Nine Million American Children Attend Racially and Economically Segregated Schools


Black children stand with their backs against the wall during the first day of school integration in Hoxie, Arkansas, in 1955. (Gordon Tenney)

Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional, America’s schools today are increasingly divided by race and resources. Strikingly, one in five American public schoolchildren attend schools that are racially isolated and receive far less funding than schools just across the school district line.

Opposition to School Desegregation

Millions of white parents nationwide acted to deny Black children equal education after Brown v. Board of Education by voting to close and defund public schools, transferring their children to private, white-only schools, and harassing and violently attacking Black students while their own children watched or participated.

In cities like Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Detroit, segregated schools stemmed from widespread housing segregation supported by federal redlining of neighborhoods and race-based restrictions on house deeds that prevented Black families from moving to the suburbs. Federal courts enforcing Brown ordered Northern cities to achieve integration by transporting students to schools outside their local school districts. Many white parents and officials fiercely opposed “forced busing” by picketing, marching, throwing rocks and trash at buses filled with Black children, and even burning school buses.

Two decades after its unanimous decision in Brown, the Supreme Court took what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “a giant step backwards” when it decided in Milliken v. Bradley that school district lines separating majority-Black city districts from surrounding wealthy, white suburbs were sacrosanct, insulating suburban schools from desegregation orders.

Milliken v. Bradley

Black parents and students filed a desegregation suit in 1970 alleging that the Detroit Public School System was racially segregated and that school district lines dividing majority-Black Detroit from its nearly all-white suburbs reinforced residential segregation.

There was no dispute that Detroit’s schools were segregated, and the federal court agreed that “Governmental actions and inaction at all levels, federal, state and local, have combined, with those of private organizations, such as loaning institutions and real estate associations and brokerage firms, to establish and to maintain the pattern of residential segregation throughout the Detroit metropolitan area.”

The battle in Milliken was about the remedy. State and local officials argued for a “Detroit-only” desegregation plan that would not involve the suburban districts. But given the racial composition of the student body in Detroit, the federal courts reasoned that “any Detroit only segregation plan will lead directly to a single segregated Detroit school district overwhelmingly Black in all of its schools, surrounded by a ring of suburbs and suburban school districts overwhelmingly white in composition,” which in turn, would “increas[e] the flight of Whites from the city and the system.”

The federal courts concluded that Detroit could be desegregated only if students were bused between the city and 53 suburban school districts.

The suburban districts appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1974, the Court decided 5-4 that suburban districts could not be forced to accept Black students or send their children to Black schools in Detroit. “Unless [they] drew the district lines in a discriminatory fashion, or arranged for white students residing in the Detroit District to attend schools in Oakland and Macomb Counties,” the Court held, suburban districts “were under no constitutional duty to make provisions for Negro students to do so.”

Justice Marshall wrote in dissent that the decision “provide[s] no remedy at all for the violation proved in this case, thereby guaranteeing that Negro children in Detroit will receive the same separate and inherently unequal education in the future as they have been unconstitutionally afforded in the past.”

Reasoning that the goal “of any desegregation remedy is to ensure that it is no longer possible to identify a `white school’ or a `Negro school,'” Justice Marshall wrote that a Detroit-only desegregation plan would clearly identify Detroit schools as Black schools, especially in comparison with neighboring schools with less than 2 percent Black enrollment. As a result, he wrote,

Negro students will continue to perceive their schools as segregated educational facilities and this perception will only be increased when whites react to a Detroit-only decree by fleeing to the suburbs to avoid integration. School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races when, under a Detroit-only decree, white parents withdraw their children from the Detroit city schools and move to the suburbs in order to continue them in all-white schools. The message of this action will not escape the Negro children in the city of Detroit. It will be of scant significance to Negro children who have for years been confined by de jure acts of segregation to a growing core of all-Negro schools surrounded by a ring of all-white schools that the new dividing line between the races is the school district boundary.

Justice Marshall’s dissenting opinion forecast that “Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro schools. The very evil that Brown I was aimed at will not be cured, but will be perpetuated for the future.”

Increasing Segregation in America’s Schools

Milliken robbed federal courts of a critical tool to desegregate schools in urban areas, and turned the tide against federal enforcement of Brown.

Integration achieved after decades of litigation was reversed as the Court terminated federal desegregation orders, and by 2000, American schools were more segregated than in the 1970s. Despite federal legislation, neighborhoods also remain defined by racial segregation.

report released on Brown‘s 65th anniversary by UCLA and Penn State found that the phasing out of older programs to foster integration and a lack of new policies to take their place has left America’s schools increasingly segregated, especially for Black and Latino students. “Since 1988,” the report found, “the share of intensely segregated minority schools—schools that enroll 90-100% non-white students, has more than tripled.”

Detroit Public Schools, which was 66 percent Black when Milliken was decided, is now 98 percent nonwhite, enrolling only one white student for every 49 who are nonwhite, according to a new report from EdBuild.

EdBuild reports that “[s]tudents in poor, nonwhite districts are twice disadvantaged when it comes to school funding, receiving much less even than students in poor, white districts.” It looked at almost 1000 pairs of school districts with “divisive borders—boundaries that mark large disparities in race and revenue.”

Analysts found 969 school district borders in 42 states that create revenue gaps of at least 10 percent and differences in racial makeup of 25 percentage points or more. The average disadvantaged district gets about $4207 less per student, and there are 8.9 million students in the districts on the losing side of these lines.