Schools More Separate

Consequences of a decade of resegregation

By Gary Orfield

Almost half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that Southern school segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” new statistics from the 1998-99 school year show that segregation continued to intensify throughout the 1990s.

During the decade, there were three major Supreme Court decisions authorizing a return to segregated neighborhood schools and limiting the reach and duration of desegregation orders.

For African-American students, this trend is particularly apparent in the South, where most Blacks live and where the 2000 Census shows a continuing return from the North. From 1988 to 1998, most of the progress of the previous two decades in increasing integration in the region was lost. The South is still much more integrated than it was before the civil rights revolution, but it is moving backward at an accelerating rate.

Until the late 1980’s, segregation had actually been decreasing nationally for Black students, reaching its low point in U.S. history in the late 1980s. Substantial desegregation was most common in the 17 states which had legal apartheid ‘segregation mandated by law’ in their schools before the 1954 Brown decision. Enforcement action was concentrated on those states.

The most far-reaching forms of desegregation, often encompassing entire metropolitan areas, tended to be the most stable and long lasting but were largely limited to Southern countywide school systems.

Most Americans live in metropolitan areas, housing remains seriously segregated, and most current segregation is between school districts of differing racial composition, not within individual districts. As Justice Thurgood Marshall predicted a quarter century ago when the Supreme Court rejected desegregation across city-suburban boundary lines in Milliken v. Bradley, the central cities, many of them largely minority before desegregation, became overwhelmingly nonwhite, overwhelmingly poor, and showed the highest levels of segregation at century’s end.

These trends of increasing resegregation are often dismissed because people believe that nothing can be done. Many Americans believe that desegregation is impossible because of white flight, that it led to a massive transfer to private schools, that public opinion has turned against it, that Blacks no longer support it, and that it is more beneficial for students to use desegregation funding for compensatory education.

None of these things is true.

There have, of course, been unsuccessful and poorly implemented desegregation plans and Black opinion has always been far from unanimous, but a large majority prefers integrated education.

The 2000 Census tells us that Latinos have become the largest minority group in the United States. Unfortunately, Latino school enrollment exploded during the post-civil rights era and very little has been done to provide desegregated education for Latino students. They have been more segregated than Blacks now for a number of years, not only by race and ethnicity but also by poverty. There is also serious segregation developing by language.

Most Latinos are concentrated in high poverty, low-achieving schools and face by far the highest dropout rate. Also, since most are concentrated in the large states where affirmative action for college is now illegal and with high stakes high school graduation tests (California, Texas, and Florida), the concentration of these students in schools with a poor record of graduating students and sending them onto college raises important national issues.


A battle that began early in the 20th century to try to bring equality to the segregated Black schools of the South became, by the 1960s, an all-out attack on the entire structure of racially separate schools in the 17 states which mandated segregation by law. The 1954 Brown decision outlawing de jure segregation was both a key cause of the civil rights movement, announcing that Southern apartheid was unconstitutional and illegitimate, and a principal goal of the movement, beginning a long process of bringing the power of government to bear on the social arrangements of the South. Martin Luther King led demonstrations for integrated education in the North as well as in the South. There were hundreds of protests against unequal conditions and opportunities in segregated schools, and there was almost a decade of struggle in the U.S. Congress about whether or not to cut off federal funds to the thousands of districts that defied the Supreme Court’s directive.

The struggle was never just for desegregated schools, nor was it motivated by a desire on the part of Black students to simply sit next to white students. It was an integral part of a much broader movement for racial and economic justice supported by a unique alliance of major civil rights organizations, churches, students, and leaders of both national political parties. From l954 until 1964, the enforcement effort faced almost uniform local and state resistance in the South. A handful of civil rights lawyers, most of them from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, sued local school boards trying to force the initiation of desegregation in courts presided over by conservative federal judges. When President Kennedy asked Congress in 1964 to prohibit discrimination in all programs receiving federal aid, 98% of Southern Blacks were still in totally segregated schools.

