from sharing schools, restaurants, churches, and other public spaces with whites.[3] In some areas, Native Americans were classified with blacks and similarly excluded from white facilities.

While African Americans faced de jure segregation in civil society, Mexican Americans who lived in southwestern states often dealt with de facto segregation; no laws explicitly barred their access to schools or other public facilities.[4] Additionally, the proponents of Mexican-American segregation were often those officials who worked at the state and local school level; they often defended the creation and sustaining of segregated "Mexican schools".[5] The obstacles for Mexican Americans was not greater than for blacks. At times the NAACP had to challenge segregation policies in institutions where exclusion was targeted only at African-American students, when there was an already established Mexican-American presence.[6]

The constitutionality of Jim Crow laws was upheld in the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which ruled that separate facilities for blacks and whites were permissible provided that the facilities were of equal quality.[1] The fact that separate facilities for blacks and other minorities were chronically underfunded and of lesser quality was not successfully challenged in court for decades. This decision was subsequently overturned in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended de jure segregation in the United States.[7] In the decade following Brown, the South resisted enforcement of the Court’s decision.[7] States and school districts did little to reduce segregation, and schools remained almost completely segregated until 1968, after Congressional passage of civil rights legislation.[8] Desegregation efforts reached their peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period in which the South transitioned from complete segregation to being the nation's most integrated region.[7]

Parents of both African-American and Mexican-American students challenged school segregation in coordination with civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, ACLU, and LULAC. Both groups challenged discriminatory policies through litigation in courts, with varying success, at times challenging policies. They often had small successes.[9] For instance, the NAACP initially challenged graduate and professional school segregation because they believed that desegregation at this level would result in the least backlash and opposition by whites.[10]

Contemporary segregation

Measurements and definitions

Segregation can be defined in terms of two different measures: racial isolation (or exposure), and racial unevenness (or imbalance). Measures of exposure define segregation according to the proportion of various races and ethnicities present in a school. According to this measure, a black student attending a school with a very high proportion of other blacks students would be considered “racially isolated.”[8]

Critics of measures of exposure point out that these are highly sensitive to changes in the demographic composition of schools. As the share of "minority" students in an area increases, these students will necessarily attend schools with smaller proportions of white students. Because of this, some researchers prefer to define segregation according to measures of racial imbalance, or the extent to which racial and ethnic groups are distributed unevenly across schools. Measures of imbalance are independent of the changes in the racial composition of a larger population.[11]

From 1968-1980, segregation between blacks and whites in schools declined according to measures of both isolation and imbalance.[8] Measures of isolation within school districts show that school integration peaked in the 1980s and then gradually declined over the course of the 1990s, as income differences increased.[12] In the 1990s and early 2000s, minority students attended schools with a declining proportion of white students, so that the rate of segregation as measured as isolation resembled that of the 1960s.[11] There is some disagreement about what to make of trends since the 1980s; while some researchers have presented trends as evidence of “resegregation,” others argue that changing demographics in school districts, including class and income, are responsible for most of the changes in the racial composition of schools.[8]

A 2013 study by Jeremy Fiel found that, “for the most part, compositional changes are to blame for the declining presence of whites in minorities’ schools,” and that racial balance increased from 1993 to 2010.[11] The study found that minority students became more isolated and less exposed to whites, but that all students became more evenly distributed across schools.

Another 2013 study found that segregation measured as exposure increased over the previous 25 years due to changing demographics.[8] The study did not, however, find an increase in racial balance; rather, racial unevenness remained stable over that time period.

Researcher Kori Stroub found that the “racial/ethnic resegregation of public schools observed over the 1990s has given way to a period of modest reintegration,” but that segregation between school districts has increased even though within-district segregation is low.[12] Fiel believes that increasing interdistrict segregation will exacerbate racial isolation.[11]

Sources of contemporary segregation

Residential segregation

A principal source of school segregation is the persistence of residential segregation in American society; residence and school assignment are closely linked due to the widespread tradition of locally controlled schools.[13] Residential segregation is related to growing income inequality in the United States.

