Brown v. Board at 70

Seven decades after de jure segregation was outlawed, de facto segregation is alive and well.

AP‘s Annie Ma (“70 years ago, school integration was a dream many believed could actually happen. It hasn’t.“):

Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separating children in schools by race was unconstitutional. On paper, that decision — the fabled Brown v. Board of Education, taught in most every American classroom — still stands.

But for decades, American schools have been re-segregating. The country is more diverse than it ever has been, with students more exposed to classmates from different backgrounds. Still, around 4 out of 10 Black and Hispanic students attend schools where almost every one of their classmates is another student of color.

This framing is awful. The unanimous ruling did not require the integration of schools. It merely outlawed segregation mandated by law. As Chief Justice Warren noted in framing the matter before the Court, “In each of the cases, minors of the Negro race, through their legal representatives, seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each instance, they had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race.”

Regardless, as Ma rightly notes, after years of fighting to actually enforce Brown’s mandate, there was indeed a strong push for integration. That is, to end de facto rather than merely de jure segregation.

We remember Brown v. Board as the end of segregated schools in the United States. But stating values does not, alone, change reality. Though the case was decided in 1954, it was followed by more than a decade of delay and avoidance before school districts began to meaningfully allow Black students to enter white schools.

It took further court rulings, monitoring and enforcement to bring a short-lived era of integration to hundreds of school districts. For the students who took part in those desegregation programs, their life trajectory changed — the more years spent in integrated schools, the better Black children fared on measures like educational attainment, graduation rates, health, and earning potential, with no adverse effects on white children.

For a brief period, it seemed the country recognized the deeper remedies required. “All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in Swann v. Mecklenburg, a 1971 decision that upheld the use of busing to integrate schools in North Carolina. “But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation.”

But not long after, another series of court decisions would unwind those outcomes. Fifty years ago, in Milliken v. Bradley, the court struck down a plan for integrating Detroit public schools across school district lines. The ruling undermined desegregation efforts in the north and Midwest, where small districts allowed white families to escape integration.

Other decisions followed. In Freeman v. Pitts, the court ruled resegregation from private choice and demographic shifts could not be monitored by the court. More than 200 districts were released from court-monitored desegregation plans. By 2007, when the court ruled in Parents Involved v. Seattle Public Schools, even voluntary integration plans could no longer consider assigning students on the basis of race.

“If you have the tools taken away from you … by the Supreme Court, then you really don’t have a whole lot of tools,” said Stephan Blanford, a former Seattle Public Schools board member.

Bussing and other tools for achieving integration were wildly controversial, among Whites and Blacks alike, for all manner of reasons. Indeed, there was soon significant backlash within the Black community to desegregation, as an unintended consequence was to take Black children who had been in underfunded schools that had caring Black teachers and principals into ones with racist White teachers and principals.

But, while I didn’t agree with the policy while it was a live controversy,* Burger’s analysis is certainly right. If Black kids were overwhelmingly in poor neighborhoods with poorly funded schools, they were at a significant disadvantage that didn’t go away because it was a function of economics (and past racism) rather than Jim Crow laws.

The arc of history is clear in the city where the landmark Swann busing case originated.

At its peak, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was considered such a success at integrating classrooms and closing the gap between Black and white students that educators around the country came to tour the district. Today, more than 20 years after a court ruling overturned busing students on the basis of race, CMS is the most segregated district in North Carolina.

While there are no laws that keep kids siloed by race and income, in so many schools that is the reality.

Charlotte’s sprawling, complex busing plan brought Black and white students into the same schools — and by extension, made white children’s resources available to Black students for the first time. The district’s integration program ended when white families sued after their children did not get their top choice of school placement in a lottery that considered race.

Instead, the district created a school assignment process that said diversity “will be based on the family’s decisions.” It left the families of Mecklenburg County, some of whom have always had better choices than others, on their own. In the first year of the district’s choice program, Black families were more likely to try to use the choice plan to pick an alternative school. They were also more likely to get none of the magnet schools they wanted.

In the decades that followed, the district re-segregated. Years of busing had unwound the segregated makeup of the schools, but the underlying disparities and residential segregation had been left untouched.