The peak of the effort to desegregate the schools came in the late 1960’s and early 1970s. The only period in which there was active, positive support by both the courts and the executive branch of the government was the four years following the enactment of the l964 Civil Rights Act. During this period federal education officials, the Department of Justice, and the high courts all maintained strong and reasonably consistent pressure for achieving actual desegregation. During this period desegregation policy was transformed from a very gradual anti-discrimination policy to one of rapid and full integration.

It was in this period that the South moved from almost total racial separation to become the nation’s most integrated region. 1 The l968 election that brought Richard Nixon to the White House was a turning point, leading first to a shutdown of the enforcement machinery of the education office, and then to a change of position in which the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to slow down or reverse desegregation requirements. Nixon’s appointment of four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for key 5-4 decisions against desegregation across city-suburban lines and against equalizing finances among school districts. By l974 it was clear that there was no feasible way to provide desegregated education for millions of Black and Latino children attending heavily minority central city school districts within those rapidly changing city districts.

When education officials moved to revive school desegregation enforcement under the Carter Administration, Congress took the authority away from them, although the Carter Justice Department did initiate a number of important lawsuits, seeking to find ways to win city-suburban desegregation in special circumstances and to coordinate the desegregation of housing with school integration policy.

The Reagan Administration brought a rapid repeal of the federal desegregation assistance program and a shift in the Justice Department to a position of strong opposition to desegregation litigation, opposing even the continuation of existing desegregation plans. The Administration developed theories that desegregation had failed and that existing desegregation orders should be canceled after a few years. The Justice Department began to advocate such a policy in the federal courts in the mid-1980’s

The long battle to change the Supreme Court by the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations succeeded in creating a court with a fundamentally different approach to civil rights by the late 1980s. The Rehnquist Court, led by a consistent dissenter against school desegregation law, adopted the assumptions that the history of discrimination had been cured, enough had been done so the orders should be ended, and that there was a serious danger of discrimination against whites if civil rights requirements were to continue. In three decisions in the 1990’s, the Court defined desegregation as a temporary remedy and found that school boards released from their orders (found to be ‘unitary’) could reinstate segregated schools.

The Rehnquist Court concluded that positive policies taking race into account for the purpose of creating integration were suspect and had to demonstrate both a compelling reason and prove that the goal could not be realized without considering race. These policies led some lower courts to forbid even voluntary action for desegregation, such as magnet schools with desegregation policies for admissions. Such orders have been handed down, for example, in Virginia, Maryland, and Boston.

There is considerable confusion about the status of desegregation law but the basic trend is toward dissolution of desegregation orders and return to patterns of more serious segregation.

There has been no major push to integrate schools since the early 1970s. The courts, Congress, and the executive branch all reduced enforcement a generation ago. Significant federal aid aimed at helping interracial schools succeed ended in l981. Many states have quietly abandoned the offices, agencies, and policies they set up to produce and support interracial education.


The Latino right to desegregation was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1973 as an afterthought, almost two decades after the Brown decision and during the Nixon Administration when the executive branch ended serious enforcement of desegregation rights.

There was a conscious decision by executive branch officials to offer Latinos enforcement of bilingual education rather than desegregation. The Supreme Court recognized the right of federal civil rights enforcement officials to devise policies to deal with discrimination on the basis of language in the 1974 Lau decision. The only state where there was substantial desegregation of Latino students was Colorado, the site of the 1973 Supreme Court decision recognizing Latino desegregation rights. There never was any significant enforcement of desegregation rights for Latinos.

The Nixon Administration decided to enforce bilingual education rights, not desegregation, but those rights would be attacked by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, foreshadowing major efforts to outlaw bilingual education at the turn of the 21st century.


