Housing Segregation Leads to School Segregation
School segregation was both a byproduct of housing segregation and a calculated move on the part of the government. The FHA was apparently just as invested in preventing school integration as it was in preventing neighborhoods from integrating, and in fact the two goals were bound together. Its notorious Underwriting Manual claimed that if children “are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist.”41 Children historically attended their neighborhood schools. If neighborhoods were segregated, than the schools would be as well. Furthermore, schools are funded in large part through property taxes. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, a preeminent thinker and researcher on the issue of school segregation, so clearly identifies: “That meant that black cities cannot produce as much money as white suburbs, which can tax at a very low rate on high property tax, and so you see vast disparities between how suburban schools that serve lots of white children are funded and urban schools that serve lots of black and latino kids are funded. And that all goes back to the legacy of redlining.”42 This causal relationship should be made explicit to students.
Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most famous landmark Supreme Court decisions. It is often viewed as a prime example of American progress, illustrating the ultimate justice of the law. However, it is not that simple.
As we turn our attention from housing to school segregation, this section of the unit will primarily focus on post-Brown Supreme Court actions that helped lead to the resegregation of American schools. However, students should review and/or be introduced to background of the lead-up to the case, the decision itself and its immediate aftereffects. Depending on how much prior knowledge your students have on the topic, you can choose to make full lessons out of any of the following key points.
It’s important to understand that the landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education did not occur in a vacuum. In 1939, the NAACP created its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, responsible for pursuing constitutional remedies to school segregation.
In 1947, in the case Westminster v. Mendez, a federal appeals court struck down the segregation of Mexican American school children in California. The reasoning used in the case would foreshadow the same reasoning later used in Brown. Importantly, Earl Warren, governor of California at the time, was as state executive, responsible for enforcing the desegregation of the state’s schools after the court’s decision. It was then he who, as chief justice seven years later, penned the unanimous Brown opinion, attempting to do the same for the entire country. *Note: My students, a number of whom are Latinx, were grateful for the inclusion of this case into the unit. Civil rights is often framed as a black-white issue, and the students were very interested to see a case that involved Mexican-American students. PBS LearningMedia has great and accessible short videos and accompanying readings for the Mendez v. Westminster case43
The Supreme Court itself continued to chip away at school segregation over the course of the decade preceding Brown through a series of decisions in favor of black students in the realm of higher education: Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950), and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950).
There are also important examples of students fighting back against school segregation themselves. One such example is that of Barbara Johns, who at age 16, led a student strike against school segregation in Farmville, Virginia. The black high school she attended was horrifically overcapacity. Classes were held on school busses and in tar-paper shacks to try to deal with the overflow of students. Following their brave walkout, the students asked the NAACP to take on their case. Importantly, the case was one of the five that would be ultimately bundled together and decided as part of Brown, and the only one that had originated with the students themselves. This is another good example of a place to highlight agency and resistance in the unit. PBS LearningMedia also has great and accessible short videos and accompanying readings for the story of Barbara Jones’ student strike44.
And then of course, school segregation was officially and finally struck down as unconstitutional in 1954, reversing the infamous Plessy decision, which had established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In the unanimous Brown decision, the court declared school segregation unconstitutional with the famed words: “We conclude in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The problem, however, is it also ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” and so the implicated states dragged their feet and/or met the order with outright defiance, most famously with the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. Counties and districts even closed schools rather than have to desegregate. It was the era of massive resistance, and so the Supreme Court had to step in again. The first 20 minutes of the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Episode 2, “Fighting Back, 1957-1962” is a good resource for the Little Rock Nine story.
The Supreme Court and Enforcing School Desegregation
Little progress desegregating schools was made in the first decade after the Brown decision was made. And so in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the Supreme Court stepped in again.
In 1968, in the case Green v. County School Board of New Kent, the Supreme Court ordered states to dismantle segregated school systems “root and branch,” claiming that little progress had been made where “dual school systems” had been maintained by the states. The Court identified five factors — facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities and transportation — to be used to gauge a school system’s compliance with the mandate of Brown.