So, obviously, outlawing a specific set of racially-motivated practices doesn’t end racism. (Although, over time, it chips away at it.) But the original sin here isn’t racism but locality-based funding of schools.** There really shouldn’t be “good schools” and “bad schools” within a school system.

*I was in my early teens and considerably more conservative than I am today.

**Which, of course, could have roots in racism. But I suspect not as the main factor.

FILED UNDER: Education, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jack says:

    I saw you posted this much earlier. Quite frankly, I found it a nice piece of writing. I was surprised it didn’t receive comments.

    Unfortunately, this is just tripe:

    “So, obviously, outlawing a specific set of racially-motivated practices doesn’t end racism. (Although, over time, it chips away at it.) But the original sin here isn’t racism but locality-based funding of schools.** There really shouldn’t be “good schools” and “bad schools” within a school system.”

    Its not racism, And if you think that parents of kids in good systems are going to subject them to the pathologies of the inner city that the Great Society created, you need to exit the opium den you are in.

    My daughter taught in the Kipp program in DC, for “underprivileged” kids (read: black). The stories. The kids are mostly wonderful. Their parents are the issue. She had a kid she wanted to advance a grade or 2!). The black parents – oh, Nigerian – were totally involved in the child. Thats Case A. About a third of her kids were a mess. Case B. All single parent households. And mostly only spoke to the teacher, my daughter, when they wanted to bitch. As she relayed, I had parents who came in high, drunk and had been on the streets all night. These kids have no chance. Just no chance.

    This isn’t racism. Its the welfare state we created with The Great Society. Prior to that black families stayed tight. Were progressing. Complain if you want that it didn’t meet the pace you desired. But they were. Be careful what you wish for. The left effed it all up. I suspect to create a permanent voting bloc. Can anyone say immigration???

  2. DrDaveT says:

    But the original sin here isn’t racism but locality-based funding of schools.

    Speaking as someone who has railed against local funding and curriculum control for schools at least as much as anyone else in this forum… No. Seriously. Without the racism, without slavery, without Jim Crow, all of these problems would have solved themselves already. Urban vs. rural is very weak tea without the racist part.

  3. DrDaveT says:


    Its the welfare state we created with The Great Society. Prior to that black families stayed tight.

    Congratulations — that might be the most ignorant statement I’ve seen on OTB this year. Given the competition, it’s quite an achievement.

  4. Andy says:

    But the original sin here isn’t racism but locality-based funding of schools.

    Money only matters so much.

    Here in Colorado, we haven’t had locality-funded schools since 1994.

    Localities still provide funds, but none raise enough to fund school districts – localities only provide about 1/3 of school funds on average, the majority of funding is provided by the state. The 1994 law required the state to use a formula to equalize funding across districts – a wealthy district with more local funding will get less from the state, while a district with less local revenue will get more from the state, all else being equal.

    The funding formula includes various adjustments for the cost of living, personnel costs, district size, and other factors, including a proxy for poor students (eligibility for a federal free lunch program that gives the district more money).

    Districts then generally have some latitude on spending priorities.

    Capital and building projects are handled differently with bonds or via special funds from the state. Districts can raise a special tax to generate revenue for the district above the state cap, but only in a limited amount. I live in one of the top 10 ranked districts in the state and voters here have shot down every proposal that’s come up. They are pretty rare.

    Like anything based on a formula, it can’t account for much of the real-world complexity of a diverse state like Colorado. Of course, there are always complaints about how the cost of living is calculated, among other things. And because districts have discretion in how to budget what they are given, there are some issues about priorities. Let’s just say that some districts allocate their budgets more wisely than others.

    Regardless, it is definitely not a system where rich districts have a direct money advantage due to locality, although locality and being in a wealthy area do still have advantages, as they always do and always will.

    After 30 years, there are still good districts and bad districts here in Colorado.

    The idea that unequal funding leads to unequal educational outcomes is only true to a certain point. Once schools have an adequate funding baseline, that ceases to be true, and then other factors take over. I would especially point to selection effects. Here in Colorado, being in a wealthy neighborhood doesn’t matter much for your local school funding, but it matters for your peer group, social environment, and other things. A wealthy district will have more educated high-SES parents, etc. A lot of the underperforming districts here in Colorado are small and in rural areas – these districts get a lot more money per pupil (some almost twice as much as my district), but it’s harder to attract talent than a larger urban district and smaller districts have inherent disadvantages.