Desegregation was not ordered as an educational treatment but to end deeply rooted patterns of illegal separation of students. Nevertheless, there is evidence that desegregation both improves test scores and changes the lives of students. More importantly, there is also evidence that students from desegregated educational experiences benefit in terms of college-going, employment, and living in integrated settings as adults. There are also well documented and relatively simple instructional techniques that increase both the academic and human relations benefits of interracial schooling.
A recent study of elite law schools shows, for example, that almost all of the Black and Latino students who made it into those schools came from integrated educational backgrounds. Minority students with the same test scores tend to be much more successful in college if they attended interracial high schools.

In addition, recent surveys show that both white and minority students in integrated school districts tend to report by large majorities that they have learned to study and work together and that they are highly confident about their ability to work in such settings as adults. Students report that they have learned a lot about the other group’s background and feel confident about the ability to discuss even controversial racial issues across racial lines.
In other words, students report great confidence about skills many adults are far from confident about. Longitudinal research at the college level shows long term gains in understanding complexity from integrated educational experiences. Studies exploring the life experiences of Black students attending suburban white high schools show that such students experience far higher graduation and college-going rates than those left in central city schools, frequently attain an ability to be fluently bicultural, and, as adults, are often able to work with and offer guidance on issues that require these skills.
Interestingly, the period of growing desegregation coincided with the period of the most dramatic narrowing of the test score gap ever recorded for Blacks and whites. This cannot be attributed simply to desegregation but may well be a product of the broad reforms that were associated with the civil rights era according to a 1998 study by Rand researcher David Grissmer and an earlier study by Daniel Koretz. In the 1990s, on the other hand, racial gaps in achievement have been growing and the high school graduation rate of Black students is decreasing. The integration period was a time of major gains and gap closing for Black students and the resegregation era is showing signs of retrogression.

When the Supreme Court said that separate schools were ‘inherently unequal’ it was discussing the impact of discrimination, not the talent of minority students. Although there is a great deal of debate about the scale of the benefits produced by desegregation, there is no doubt that segregated schools are unequal in easily measurable ways. To a considerable degree this is because the segregated minority schools are overwhelmingly likely to have to contend with the educational impacts of concentrated poverty (defined as having 50% or more of the student population eligible for free or reduced lunch), while segregated white schools are almost always middle class. This study shows that highly segregated Black and/or Latino schools are many times more likely than segregated white schools to experience concentration of poverty. This is the legacy of unequal education, income, and the continuing patterns of housing discrimination.

Anyone who wants to explore the continuing inequalities need only examine the test scores, dropout rates, and other statistics for various schools in a metropolitan community and relate them to statistics for school poverty (free lunch) and race (percent Black and/or Latino) to see a distressingly clear pattern. The state testing programs, which now publish school level test data in almost all states, identify schools as low performing, many of which are segregated minority schools with concentrated poverty.

There is a very strong correlation between the percent poor in a school and its average test score. Therefore, minority students in segregated schools, no matter how able they may be as individuals, usually face a much lower level of competition and average preparation by other students. Such schools tend to have teachers who are themselves much more likely to be teaching a subject they did not study and with which they have had little experience. There are not enough students ready for advanced and AP courses and that those opportunities are eliminated even for students who are ready because there are not sufficient students to fill a teacher’s advanced classes. Many colleges give special consideration to students who have taken AP classes, ignoring the fact that such classes are far less available in segregated minority high schools.

These problems are most serious when racial segregation is reinforced by class segregation, but they are also serious for the Black middle class schools. The College Board is supporting a study examining the achievement gap for Black middle class students, since students in middle class Black schools perform at a much lower average level than would be predicted on the basis of their economic level. Part of this difference is due to the fact that Black middle class families tend to live in communities with far more poor people than white middle class families and often live near and share schools with lower class Black neighborhoods.

The basic message is that segregation, as normally seen in American schools almost a half-century after Brown, produces schools that are, on average, deeply unequal in ways that go far beyond unequal budgets. Integrated schools, on average, clearly have better opportunities. There are, of course, exceptions. Even if integrated schools have better opportunities, this does not assure that minority children enrolled in those schools will receive fair access to those opportunities. That depends on the policies and practices under which the school operates.

