Report: School Segregation Is Back, 60 Years After “Brown”


May 15, 2014

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools are unconstitutional, led to some progress in ensuring that black and white children attended school together.

But 60 years later, much of that change has been rolled back, according to a new report by the UCLA Project on Civil Rights, the first major national evaluation of school segregation in decades.

The report found that re-segregation has happened gradually, amid court rulings allowing states to set aside integration orders, and a growing Latino population, which has experienced the most dramatic increase in segregation.

For Black Schoolchildren, “The Progress Achieved … Is Gone”

After Brown, the federal government began to force primarily southern states to integrate schools — and made some progress.

In the south, the percentage of black children in white schools began to rise steadily from zero to nearly 44 percent in 1988. That’s where it peaked. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations launched strong legal attacks on desegregation orders, while also shifting the focus to “school choice” and “excellence” in schools in a way that de-emphasized equality, or even posed that as a tradeoff, according to Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor at Penn State University, who co-authored the report.

In 1991, the Supreme Court allowed such plans to be terminated. After that, the number of black students in white schools steadily declined.

Today, the south, which saw the most intervention, is the most integrated region for black students. But the overall trend has been toward re-segregation. By 2011, the percentage of black students in majority white schools was 23.2 percent — slightly lower than it was in 1968.

Today, nearly two-thirds of districts under court order to desegregate are no longer required to do so. “The progress achieved in the last 46 years on this measure of segregation is gone,” the report said.

For Latino Children, Little Integration   

Latinos are now the largest minority group in the U.S. And Latino children are now also the most segregated, with the percentage increasing every year since the federal government began collecting data, according to the report.

The history of school segregation for Latinos is different: While Southern states had laws keeping black children out of white schools, the mandates didn’t necessarily apply to Latinos.

Still, Latino children in Texas and the southwest often were made to attend separate schools or even classrooms, known as “Mexican rooms,” because it was assumed the children didn’t have the aptitude of their white counterparts.

For years it was difficult to track segregation of Latino children because their school enrollment numbers weren’t even counted in many areas until 1968. The Supreme Court didn’t decide until 1973 that Latinos had the same rights to attend integrated schools as blacks. But by then the federal government’s aggressive push to enforce segregation orders had died down.

Today, the average Latino student attends a school that’s nearly 57 percent Latino, more segregated than blacks and Asians. Although Latinos are more likely to experience segregation in urban areas, the report found that division persists when they move to the suburbs.

White Children Are the Most Isolated

The UCLA report also found that white children are most likely to attend segregated schools — with the highest rate of exposure to their own group, and the lowest rate of exposure to children of other races.

The average white student attends schools that are nearly 73 percent white. The disparity is particularly stark in suburbs and rural areas.

Asian Students Have More Exposure to Whites

Asian students tend to be enrolled in schools with a higher percentage of white students than any other racial group — nearly 40 percent. These students are more likely to live in middle-class or affluent communities, the report found. After whites, they have the lowest exposure to black students.

Why School Integration Helps Minorities…

School segregation is deeply entwined with poverty and housing, which also has a long history of segregation. The UCLA Project on Civil Rights has conducted statewide studies finding that blacks and Latinos typically attend schools with twice as much poverty as whites and Asians.

“The defaults for whites and Asians is middle class, and the default for blacks and Latinos is impoverished schools,” said Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor who co-authored the report. That means poorer facilities and materials, and often less qualified teachers.

Teachers are likely to deal more harshly with problem students in these schools, the report said, noting that rates of expulsion and student discipline are much higher in minority segregated schools. By contrast, in majority white schools, the first move might be to contact parents, not the police.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office found that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. It’s a disparity that begins in preschool, where black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children who are suspended more than once.

… But Also Benefits White Students

Studies have found that students who attend schools with kids who look differently and come from other backgrounds do better socially and psychologically, Frankenberg said. That’s increasingly important as the nation’s white majority shrinks.

In integrated schools, children “are less likely to develop racial stereotypes and prejudices, and are better able to reach across the color lines” to work with people from different backgrounds, Frankenberg said. “Other research has said that being exposed to different viewpoints in classrooms helps students develop more critical thinking skills. It’s a newer body of research, but it really points to these important, softer skills that are increasingly important in our diverse society.”

What’s Next

Frankenberg said that several communities have reached out, looking for advice on how to improve diversity within their school districts.

But to effect widespread change, the UCLA report recommends broad structural reform, including more aggressively addressing housing discrimination, redrawing school districts in ways to diversify school populations, shifting charter school missions to focus on diversity to paying higher teacher salaries.

“There is no evidence that these problems are self-curing,” the report said. “In fact, evidence shows that they are a basic structure of intergenerational inequality.”

However, it’s not clear how much momentum there might be for comprehensive reform, as the report notes that Congress has failed to pass major education reform since 2002.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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