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Brown At 50: King’s Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?

Authors: Gary Orfield, Chungmei Lee
Date Published: January 01, 2004

School segregation is not inevitable. We discuss policies that could reverse these trends. The language in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action and the integration of higher education offer some real hope for improvement.
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Executive Summary:

A half-century after the Supreme Court found that segregated schools are “inherently unequal,” there is growing evidence that the Court was correct. Desegregated schools offer tangible advantages for students of each racial group. Our new work, however, shows that U.S. schools are becoming more segregated in all regions for both African American and Latino students. We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the nation are becoming increasingly segregated.

This report examines a decade of resegregation from the time of the Supreme Court’s 1991 Dowell decision, which authorized a return to neighborhood schools, even if that would create segregation, through the 2001-2002 school year. It goes beyond our previous reports to study the impact of resegregation in districts whose where court orders have been ended and includes new data on the present situation of the four communities involved in the first Brown decision a half century ago as well as of a number of districts whose subsequent cases produced decisive changes in the law of school desegregation. It also considers the very different desegregation levels in communities of differing sizes. Finally, it reviews the broad sweep of segregation changes nationally, regionally, and by state since the 1954 Brown decision. It shows that the movement that began with the Supreme Court decision has had an enduring impact but that we are experiencing the largest backward movement in the South, where the court decisions and civil rights laws had produced the most integrated schools in the nation for three decades.

Major findings include:

  • In many districts where court-ordered desegregation was ended in the past decade, there has been a major increase in segregation. The courts assumed that the forces that produced segregation and inequality had been cured. This report shows they have not been.


  • Among the four districts included in the original Brown decision, the trajectory of educational desegregation and resegregation varies widely, and it is intriguing that three of the four cases show considerable long-term success in realizing desegregated education.


  • Rural and small town school districts are, on average, the nation’s most integrated for both African Americans and Latinos. Central cities of large metropolitan areas are the epicenter of segregation; segregation is also severe in smaller central cities and in the suburban rings of large metros.


  • There has been a substantial slippage toward segregation in most of the states that were highly desegregated in 1991. The most integrated state for African Americans in 2001 is Kentucky. The most desegregated states for Latinos are in the Northwest. However, in some states with very low black populations, school segregation is soaring as desegregation efforts are abandoned.


  • American public schools are now only 60 percent white nationwide and nearly one fourth of U.S. students are in states with a majority of nonwhite students. However, except in the South and Southwest, most white students have little contact with minority students.


  • Asians, in contrast, are the most integrated and by far the most likely to attend multiracial schools with a significant presence of three or more racial groups. Asian students are in schools with the smallest concentration of their own racial group.


  • The vast majority of intensely segregated minority schools face conditions of concentrated poverty, which are powerfully related to unequal educational opportunity. Students in segregated minority schools face conditions that students in segregated white schools seldom experience.


  • Latinos confront very serious levels of segregation by race and poverty, and non- English speaking Latinos tend to be segregated in schools with each other. The data show no substantial gains in segregated education for Latinos even during the civil rights era. The increase in Latino segregation is particularly notable in the West.


  • There has been a massive demographic transformation of the West, which has become the nation’s first predominantly minority region in terms of total public school enrollment. This has produced a sharp increase in Latino segregation.
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