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New Faces, Old Patterns? Segregation in the Multiracial South

Authors: Gary Orfield, Chungmei Lee
Date Published: September 01, 2005

If desegregation plans were still in effect we would expect that as the share of whites in a state declined, white students would tend to be in schools that, on average, had an increased share of black students. In several states, however, even though the percentage of white students has declined significantly, the level of white contact with blacks actually fell.
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A third of a century ago the schools of the South became the most integrated in the nation, a stunning reversal of a long history of educational apartheid written into the state laws and constitutions of the eleven states of the Confederacy and the six Border states, stretching from Oklahoma to Delaware, all of which had legally imposed de jure segregation until the Supreme Court prohibited it in 1954. From being almost completely segregated in their own schools, more than two-fifths of black students in the South were attending majority white schools and many more were in schools with significant diversity at the height of integration. Reversing the historic pattern, almost all of the Southern and Border states became more integrated than most Northern states with significant black enrollment.

Since the l980s, the tremendous progress in the South has been slowly eroding year by year as black students and the exploding population of Latino students become more isolated from white students. In some of the states which were most successful in achieving integration, the reversal has been much more rapid.

The Southern and Border states were the leaders in urban desegregation following the Supreme Court’s l971 Swann decision and these regions saw major efforts at something experienced nowhere in the North: comprehensive city-suburban desegregation in many of the largest urban communities. This was because the Supreme Court blocked desegregation between the city and suburban districts in the l974 Milliken decision and only the South had substantial numbers of major cities where the city and suburban schools were in a single county-wide school system. Those plans proved to be particularly effective in radically reducing racial separation over long periods of time, and their dismantling since the Supreme Court supported the ending of desegregation plans in the 1991 Dowell v. Oklahoma City, has produced large and rapid increases in segregation where advances in desegregation were most prevalent. This is particularly unfortunate because those plans did produce high and relatively stable levels of desegregation and eliminate the kind of extremely segregated and unequal ghetto schools that characterize the urban North. There is also striking new evidence that the city-suburban plans produced substantially lower levels of housing segregation than were experienced in communities with separate city and suburban school districts.

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