The Court went a step further three years later in 1971 with the case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In this case, the court approved many remedies to address school segregation, most controversially, busing. Writing for the majority, Warren Burger wrote, “An optional majority-to-minority transfer provision has long been recognized as a useful part of every desegregation plan. Provision for optional transfer of those in the majority racial group of a particular school to other schools where they will be in the minority is an indispensable remedy for those students willing to transfer to other schools in order to lessen the impact on them of the state-imposed stigma of segregation… The importance of bus transportation as a normal and accepted tool of educational policy is readily discernible…”45 This is significant because it not only opened the option of white students integrating predominantly black schools (as opposed to the other way around, which was more common), but it encouraged it and declared it as a necessary “remedy.”
Relevant Classroom Activities 6
Guiding Question: How did the Supreme Court’s decision in Swann v. Charlotte attempt to deal with persistent school segregation in the era after Brown?
Students will first read the oyez.org summary as well as excerpts from the majority opinion of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. They should complete a case study chart using the template previously provided.
Next, students will watch “The Battle for Busing,” a mini-documentary that is part of the New York Times’ video series Retro Report. The ten minute video documents the effect the Swann ruling had on the city of Charlotte, North Carolina (where the case originated from). It tells the story of white students being bused to West Charlotte High, “the pride of the black community.” While there were some tensions to be sure, and resistance from the parents in particular, the students themselves adjusted and consequently gained a lot out of the experience. The video describes that due to its successful integration, West Charlotte High became “the darling of the media.”46 The school demonstrated meaningful integration at work. Unfortunately, it didn’t last for long. Provide students with follow-up analysis questions, including:
- Why did Charlotte end its busing program if it was so successful?
- Do you think busing should be mandated? Why/why not?
The Supreme Court and the Resegregation of Schools
Colorblindness continues to be a dominant framework in mainstream society and the law since the civil rights era. Here we will see how the Supreme Court has employed colorblind language to allow for the resegregation of schools and then subsequently maintain the status quo.
The Supreme Court reversed direction just three short years after its decision in Swann. Because of government housing policies previously examined, by the 1970s, much of the country was entrenched in a pattern of mostly white suburbs, while the population of nearby cities was made up of predominantly people of color. And so to be effective, desegregation efforts had to cross district lines. There needed to be cross-district busing such as there was in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, as well as interdistrict busing.
In the 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley, however, the Supreme Court forbade interdistrict busing in favor of “local autonomy.” Lipsitz refers to the case as another prime example of a colorblind approach being used to actually discriminate: “they used district lines as a proxy of race and promoted the ideal of local autonomy as a colorblind principle that had to be upheld. This claim was clearly a pretext for discrimination.”47 Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart amazingly claimed that the segregation of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs was a result of “unknown and unknowable causes” thus pretending that the federal government had played no role in the perpetuation of housing segregation throughout the country for decades.
Lipsitz details a follow-up case to Milliken twenty years later in which the courts again turned a blind eye to the realities of history. In the case, Kansas City had finally created a desegregation plan in 1985, which included some additional spending and enrichments for predominantly black inner city schools. The court then ridiculously ruled that blacks “could no longer be the ‘special favorite’ of the law because seven years of limited desegregation had wiped out the effects of slavery, state laws banning Blacks from public schools, mandatory Jim Crow segregation, and thirty-four years of resistance to Brown,”48
This line of thinking is precisely what in the end caused the resegregation of Charlotte’s schools despite its successful legacy of desegregation. In 1999, a federal judge ruled that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had met its constitutional duty. He declared that desegregation had been a success. Busing had worked and so “no more needed be done.” The plaintiffs who had brought the lawsuit dismantling Charlotte’s busing claimed that instead of focusing on racial quotas, the district should focus on the “quality” of education. Once busing and desegregation mandates were removed, the district promptly resegregated.49 Such reasoning and subsequent regressive pattern can be seen in present day Supreme Court decisions as well.
The Roberts court used similar logic in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 when it gutted the Voting Rights Acts. Writing for the majority, Roberts claimed that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act might have been needed in the 1960s and 70s, but that it was now placing an unconstitutional burden on affected states. He reasoned that fifty years of “progress” made it unnecessary and that the preclearance law was now in violation of a state’s constitutional right to regulate its own elections.50 Van R. Newkirk II, writing for the Atlantic, clearly outlined what followed: “The results have been predictable. Voter-identification laws, which experts suggest will make voting harder especially for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have advanced in several states, and some voting laws that make it easier to register and cast ballots have been destroyed. For many of the jurisdictions formerly under preclearance, voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos.”51 This Shelby decision was made firmly during the Obama era. Bonilla-Silva argues that the “color-blind play that White America began acting out in the late 1970s and 1980s” actually intensified after the election of Obama and deepend what he calls a “new racism.” He speaks of the belief that racism was viewed to be on the decline once we had a black president, when in fact what we started seeing was just a new, as Dylan Rodriguez coined it, “multiracial White supremacy.” Bonilla-Silva writes “... in Obama’s America, racism is alive and well but the space to fight it has been drastically reduced.”52 The Roberts court has helped reduce this space with its dangerously “colorblind” decisions.