  5. Gustopher says:


    found it a nice piece of writing. I was surprised it didn’t receive comments.

    It was well written, but fairly straightforward and accurate and not really needing a comment. I was going to comment something like “well written” but I was distracted by a cat.

    Its not racism, And if you think that parents of kids in good systems are going to subject them to the pathologies of the inner city that the Great Society created, you need to exit the opium den you are in.

    This is called structural racism, and if you actually understood the CRT the far right complains about, you would recognize it.

    The lack of familial wealth from generations of policies including slavery and discrimination means that Black families are disproportionately affected by policies and structures that are not, on the surface, affected by race.

    Basing school funding on local property taxes also ends up affecting working class white families, making it much harder for their kids to move up the social ladder too.

    But, since it’s considered a “Black problem” “over there” it isn’t prioritized, and we leave some precious White kids behind along with the Black kids and the Brown kids.

    Plus, it’s not like rural school districts are doing well either, and Rural America is kind of Cracker Central.

    So, whether you want to call that racism or not, the “over there” and “those people” aspects hurt little cracker babies as well as the Black and Brown kids.

  6. DeD says:


    Oh, Gus, you’re barking up an empty tree. Jack probably tripped on the sofa leg and banged his head on the coffee table from the vertigo your complex and nuanced answer caused him. A valiant try, though.

  7. Gustopher says:


    Its the welfare state we created with The Great Society.

    Our social programs, as implemented, do have at least one element that is a trap, and that actively prevents people from getting off of them: the hard cutoff for a lot of benefits.

    Simply put, with made up numbers, there are programs where if you make up to $10,000/yr, you qualify for $3,000 in benefits (food stamps, housing subsidies, etc). But, if you make $10,001, you don’t qualify. So, theres actually a penalty for working more hours or getting a better job — until you cross $13,000/yr.

    Add in that we allow jobs to pay so low that workers qualify for state and federal benefits, and now the wage market is weirdly distorted at the bottom, where the government is subsidizing cheap labor for corporations, and preventing people from moving up the pay scale to better jobs.

    And for an assortment of historical reasons, this will have a disproportionate impact on Black folks, Brown folks and recent immigrants. A mix of structural racism (or structural classism, if you want to whitewash it), as well as just plain racism.

    (And then we could get into student loans, and the number of jobs that now require a degree, where nothing in that degree is actually a part of the job)

    @DeD: Sometimes it’s fun to poke them when they are within 20 feet of a clue. They won’t get a clue, but it’s kind of fun to try to get them to wallow around aimlessly tripping over it.

  8. JKB says:

    Edward Glaeser had this to say about the impact of force busing on cities

    EF: You wrote that court-ordered school busing and the reaction to it played a role. In what way?

    Glaeser: The way that busing got implemented was the court requirement getting rid of segregation in cities. But there was also a court ruling saying that you could not force desegregation across city boundaries.

    For example, the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974 said essentially that federal courts could not require desegregation across school districts. What that meant was that if you wanted to avoid busing, either for racist reasons or for some other reasons, you could get that only by leaving the school districts — by leaving the city. And so, for thousands and thousands of parents, that’s when they moved, sometimes just outside the city’s school district.

    If you had metropolitan-area-level desegregation efforts, that would not have created the same incentive. Or if you had something that was more like a charter school system or like a voucher school system. Anything that breaks the link between where you live and where you go to school would’ve been less harmful for cities. But as it was, this was yet another huge incentive for parents to get out. And a harmful one.

    And ex post, if you look at the Opportunity Atlas data created by my colleague Raj Chetty and his co-authors, there was a clear and discernable break in upward mobility at the border of central city school districts across America. Opportunity jumps up if you’re just outside the central city school districts as opposed to just inside it. This is a cohort that was born between 1978 and 1983, and you can see it in their adult earnings. They are also significantly less likely to be incarcerated as an adult.

  9. DeD says:


    I don’t know where you’re getting that data, but they bussed us from MLK, Jr. Middle School to Southie, and I’ll gd guarantee you that those weren’t the same school districts.


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