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The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America – from Brown to Now

Authors: Gary Orfield and Ryan Pfleger
Date Published: April 03, 2024

Brown v. Board of Education was a turning point in American law and race relations. In a country where segregated education was the law in seventeen states with completely separate and unequal schools, Brown found that segregation was “inherently unequal” and violated the Constitution. This report discusses the present realities of school segregation and the patterns of change over 70 years.
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Executive Summary:  The Data

  • Schools have become less white and more Latino, Asian, and multiracial. Whites made up 45.3% of enrollment in 2021, down from 80.7% in 1968. Latinos made up 28.2% of enrollment in 2021, up from 4.7% in 1968. Blacks have been a relatively stable population, around a sixth of the total.
  • The proportion of schools that were intensely segregated (with zero to 10% whites) nearly tripled over the last 30 years, rising from 7.4% to 20%.
  • Intensely segregated schools have high poverty levels, producing double segregation by race and poverty. In 2021, 78% of their students were poor.
  • Black and Latino students were the most highly segregated in 2021. Though U.S. schools were 45% white, Blacks, on average, attended 76% nonwhite schools, Latino students 75% nonwhite.
  • The 17 Southern and Border states long segregated by state law were the major target of federal desegregation efforts.
  • Latino desegregation was delayed and weakly enforced.
  • The Supreme Court blocked desegregation of metro areas.
  • Major desegregation of Southern Black students occurred and grew most in the 1960s and 1970s. Virtually all Southern Blacks were segregated before Brown. The share of Black students in majority white schools in the South reached a peak of 43% in the 1980s. After the Supreme Court directed ending desegregation plans in 1991, it declined to about 16% by 2021.
  • The share of Latino students in majority white schools in the South fell from 30.4% in 1968 to 15.4% in 2021.
  • No Southern state went against the average trend of rising Black-white integration in the 1960s and 1970s and growing segregation since 1990.
  • Supreme Court decisions and federal civil rights laws have dramatic consequences for integrating public schools and then resegregating them.
  • Among U.S. communities, central city schools are the most segregated with Black and Latino students attending schools that are, respectively, 84% and 83% nonwhite.
  • Rural schools had much higher contact for Black and Latino students with white students. White students were a much higher share of the rural school population.
  • The suburbs of large size metros have a great deal of diversity but high levels of segregation.
  • There are two large publicly supported systems of school choice: magnet schools and charter schools. Charter schools are more seriously segregated than traditional public schools. About 2/5 of charter schools were intensely segregated – almost double the national average and triple the magnet schools’ average. Magnet schools were significantly less segregated than charters although charters can often draw students from across district boundaries.
  • Mandatory desegregation was largely dissolved as the Supreme Court changed policy. Voluntary desegregation plans were limited by the Supreme Court in 2007.
  • Asian enrollment continues to grow with 2.8 million in 2021 (5.8% of total enrollment), up from 1.3 million in 1990 (3.5% of total enrollment). Asian students attend schools with higher-income students in rates similar to white students and far more than Black and Latino students.


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