Desegregation at the school level is a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for assuring equal opportunity in practice.


Critics of desegregation often argue that it would be better to spend the money on improving schools where they are. The suggestion is that while a great deal of money is being spent on desegregation, we are ignoring alternative solutions that have been shown to produce academic gains in segregated neighborhood schools.

In reality, such solutions do not exist.

Before the Supreme Court ordered desegregation in 1954, the nation had been operating for 58 years under a constitutional mandate to equalize the segregated schools, which had been a massive failure. School boards consistently provided segregated and strikingly unequal schools, minority communities’ efforts were regularly defeated because they did not have enough political power to force changes in local politics, and neither the courts nor Congress nor any state government showed any interest in strongly enforcing the equality requirement.

There was a similar pattern of neglect and blatant inequality for Mexican- American students. Even after the Supreme Court acted, dramatic inequalities continued to exist between minority and white schools in many districts and were often part of the proof presented to courts as a basis for desegregation orders. Civil rights groups engaged in decades of unsuccessful battles to equalize segregated schools before desegregation was ordered. This long history in thousands of communities produced great skepticism about the willingness of the majority to make minority schools equal.

Since the 1980’s, the basic educational goal of both national parties has been to improve schools by imposing tough standards, and there has been no priority given by education officials of any administration in the past twenty years to desegregation. In l989, President George H. Bush and the nation’s governors, led by then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, embraced the goal of racial equity in education by 2000, which Congress embodied in the Goals 2000 legislation. Almost all the states adopted sweeping state reforms based on more course requirements and mandatory testing. Those reforms ignored the issue of race and class segregation. The idea was to equalize outcomes within the existing structure of segregated schools. During this period there was a substantial increase in compensatory resources directed at improving impoverished schools and bringing strong pressure to bear on their teachers and administrators to raise achievement.

In fact, however, racial differences in achievement and graduation began to expand in the 1990s, after having closed substantially from the 1960s into the mid-1980’s There is no evidence that we have learned how to make segregated high poverty schools equal on a systemic scale.

Educational disadvantage is closely linked to poverty, both poverty of the individual student and of the school he or she attends. Latinos attend the schools with the highest levels of students poor or near poor (those who qualify for free and reduced lunch) followed by African Americans and Native Americans. Asians are in schools where nearly three fourths of the students are not poor, and whites are in schools with less than one-fifth poor children.


Following are some of the basic findings of our report.


The nation’s schools have changed in amazing ways since the civil rights era. The number of Black and Latino students in the nation’s public schools is up 5.8 million, while the number of white students has declined by 5.6 million. The schools reflect the transformation of the U.S. population in an era of low birth rates and massive immigration. Latino students, a group that was just 2 million in 1968 has grown to 6.9 million, an extraordinary growth of 245% in just thirty years. In l968 there were more than three times as many Blacks as Latinos in our schools, but in 1998 there were seven Latino students for every eight Blacks, and soon there will be more Latino than Black students. This is an extraordinary switch.

Our schools will be the first major institutions to experience nonwhite majorities.

Maps showing minority enrollment across the U.S. indicate that the South and West have far higher concentrations of nonwhite students than the rest of the nation, where minority enrollment tends to be heavily concentrated in big cities and some of their older suburbs.

Although no major region had a majority-minority student enrollment by the 1998-99 school year, the West, a vast region that includes the Pacific coast states and the Rocky Mountain states as well as the desert Southwest, had only 52% white students; the South, the states from Virginia to Texas that made up the old Confederacy, had only 55% whites. Both of these regions are likely to have white minorities within the next few years.

It is in these regions that the growth of the United States population and of the economy are concentrated. They have produced all the U.S. presidents elected since l960 and are certain to profoundly impact our national future.

The other major regions of the country, stretching from Maine to Maryland, and from Oklahoma to the Dakotas to the East Coast, have from two-thirds to three-fourths white students and are experiencing less change, in part because they are growing more slowly and drawing in fewer of the new minority immigrants.

