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Are American schools returning to segregation?

The Supreme Court launched the desegregation of schools with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Now, once diverse districts like Goldsboro, N.C., are reverting to segregation, concerning civil rights advocates.

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Nationally, 39 percent of African-American students attend intensely segregated schools, where at least 90 percent are students of color, according to an analysis of 2007 data by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. And it's no longer simply a black-white issue: Forty percent of Latinos are in such schools as well.

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In North Carolina, 18 percent of black students and 13 percent of Latino students attended these intensely segregated schools in 2008.

"Resegregation is a national trend [that has been building] for over a decade," says John C. Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Among the reasons: white families moving out of central cities or removing their children from the public schools there; school districts being released from court-ordered plans, or abandoning voluntary plans, to promote integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; and a series of Supreme Court decisions since the early 1990s that have limited the tools districts can use for integration.

The most recent Supreme Court case came in 2007 and struck down integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky. The court ruled 5 to 4 that districts could not assign students to schools solely on the basis of race, but it held that diversity was a compelling interest that could be pursued in other ways. While some districts have come up with alternatives using a variety of demographic factors, including family income, many have dropped their integration plans.

In Wake County, N.C., less than an hour's drive from Goldsboro, the school board recently voted to end an assignment plan based on socioeconomics, once seen as a national model.

As for the Wayne County case, investigators from the civil rights divisions of the US Education and Justice Departments visited Goldsboro last month for a compliance review related to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by entities that receive federal funds. Officials won't comment on the investigation.

Typically, school districts cooperate to come up with a remedy if there's a finding of discrimination. Absent such cooperation, the government could sue the district and ultimately withhold federal funds.

Broadly speaking, "we wouldn't want to see schools become increasingly segregated again," says Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education. "Diversity is important for lots of reasons. There's evidence that it improves achievement. Certainly [it helps students] to be prepared for this new and interconnected global marketplace.... Damage [is] caused ... when those tools for desegregation are taken away."