Five Takeaways About Segregation 70 Years After the Brown Decision
Portside Date:
Author: Jill Barshay
Date of source:
Hechinger Report

It was one of the most significant days in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 17, 1954, the nine justices unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that schools segregated by race did not provide an equal education. Students could no longer be barred from a school because of the color of their skin. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Brown decision, I wanted to look at how far we’ve come in integrating our schools and how far we still have to go. 

Two sociologists, Sean Reardon at Stanford University and Ann Owens at the University of Southern California, have teamed up to analyze both historical and recent trends. Reardon and Owens were slated to present their analysis at a Stanford University conference on May 6, and they shared their presentation with me in advance. They also expect to launch a new website to display segregation trends for individual school districts around the country

Here are five takeaways from their work:

  1. The long view shows progress but a worrying uptick, especially in big cities

Source: Owens and Reardon, “The state of segregation: 70 years after Brown,” 2024 presentation at Stanford University.

Not much changed for almost 15 years after the Brown decision. Although Black students had the right to attend another school, the onus was on their families to demand a seat and figure out how to get their child to the school. Many schools remained entirely Black or entirely white. 

Desegregation began in earnest in 1968 with a series of court orders, beginning with Virginia’s New Kent County schools. That year, the Supreme Court required the county to abolish its separate Black and white schools and students were reassigned to different schools to integrate them.This graph above, produced by Reardon and Owens, shows how segregation plummeted across the country between 1968 and 1973. The researchers focused on roughly 500 larger school districts where there were at least 2,500 Black students. That captures nearly two-thirds of all Black students in the nation and avoids clouding the analysis with thousands of small districts of mostly white residents. 

Reardon’s and Owens’s measurement of segregation compares classmates of the average white student with the classmates of the average Black student. For example, in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg district, the average white student in 1968 attended a school where 90 percent of his peers were white and only 10 percent were Black. The average Black student attended a school where 76 percent of his peers were Black and 24 percent were white. Reardon and Owens then calculated the gap in exposure to each race. White students had 90 percent white classmates while Black students had 24 percent white classmates. The difference was 66 percentage points. On the flip side, Black students had 76 percent Black classmates while white students had 10 percent Black classmates. Again, the difference was 66 percentage points, which translates to 0.66 on the segregation index.

But in 1973, after court-ordered desegregation went into effect, the average white student attended a school that was 69 percent white and 31 percent Black. The average Black student attended a school that was 34 percent Black and 66 percent white. In five short years, the racial exposure gap fell from 66 percentage points to 3 percentage points. Schools reflected Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s demographics. In the graph above, Reardon and Owens averaged the segregation index figures for all 533 districts with substantial Black populations. That’s what each dot represents.

In the early 1990s, this measure of segregation began to creep up again, as depicted by the red tail in the graph above. Owens calls it a “slow and steady uptick” in contrast to the drastic decline in segregation after 1968. Segregation has not bounced back or returned to pre-Brown levels. “There’s a misconception that segregation is worse than ever,” Reardon said.

Although the red line from 1990 to the present looks nearly flat, when you zoom in on it, you can see that Black-white segregation grew by 25 percent between 1991 and 2019. During the pandemic, segregation declined slightly again.

Detailed view of the red line segment in the chart above, “Average White-Black Segregation, 1968-2022.” Source: Owens and Reardon, “The state of segregation: 70 years after Brown,” 2024 presentation at Stanford University.

It’s important to emphasize that these Black-white segregation levels are tiny compared with the degree of segregation in the late 1960s. A 25 percent increase can seem like a lot, but it’s less than 4 percentage points. 

“It’s big enough that it makes me worried,” said Owens. “Now is the moment to keep an eye on this. If it continues in this direction, it would take a long time to get back up to Brown. But let’s not let it keep going up.”

Even more troubling is the fact that segregation increased substantially if you zero in on the nation’s biggest cities. White-Black segregation in the largest 100 school districts increased by 64 percent from 1988 to 2019, Owens and Reardon calculated.

Source: Owens and Reardon, “The state of segregation: 70 years after Brown,” 2024 presentation at Stanford University.

  1. School choice plays a role in recent segregation

Why is segregation creeping back up again? 

The expiration of court orders that mandated school integration and the expansion of school choice policies, including the rapid growth of charter schools, explains all of the increase in segregation from 2000 onward, said Reardon. Over 200 medium-sized and large districts were released from desegregation court orders from 1991 to 2009, and racial school segregation in these districts gradually increased in the years afterward. 

