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segregation school court desegregation

The Supreme Court’s historic school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka , was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. The 1954 ruling outlawed racial segregation in public schools and led to the dismantling of a legal regime that had relegated African Americans to a subordinated position in American society . Brown was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated litigation campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had challenged segregation in a series of lawsuits spanning two decades.

The events that led to Brown commenced more than a half-century earlier, when the Reconstruction era ended and southern states began to enact laws that established a system of racial segregation. In 1892, a test case was organized in New Orleans, Louisiana, that challenged an ordinance requiring segregation on public transportation. Acting on a prearranged plan, Homer Plessy was arrested after refusing to leave a railroad car reserved for white passengers. Plessy’s lawyers were confident that the law violated the Fourteenth and Thirteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution because it treated African Americans differently and less favorably than white passengers. In 1896, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that, “the enforced separation of the races … neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man, deprives him of this property without due process of law, nor denies him equal protection of the law, within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Plessy endorsed segregation and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. The Court held that segregation laws did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment if the facilities provided for blacks were equal to those reserved for whites. Reflecting the racial sentiments of the time, the Court concluded that “[i]f one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” After Plessy , the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were essentially nullified in the South. African Americans were disenfranchised, confined to substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods, and excluded from all but the lowest-paying, least desirable occupations.


Court-supervised school desegregation proceeded slowly for several years after Milliken , relying heavily on intra-district busing to achieve racial balance in schools. In the early 1990s, the Supreme Court revised its approach with a number of “resegregation” decisions: Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell ; Freeman v. Pitts ; and Missouri v. Jenkins . In Dowell , the Supreme Court modified the standard for determining “unitary status”—the point at which the desegregation obligation has been satisfied and court supervision is no longer necessary. The Court ruled in Dowell that the test for determining unitary status was whether the school board “had complied in good faith with the [original] desegregation decree,” and whether all “vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.” In Freeman v. Pitts , a case involving a school district adjacent to Atlanta, Georgia, the Court found that when segregated schools persist because of changes in the racial composition of neighborhoods or other “external” factors, school districts could not be held responsible unless those conditions were caused by actions taken by school officials.

Dowell and Freeman eviscerated the Green standard, which established an obligation to eliminate all vestiges of segregation “root and branch.” Under the Court’s relaxed formula, school districts were obligated to eradicate vestiges of segregation only to “the extent practicable.” This was affirmed in Jenkins , where the majority ruled that the test for determining unitary status was not a determination that all vestiges of the formerly segregated system had been eliminated “root and branch,” but whether school districts complied in good faith with the desegregation decrees, and whether the remnants of past discrimination had been eliminated to the “extent practicable.” The Court also found that segregated housing patterns, which affected the racial composition of schools, would not preclude a unitary status finding unless they could be directly attributed to the actions of school officials.

The assumption underlying the resegregation decisions is that schools only have to desegregate to the extent that it is possible to do so. Any segregation that continues is caused by housing patterns that reflect what the Supreme Court characterized as the “private choices” of individual families. This is a debatable premise, because black and Latino families do not have the range of housing choices that are available to whites with comparable incomes and credit histories. Studies regularly produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other organizations demonstrate that the choices of these groups are constrained by discriminatory practices that perpetuate segregated neighborhoods.

The Supreme Court’s redefinition of unitary status requires lower courts to hold that the desegregation obligation has been satisfied, even when school enrollments reflect the segregated housing patterns of the neighborhoods in which they are located. This has led to unitary status findings in school districts across the nation. As high levels of residential segregation persist in most urban neighborhoods, public schools in those communities have been resegregating since the mid-1990s.


Critics of the Brown decision fall into two categories: those that argue that Brown went too far, and those that argue that it did not go far enough. Some critics, such as Michael Klarman, have argued that Brown unnecessarily radicalized the social and political climate in the South. These critics claim that, without Brown , segregation would have ended in a more gradual manner with broader support among southern whites. Other critics, including Derrick Bell, assert Brown put too great a focus on desegregation at the expense of educational quality, and point out that one consequence of Brown has been the loss of black institutional control of some schools, to the detriment of black students. In Bell’s view, competent and caring instruction in an all-black environment would have been preferable to the obstacles encountered by many black students in the years following the Brown decision. A third group of critics argue that, notwithstanding Brown ‘s holding, a failure of enforcement has made the decision impotent. Gary Orfield and James Patterson have each identified a trend toward resegregation in Brown’s aftermath, a persistent black-white achievement gap, and a mood of pessimism at Brown ’s uncertain legacy.

Brown v. Board of Education was among the most important and far-reaching Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century, and its imprint extended well beyond public school desegregation. The decision sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately led to the nullification of a network of state and local laws that enforced discrimination and segregation. Those in a position to do so took advantage of the educational, employment, and other opportunities that were not available to African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. For this segment of the African-American population, the civil rights movement created unprecedented avenues for advancement.

However, the benefits that flowed from the Brown decision have not been evenly distributed across the urban landscape. For the one-fourth of the African-American population that have low incomes and reside in the nation’s inner cities, the Brown decision has had little tangible affect. Families that reside in those communities endure conditions that are, in many ways, as distressed as those their forbears endured during the depths of the segregation era. They suffer from high levels of unemployment, substandard educational opportunities, and unsafe communities.

Browne, Hugh M.(1851–1923) - Educator, civil rights activist, minister, Critiques Liberian Systems and Experiences Controversy [next] [back] Brown, Tom (Red)

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