Civil Rights Gains Being Undone

August 1, 2004

In the decades following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, racial isolation in the nation's schools declined markedly. But as federal courts have begun to step back from active desegregation efforts, many school districts are returning to assignment policies based on neighborhood schools, says a Duke professor who has written a book analyzing school integration efforts in the U. S.

After Brown:The Rise and Retrea of School Desegregation

"The predictable result is an increasing number of racially isolated schools," says Charles Clotfelter '69, a public-policy professor. Clotfelter's newly released book, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation (Princeton University Press, 2004), is a comprehensive analysis of integration data from school districts nationwide. In 1954, the bulk of segregated schools were located in the South. Today, the South has the least-segregated schools in the country, Clotfelter says.

Assignment policies are only one factor in the re-emergence of segregation in the nation's schools, he says. "Whites have been reluctant to embrace racially mixed schools, and options for avoiding integrated schools have proliferated in the fifty years since the Brown decision." In predominately black, non-metropolitan districts in the South, private schools became the escape mechanism of choice, though this option was not a major factor nationally.

In metropolitan areas, "white flight" wiped out a quarter of the integration gains achieved through desegregation. The city-suburban disparities grew fastest in the North and Midwest, where school districts tend to be small, numerous, and homogeneous. "Given this combination of forces," Clotfelter says, "it is clear that the burden for maintaining and advancing the gains of Brown lies with local school districts."