Although white residents of many central cities have experienced living in predominantly nonwhite communities for years, we will increasingly see entire metropolitan areas and states where there will be no majority group or the majority group will be Latino or African American. This will be a new experience in American educational history.

We will be facing either pluralism in schools on an unprecedented level, with millions of whites needing to adjust to minority status, or the possibility of very serious racial and ethnic polarization, reinforced by educational inequalities, with the possible exclusion of the majority of students from access to educational mobility. We will, in the process, be affecting the kind of relationships and experiences that prepare people to function in highly multiracial civic life and workplaces.
The U.S. is now in the midst of its largest immigration ever in terms of numbers (not percentages) of newcomers, and the people coming since the 1965 immigration reform have been overwhelmingly Hispanic and Asian. The Asian growth is even more rapid than the Latino expansion but started from a much lower base. Asian students are concentrated in the West, where they make up 8% of the students, and in Hawaii, where they account for 72% of total enrollment. American-Indian students are also concentrated in the West and in Alaska, where they account for 2.5% of all students.

The West presents a picture of extraordinary diversity and most dramatically illustrates the need for new ways of thinking about race relations. It is the only region where Blacks are now the third largest of the minority populations, with just 7% of total enrollment. In the West, there are four Latino students for every African American. The Asian population is larger and growing much faster. Obviously statistics showing only levels of Black segregation from whites would seriously oversimplify the complexities of the West’s multiracial population. We are well into a period in which we need new ways of describing and understanding the population.

Until recently Hawaii was the only U.S. state with a clear majority of nonwhite students. The data for 1998-99 show that there are six states and the District of Columbia in which whites are the minority. They include the nation’s two largest states, California and Texas, which serve nearly 10 million students. (The influence of these two states is evident in the fact that they have produced the victors in seven of the last ten presidential elections.)
Only one state, Mississippi, enrolled a majority of African-American students, and one other, Hawaii, has a large Asian majority. California, Texas, and New Mexico are moving rapidly toward majorities of Latino students if the existing trends continue.


Looking back at this period, it is likely that historians will see the incredible expansion of Latino enrollment as a dominant characteristic of this era in U.S. education. It has received surprisingly little serious attention because of the decline of the Civil Rights Movement and the strong central emphasis on raising achievement through standards-based reform, which tends to ignore student background. Another reason is that the enrollment is so concentrated in a few states.

They are very important states, however, and the changes are staggering. Latino enrollment was up more than 200% from 1970 to l998 in five of the eight states with the highest concentrations of students. In California and Texas, the two largest states, and where a majority of all Latinos are enrolled, there was an increase of 1.7 million (241%) in the Golden State and nearly 1 million in Texas (169%). Enrollments exploded 508% in Florida, as South Florida emerged as one of the nation’s centers of Latino culture and business.

The states most affected include the nation’s four largest (California, Texas, New York and Florida), all of which play a very large role in the U.S. economy and culture. The numbers were amazingly large, the students experienced very severe educational problems, and they became far more segregated in many areas as their numbers grew.


The central story of the desegregation battle was the transformation of the South, which is home to most U.S. Blacks. The region went from virtually total apartheid to the most integrated region in the U.S. between 1964 and 1970. During this time, the South had the highest level of integration and the most substantial contact between Black and white students. It remains the only region in which whites typically attend schools with significant numbers of Blacks.

Though the South led the nation in resisting the Civil Rights revolution and in voting for candidates who promised to roll it back, the integration of the South continued to rise into the 1980’s Only in the 1990’s do we see a clear and continuing reversal.