A study conducted by Sean Reardon and John Yun found that from 1990-2000, residential black/white and Hispanic/white segregation declined by a modest amount in the United States, while public school segregation increased slightly during the same time period. Because the two variables moved in opposite directions, changes in residential patterns are not responsible for changes in school segregation trends. Rather, the study determined that in 1990, schools showed less segregation than neighborhoods, indicating that local policies were helping to ameliorate the effects of residential segregation on school composition. By 2000, however, racial composition of schools had become more closely correlated to neighborhood composition, indicating that public policies no longer redistributed students as evenly as before.[14]

A 2013 study corroborated these findings, showing that the relationship between residential and school segregation became stronger over the decade 2000-2010. In 2000, segregation of blacks in schools was lower than in their neighborhoods; by 2010, the two patterns of segregation were “nearly identical."[13]

Supreme Court rulings

Although the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education set desegregation efforts in motion, subsequent rulings have created serious obstacles to continued integration. The court’s 1970 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education furthered desegregation efforts by upholding busing as a constitutional means to achieve integration within a school district, but the ruling had no effect on the increasing level of segregation between school districts.[15] The court’s ruling in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974 prohibited interdistrict desegregation by busing.[16]

The 1990 decision in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell declared that once schools districts had made a practicable, “good faith” effort to desegregate, they could be declared to have achieved “unitary” status, releasing them from court oversight.[17] The decision allowed schools to end previous desegregation efforts even in cases where a return to segregation was likely.[15] The court’s ruling in Freeman v. Pitts went further, ruling that districts could be released from oversight in “incremental stages," meaning that courts would continue to supervise only those aspects of integration that had not yet been achieved.[16]

A 2012 study determined that “half of all districts ever under court-ordered desegregation [had] been released from court oversight, with most of the releases occurring in the last 20 years.” The study found that segregation levels in school districts did not rise sharply following court dismissal, but rather increased gradually for the next 10 to 12 years. As compared to districts that had never been placed under court supervision, districts that had achieved unitary status and were released from court-ordered desegregation had a subsequent change in segregation patterns that was 10 times as great. The study concludes that “court-ordered desegregation plans are effective in reducing racial school segregation, but…their effects fade over time in the absence of continued court oversight."[17]

In a pair of rulings in 2007 (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education), the court’s decision limited schools’ ability to use race as a consideration in school assignment plans. In both cases, the Court struck down school assignment plans designed to ensure that the racial composition of schools roughly reflected the composition of the district as a whole, saying that the plans were not “narrowly tailored” to achieve the stated goal and that race-neutral alternatives had not been given adequate consideration.[18]

School choice

While greater school choice could potentially increase integration by drawing students from larger and more geographically diverse areas (as opposed to segregated neighborhoods), expanded choice often has the opposite effect.[19] Studies conducted on the relationship between expanded school choice and school segregation show that when studies compare the racial/ethnic composition of charter schools to local public schools, researchers generally find that charter schools preserve or intensify existing racial and economic segregation, and/or facilitate white flight from public schools [20] Furthermore, studies that compare individual students’ demographic characteristics to the schools they are leaving (public schools) and the schools they are switching to (charter schools) generally demonstrate that students “leave more diverse public schools and enroll in less diverse charter schools.”[20]

Private schools constitute a second important type of school choice. A 2002 study found that private schools continued to contribute to the persistence of school segregation in the South over the course of the 1990s. Enrollment of whites in private schools increased sharply in the 1970s, remained unchanged in the 1980s, and increased again over the course of the 1990s. Because the changes over the latter two decades was not substantial, however, researcher Sean Reardon concludes that changes in private school enrollment is not a likely contributor to any changes in schools segregation patterns during that time.[14]

In contrast to charter and private schools, magnet schools generally foster racial integration rather than hinder it.[19] Such schools were initially presented as an alternative to unpopular busing policies, and included explicit desegregation goals along with provisions for recruiting and providing transportation for diverse populations.[18] Although today's magnet schools are no longer as explicitly oriented towards integration efforts, they continue to be less racially isolated than other forms of school choice.[18]

Implications of segregation

Educational outcomes

The level of racial segregation in schools has important implications for the educational outcomes of minority students. Desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s led to substantial academic gains for black students; as integration increased, blacks' educational attainment increased while that of whites remained largely unchanged.[17] Historically, greater access to schools with higher enrollments of white students helped "reduce blacks’ high school dropout rate, reduce the black-white test score gap, and improve outcomes for black in areas such as earnings, health, and incarceration.”[11]

Nationwide, minority students continue to be concentrated in high-poverty, low-achieving schools, while white students are more likely to attend high-achieving, more affluent schools.[11] Resources such as funds and high-quality teachers attach unequally to schools according to racial and socioeconomic composition.[11] Schools with high proportions of minority enrollment are often characterized by "less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials."[21] These schools also tend to have less challenging curricula and fewer offerings of Advanced Placement courses.[21]

