Today’s Segregated Schools

A federal judge Tuesday ordered a rural county in southwestern Mississippi to stop segregating its schools by grouping African American students into all-black classrooms and allowing white students to transfer to the county’s only majority-white school, the U.S. Justice Department announced. (read the whole story here)

When I saw the story yesterday headlined “Miss. county schools ordered to comply with desegregation order,” my first thought was, “Really? In 2010?” How could it have taken that long to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Well, it didn’t. What happened between then and now has happened in school districts beyond Mississippi, too: resegregation. I turned to some of our own experts on school resegregation to get insight on how the Civil Rights Act will affect twenty-first-century school segregation. I’m pleased to pass along the following comment from Gary Orfield, coeditor (with John Charles Boger) of School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? –ellen

School districts–in the South and elsewhere–are under the false impression that desegregation law no longer exists and, as this Mississippi case shows, they may run into serious problems as a result. The Supreme Court has limited the duration of desegregation orders–if they are fully carried out–and allowed school districts to return to neighborhood schools, even though they may be segregated. It has not, however, released all school districts from existing plans and orders, and it has not changed the legal principle that actions which obviously increase segregation can be new violations producing new orders either in an existing case or in a new case. School districts that have quietly taken a number of actions that violate these principles need to clean up their acts or face a real risk that someone else may force them to make changes that are out of their control.

During the Bush years there was no civil rights enforcement to speak of. The Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department were in the hands of active critics of civil rights law who gave top priority to rolling back its requirements. Though the Obama Administration has taken no dramatic steps in this area, there are now officials who are going to look much more carefully at potential violations.

Most southern school systems desegregated not under court orders but under Office for Civil Rights plans negotiated under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Many of those districts have been unilaterally changing those plans in ways that increase segregation without gaining the permission of federal officials, tacitly assuming that they had the freedom to do that. They do not. They could be required to reverse those actions and take additional steps to make up for the harm they have caused.

If school districts systematically take actions that have the impact of creating segregation and they reject alternatives that would produce integrated schools, they are engaging in the kinds of actions that triggered far-reaching desegregation orders in many northern cities and were found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1973 Denver (Keyes) decision. The Supreme Court has not overruled that decision and it is the law of the land.

I encounter many Keyes violations as I look around the country, and I think the violations may be especially common in the South, where people seem to assume that the civil rights rollback has gone much further than it actually has. If districts are going to go back into court, many will also face questions about what they have done about the exploding population of Latino students, who also have desegregation rights under Keyes–rights which were never acknowledged in most southern desegregation plans. These students are often in highly segregated and unequal schools. If the pattern shows that it was done intentionally or it violates the Keyes standard, that could become another major issue.

The time for sleepwalking through resegregation–which is clearly related to diminished educational success–is over, and school authorities need to take this into account for both legal and educational reasons.

–Gary Orfield
professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and codirector of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA
coeditor of School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back?