This certainly does not mean that the South is back where it started, however. A Southern Black student is 32,700 times more likely to be in a white majority school than a Black student in 1954 and fourteen times more likely than his counterpart in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

The broad national trends parallel results for African Americans from the South. More than 70% of the nation’s Black students are now in predominantly minority schools, up significantly from the low point in 1980. The gradual rise that took place during the 1990s is continuing. In terms of intense segregation, the busing orders of the 1970s clearly brought a rapid and dramatic decline in the proportion of Blacks in 90-100% nonwhite schools, dropping from 64% in 1968 to 32.5% in l986. The proportion of Black students in such schools has been rising consistently but slowly on a national level through the 1990’s, but it is far below the pre-busing level in the 1998-99 statistics.

The most segregated states for Black students include the leaders for the last quarter century: Illinois, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey. California, which has a small percentage of Black students, and Maryland have moved rapidly up this list.
Outside the South we find the two states with the most dramatic declines in Black student contact with white students since l980: Rhode Island and Wisconsin.


The more dramatic and largely ignored trends are those affecting Latino students. While intense segregation for Blacks is still 28 points below its 1969 level, it has actually grown 13.5 points for Latinos. Little more than a fifth of Latino students were in intensely segregated schools in 1968, but now it is more than a third. There has been no significant policy effort to blunt this trend in any period.

In 1968, more than half (54.8%) of Latinos were in predominantly nonwhite schools, but almost half attended majority white schools. By 1998, more than three-fourths (75.6%) of Latinos were in predominantly minority schools, and less than a fourth in majority-white schools. By this measure Latinos have been substantially more segregated than Black students since 1980, although Black resegregation gradually narrowed the gap in the 1990s.

A third basic measure of national desegregation trends is the exposure index, which looks at desegregation from the standpoint of the average student of a given racial group. It combines all the schools in the U.S. and gives us the average racial composition of schools attended by Blacks and Latinos. This measure shows that Blacks were in schools with the highest average percentage of white students, 36.2%, in 1980 and that it has fallen to 31.7% in 1998, gradually declining throughout the 1990s. Latinos were in much more integrated schools than Blacks in 1970, schools that averaged 44% white, but have become steadily more isolated throughout the 28 year period, with less contact with whites than African Americans for the past 18 years.

Since l980 all states with significant Latino populations have seen increased segregation.


The data show that white students are by far the most segregated in schools dominated by their own group. Whites on average attend schools where less than a fifth of the students are from all of the other groups combined.

In spite of the rapid increase in minority enrollment, white students in most states had relatively few minority classmates. Even in the District of Columbia, where less than one student in twenty was white, the typical white student was in a class with a slight majority of whites. Even as the white proportion of students was dropping nationally, they managed to remain segregated from growing minority populations.

This white segregation is a result of continuing residential segregation, the Supreme Court’s decision to exclude suburbs from a role in urban desegregation remedies, and the historic fact that northern metropolitan areas were typically organized into many more small districts than those in the South. New suburbs continue to be marketed overwhelmingly to whites, even in metropolitan communities with large middle class nonwhite populations.


The United States has the most diverse group of students in its history, and all the basic trends indicate the diversity will become even greater. Among our school-age population we have only a generation before the entire country becomes majority nonwhite or non-European in origin. Diversity is growing rapidly in the nation’s suburban rings, which have become the center of American life and politics.

Yet our schools remain largely segregated and are becoming more so. Segregated schools are still highly unequal. Segregation by race relates to segregation by poverty and to many forms of educational inequality for African American and Latino students; few whites experience impoverished schools. Efforts to overcome the effects of segregation through special programs have had some success, but there is no evidence that they have equalized systems of segregated schools.

Segregation has not been a successful educational or social policy. Yet we are experiencing a continuing expansion of segregation for both Blacks and Latinos and serious backward movement in the South.


SOUTH: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

BORDER: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

NORTHEAST: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

MIDWEST: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

WEST: Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Gary Orfield is Professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard University. He is also director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. Orfield’s most recent books are Religion, Race and Justice in a Changing America (New York: The Century Foundation, 1999), with Holly Lebowitz; and Chilling Admissions: The Affirmative Action Crisis and the Search for Alternatives (Cambridge: The Civil Rights Project, 1998), edited with Edward Miller.