Returning to the education sphere, in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled against a local and voluntary school desegregation plan in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle. The court claimed that the program was not narrowly tailored enough and that race should not be taken into account in assigning students to schools for the purpose of integration. It stated that the Seattle School District’s plan was targeted toward a too broad concept of racial balance or “racial diversity” without demonstrating a specific educational benefit or compelling state interest. It objected to taking race into account in assigning students to schools. In its plan, the district had allowed students to apply to any high school they wanted to and then created a tiebreaker system for popular schools, which included a racial component: “If a school’s student body deviated by more than a predetermined number of percentage points from those of Seattle's total student population (approximately 40% white and 60% non-white), the racial tiebreaker went into effect.”53 The Supreme Court’s ruling deeply weakened districts’ ability to create targeted desegregation plans using race as a factor. Speaking for the majority yet again, Justice Roberts, absurdly wrote, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” a quote that harkens back to Justice Stewart’s myopic claim in Milliken.
Relevant Classroom Activities 7
Guiding Question: What caused the resegregation of American schools and what role did the Supreme Court play in the process?
As an opener, students will study a selection of graphs and answer the following questions. Links to graphs included below.
- “Southern Desegregation and Resegregation for Black Students, 1954-2011” https://www.businessinsider.com/ucla-civil-rights-project-shows-segregation-in-schools-2014-5
- What trends do you notice from the mid-1960s- late 1980s?
- What trend started to occur from the mid 1980s- late 1990s/early 2000s?
- What do you think might have caused these trends?
- “A Portrait of Segregation in New York City” https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/11/nyregion/segregation-in-new-york-city-public-schools.html?ref=education
- What statistics stand out to you the most? Why ?
- What do these charts tells us about school segregation in major U.S cities?
- “Shortfall in Per Pupil Spending” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/civil-rights-act-anniversary-racism-charts_n_5521104
- What is the connection between per pupil spending and segregated schools?
Next, students will read the oyez.org summaries of Milliken v. Bradley and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and complete the chart below. Then, answer the follow-up questions.
How did the school district attempt to desegregate schools?
How did the Supreme Court’s decision in the case limit school desegregation efforts?
Milliken v. Bradley (1974)
Parents Involved in Community Schools v.
Seattle School District
No. 1 (2007)
- What is your reaction to these Supreme Court decisions? Do you agree/disagree and why?
- To what extent did “colorblindness” play a role in these decisions?
Efforts to Desegregate Today
And so where do we go from here?
In 1968, Congress finally passed the Fair Housing Act. Students should learn about this landmark piece of legislation, which is still on the books today. While for sure an important legacy, its effects/benefits have been inconsistent. Rothstein makes the point that the law was intended to prevent future discrimination, but it did nothing to deal with the issue of affordability and generational poverty that racist government policies had created. He writes, “The right that was unconstitutionally denied to African Americans in the late 1940s cannot be restored by passing a Fair Housing law that tells their descendants they can now buy homes in the suburbs, if only they can afford it. The advantage that the FHA and VA loans gave the white lower-middle class in the 1940s and ‘50s has become permanent.”54
The concluding section of the unit will ask students to investigate and brainstorm ways out of the mess the federal government and the Supreme Court has left us when it comes to both housing and school segregation in this country. Rothstein writes that “actions of government in housing cannot be neutral about segregation” and that “remedies that can undo nearly a century of de jure residential segregation will have to be both complex and imprecise.”55 Colorblindness has led to the belief that for things to be “equal” we are supposed to ignore race. Rather than confronting the racism perpetuated by our government and legal system, however, this approach simply allows for the unjust status quo to continue. The final activity/assessment will ask students to name race and brainstorm ways to undo the segregationist practices they have learned about over the course of the unit. Students will dive into looking at strategies and attempts to integrate both housing and schools.