School choice, however, appears to be the dominant force. More than half of the increase in segregation in the 2000s can be attributed to the rise of charter schools, whose numbers began to increase rapidly in the late 1990s. In many cases, either white or Black families flocked to different charter schools, leaving behind a less diverse student body in traditional public schools. 

The reason for the rise in segregation in the 1990s before the number of charter schools soared is harder to understand. Owens speculates that other school choice policies, such as the option to attend any public school within a district or the creation of new magnet schools, may have played a role, but she doesn’t have the data to prove that. White gentrification of cities in the 1990s could also be a factor, she said, as the white newcomers favored a small set of schools or sent their children to private schools. 

“We might just be catching a moment where there’s been an influx of one group before the other group leaves,” said Owens. “It’s hard to say how the numbers will look 10 years from now.”

  1. It’s important to disentangle demographic shifts from segregation increases

There’s a popular narrative that segregation has increased because Black students are more likely to attend school with other students who are not white, especially Hispanic students. But Reardon and Owens say this analysis conflates demographic shifts in the U.S. population with segregation. The share of Hispanic students in U.S. schools now approaches 30 percent and everyone is attending schools with more Hispanic classmates. White students, who used to represent 85 percent of the U.S. student population in 1970, now make up less than half. 

Source: Owens and Reardon, “The state of segregation: 70 years after Brown,” 2024 presentation at Stanford University.

The blue line in the graph above shows how the classmates of the average Black, Hispanic or Native American student have increased from about 55 percent Black, Hispanic and Native American students in the early 1970s to nearly 80 percent Black, Hispanic and Native American students today. That means that the average student who is not white is attending a school that is overwhelmingly made up of students who are not white.

But look at how the red line, which depicts white students, is following the same path. The average white student is attending a school that moved from 35 percent students who are not white in the 1970s to nearly 70 percent students who are not white today. “It’s entirely driven by Hispanic students,” said Owens. “Even the ‘white’ schools in L.A. are 40 percent Hispanic.” 

I dug into U.S. Department of Education data to show how extremely segregated schools have become less common. The percentage of Black students attending a school that is 90 percent or more Black fell from 23 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2022. Only 1 in 10 Black students attends an all-Black or a nearly all-Black school. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students attending a school that is 90 percent or more white fell from 44 percent to 14 percent during this same time period. That’s 1 in 7. Far fewer Black or white students are learning in schools that are almost entirely made up of students of their same race.

At the same time, the percentage of Black students attending a school where 90 percent of students are not white grew from 37 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2022. But notice the sharp growth of Hispanic students during this period. They went from 7.6 million (fewer than the number of Black students) to more than 13.9 million (almost double the number of Black students). 

  1. Most segregation falls across school district boundaries

Source: Owens and Reardon, “The state of segregation: 70 years after Brown,” 2024 presentation at Stanford University.

This bar chart shows how schools are segregated for two reasons. One is that people of different races live on opposite sides of school district lines. Detroit is an extreme example. The city schools are dominated by Black students. Meanwhile, the Detroit suburbs, which operate independent school systems, are dominated by white students. Almost all the segregation is because people of different races live in different districts. Meanwhile, in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area, over half of the segregation reflects the uneven distribution of students within school districts.

Nationally, 60 percent of the segregation occurs because of the Detroit scenario: people live across administrative borders, Reardon and Owens calculated. Still, 40 percent of current segregation is within administrative borders that policymakers can control. 

  1. Residential segregation is decreasing

People often say there’s little that can be done about school segregation until we integrate neighborhoods. I was surprised to learn that residential segregation has been declining over the past 30 years, according to Reardon’s and Owens’s analysis of census tracts. More Black and white people live in proximity to each other. And yet, at the same time, school segregation is getting worse.

All this matters, Reardon said, because kids are learning at different rates in more segregated systems. “We know that more integrated schools provide more equal educational opportunities,” he said. “The things we’re doing with our school systems are making segregation worse.”

Reardon recommends more reforms to housing policy to integrate neighborhoods and more “guard rails” on school choice systems so that they cannot be allowed to produce highly segregated schools. 

This story about segregation in schools today was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters. 

Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for the 2013-14 school year. Previously, Barshay was the New York bureau chief for Marketplace, a national business show on public radio stations. She has also written for Congressional Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and appeared on CNN and ABC News. She was a 2016-17 Spencer Fellow in Education Reporting. In 2019 she received the American Educational Research Association's award for excellence in media reporting on education research. A graduate of Brown University, Barshay holds master's degrees from the London School of Economics and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Source URL: