Racial Integration of Schools in the United States

Racial Integration of Schools in the United States

February is African American History Month, a time when the United States pays tribute to generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. In this context, this blog concentrates on one key lever for achieving social equality, educational opportunity, which has been a traditional path to social mobility for marginalized groups. In the US, unequal educational opportunities in the form of school segregation can be a strong impediment to progress in this area. We take a brief look at the racial integration of schools in the United States. We recognize at the outset that this is a deep area of study that goes well beyond the scope of a blog entry. Hence, we limit ourselves to presenting evidence of de facto school segregation continuing, and in some cases getting worse, relative to school segregation in 1968. Giving space and scope constraints implied, we do not discuss the vibrant and important ongoing debates on school, funding, academic achievements, and other numerous and deeply compelling issues of this critical policy area.

The US has a long history of legal racial segregation of its schools, which ended via Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 ruling to end segregated schools.(1) In 1955, the Supreme Court then followed up with an additional case, Brown v. Board of Education (II), which dealt with numerous all-white schools in the United States that had not followed the Court’s 1954 ruling and had not integrated their schools. The court ordered school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Ten years after, many school districts in states with school segregation developed “freedom of choice” plans to give their students the right to choose schools, independently of their race. In practice, most schools remained segregated, with only a small minority of African American students choosing to attend a majority white students’ school and no white students choosing majority African American students’ schools. The actual desegregation of schools began eroding in practice with the civil rights legislation, such as the l964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the 1968 benchmark Supreme Court ruling in Green v. County Board of Education of New Kent County, which found that “freedom of choice” was no longer a viable means of desegregating noncompliant school districts. Nevertheless, from the perspective of gathering empirical evidence for public policymaking, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision disincentivized states’ publication of data on school quality based on race, and after 1954, states stopped publishing such data. Hence, we focus on the available evidence on the racial composition of schools in the US from 1968 to 2018, to explore how far we have come 50 years after Green v. County Board of Education of New Kent County in desegregating schools “with all deliberate speed.”

The proportion of white public-school students has dropped considerably and continuously for the last quarter-century. This is not because of transfer to private schools, which have a declining share of total enrollment and have themselves become somewhat more diverse. The White decline reflects historically low birth rates and immigration patterns that are overwhelmingly non-White. The changing racial proportions make widespread desegregation more difficult. School desegregation was most actively pursued a half-century ago from the middle l960s to the early l970s, resulting in major declines in the segregation of African American students from l965 to 1972. Desegregation was durable and peaked in 1988. Urban desegregation in the South was ordered in 1971, and a much weaker form in the North in l973 but was critically limited by 1974. There have been no major legal or policy advances since that time. The most extensive and long-lasting desegregation took place in areas with county-wide school districts embracing all or a very large part of a major metro area housing market, much more common in the South than in the industrial North.

The decline in segregation between 1968 and 1972 was concentrated primarily in the southern and border states. In 1968, 77.8 percent of African American students in the South attended schools where minority students constituted at least 90 percent of the student body; this figure dropped to 24.7 percent just four years later. School segregation appears to have increased in the South since the mid-1970s. Observing the high rate of segregation in Orfield’s data for the South in 1968, some scholars have concluded that desegregation did not occur on a wide scale before 1968. Between 1968 and 1989, school segregation for African American children gradually declined in the border states, the Midwest, and the West. In the Northeast, however, African American students are now substantially more racially isolated than they were in 1968. While school segregation rapidly declined in the South between 1968 and 1972, the Northeast experienced a rise in school segregation. Moreover, despite the upward drift in school segregation in the South, that region now has the highest level of racial integration in schools, and the Northeast is now the region of the country where minority students are most racially isolated.

Figure 1. African American Students are More Concentrated in All-minority now than in 1968.

Figure 1 summarizes the state of school integration, which appears to have largely failed. The figure shows the percent of African American children attending majority non-white schools in 1968 and the same percentage in 2018. Fifty years later, the United States as a whole has 81 percent of African American children attending non-white majority schools, as compared to 77 percent in 1968. Moreover, the concentration of African American children into non-white majority schools has increased in every region except the Midwest, which has been broadly stable. We note that the data for the Border region reflects the broader Hispanic immigration, which complicates the comparison to some extent. Nevertheless, it is difficult to attribute such a broad-based and drastic increase in this indicator in regions such as the West and Northeast of the United States to just immigration. For example, student segregation may be occurring at the school district level, which may lie outside school integration efforts occurring within any one school district (e.g., urban school districts versus suburban school districts).

While Figure 1 suggests that no meaningful racial integration of US Schools over has the past five decades, the data suggest that the history of integration efforts is more complex. In Figure 2 we show the same percentage across time and by region, with the roughly five-year readings (the interval available in the Orfield and Jarvie data). In the lower panel, we show the change in the percentage of African American children attending non-white majority schools relative to the prior period. We can observe that school integration efforts appeared to be successful in the 1970s, and moderately successful (at least as compared to later) in the 1980s. However, after 1991, the data show a steady sustained increase in the concentration of African American children in non-white majority schools in every region of the country. The notable exception to this pattern is the Northeast, which demonstrates a pattern of a sustained increase in school racial segregation (as measured by this indicator) throughout the period, with only the 1980s showing some decline.

Figure 2. The Percentage of African American Students in All-minority Schools declined, stabilized, and then increased since 1968.

Resegregation has increased for the past thirty years. The continued, systemic separation of African American children from White majority schools is at odds with the case law and US public policy regarding school integration. There is strong evidence that school assignments impact education outcomes for children of all races, which is critical not only for important social goals but weakens our national long-term economic outlook. The evidence here suggests existing policy efforts have fallen short and new efforts are needed to improve in this important area. New research is looking into possible new roots of segregation, for example at the school district or county level, and tying this to unfair educational opportunities and poor school outcomes. Other research has begun looking at disparities arising in both rural and urban settings, but not suburban schools, as another driving force in variations in school outcomes, as often disproportionately white rural areas are nevertheless are like urban schools, disadvantaged in terms of poverty and test performance.

(1) We gratefully draw throughout from a few key publicly available sources, including the authoritative work of Gary Orfield, the invaluable UCLA Civil Rights Project, Brookings, Heritage, and others, and in particular from “Race and School Quality Since Brown v. Board of Education” by Boozer, Krueger and Wolkon (1992) , and “Black Segregation Matters” by Orfield and Jarvie (2020). Our thanks to these authors and institutions for their work.

Share this

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Scroll to Top