Access to resources is not the only factor determining education outcomes; the very racial composition of schools can have an effect independent of the level of other resources. A 2009 study determined that attending school with a high proportion of black students negatively affected black academic achievement, even after controlling for school quality, differences in ability, and family background. The effect of racial composition on white achievement was insignificant.[22]

Short-term versus long-term outcomes

The research that has been conducted on the effects of school segregation can be divided into studies that observe short-term and long-term outcomes of segregated schooling; these outcomes can be either academic or non-academic in nature. Studies of short-term outcomes observe the relationship between school segregation and outcomes such as academic achievement (test scores), racial prejudice/fear, and cross-cultural friendships. Long-term outcomes may refer to educational attainment, occupational attainment, adults’ intergroup relations, crime and violence, and civic engagement.[23]

The mixed findings of research on the effects of integration on black students has resulted in ambiguous conclusions as to the influence of desegregation plans.[22] Generally, integration has a small but beneficial impact on short-term outcomes for blacks (i.e. education achievement), and a clearly beneficial impact on longer-term outcomes, such as school attainment (i.e. level of education attained) and earnings.[24] Integrated education is positively related to short-term outcomes such as K–12 school performance, cross-racial friendships, acceptance of cultural differences, and declines in racial fears and prejudice. In the long run, integration is associated with higher educational and occupational attainment across all ethnic groups, better intergroup relations, greater likelihood of living and working in an integrated environment, lower likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system, espousal of democratic values, and greater civic engagement.[23]

A 1994 study found support for the theory that interracial contact in elementary or secondary school positively affects long-term outcomes in a way that can help blacks overcome perpetual segregation.[25] The study reviewed previous research and determined that, as compared to segregated blacks, desegregated blacks are more likely to set higher occupational aspirations, attend desegregated colleges, have desegregated social and professional networks as adults, gain desegregated employment, and work in white-collar and professional jobs in the private sector.

Short-term and long-term benefits of integration are found for minority and majority students alike. Students who attend integrated schools are more likely to live in diverse neighborhoods as adults than those students who attended more segregated schools. Integrated schools also reduce the maintenance of stereotypes and prevent the formation of prejudices in both majority and minority students.[13]

Proposed policies

Although the Supreme Court's ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 limited school districts' ability to take race into account during the school assignment process, the ruling did not prohibit racial considerations altogether. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, a school district may consider race when using any of the following strategies: "site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the racial demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted manner; [and] tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race."[18] Districts may use income-based school assignment policies to try to indirectly achieve racial integration, but in practice such policies are not guaranteed to produce even a modest degree of racial integration.[26]

Other researchers argue that, given restrictive court rulings and the increasingly strong relationship between neighborhood and school segregation, integration efforts should instead focus on reducing racial segregation in neighborhoods.[13] This could be achieved, in part, by greater enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and/or removal of low-density zoning laws. Policy could also set aside low-income housing in new community developments that have a strong school district based on income.[21]

In the school choice realm, policy can ensure that greater choice facilitates integration by, for instance, adopting "civil rights policies" for charter schools.[21] Such policies could require charter schools to recruit diverse faculty and students, provide transportation to ensure access for poor students, and/or have a racial composition that does not differ greatly from that of the public school population.[19] Expanding the availability of magnet schools—which were initially created with school desegregation efforts and civil rights policies in mind—could also lead to increased integration, especially in those instances when magnet schools can draw students from separate (and segregated) attendance zones and school districts.[18] Alternatively, states could move towards county- or region-level school districting, allowing students to be drawn from larger and more diverse geographic areas.[13]

According to some scholars, school assignment policies should primarily focus on socioeconomic integration rather than racial integration. As Richard D. Kahlenberg writes, "Racial integration is a very important aim, but if one's goal is boosting academic achievement, what really matters is economic integration." [27] Kahlenberg refers to a body of research showing that the low overall socioeconomic status of a school is clearly linked to less learning for students, even after controlling for age, race, and family socioeconomic status. In particular, the socioeconomic composition of a school may lead to lower student achievement through its effect on "school processes," such as academic climate and teachers' expectations of students' ability to learn.[28] If reforms could equalize these school processes across schools, socioeconomic and racial integration policies might not be necessary to close achievement gaps.[28] Sociologist Amy Stuart Wells, however, argues that the original intent of school desegregation was to improve blacks’ access to important social institutions and opportunities, thereby improving their long-run life outcomes.[29] Discussions about ending racial integration policies, though, largely focus on the relationship between integration and short-run outcomes such as test scores.[29] In Stuart's view, long-term outcomes should be emphasized in order to appreciate the true social importance of integration.

See also

United States
Other countries


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Further reading

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