School Districts Still Face Fights—and Confusion—on Integration

60 years after Brown v. Board, the federal government’s enforcement of desegregation has all but disappeared.
Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons

For decades, federal desegregation orders were a potent force against Jim Crow laws in the South, helping to make the region's educational systems the most integrated in the country.

Federal judges, often facing death threats and violence, issued hundreds of court orders that set out specific plans and timetables to ensure the elimination of racial segregation. Federal agencies then aggressively used the authority of the courts to monitor hostile school systems, wielding the power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to deny federal dollars to districts that refused to desegregate.

The pace of the change wrought by the federal courts was breathtaking. In 1963, about 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, the South had been remade—fully 90 percent of black children attended desegregated schools. Court orders proved most successful in the South, but were also used in an attempt to combat de facto segregation in schools across the country, from New York to Michigan to Arizona.

Today, this once-powerful force is in considerable disarray.

A ProPublica examination shows that officials in scores of school districts do not know the status of their desegregation orders, have never read them, or erroneously believe that orders have been ended. In many cases, orders have gone unmonitored, sometimes for decades, by the federal agencies charged with enforcing them.

At the height of the country's integration efforts, there were some 750 school districts across the country known to be under desegregation orders.

Today, court orders remain active in more than 300 districts. In some cases, that's because judges have determined that schools have not met their mandate to eliminate segregation.

But some federal courts don't even know how many desegregation orders still exist on their dockets. With increasing frequency, federal judges are releasing districts from court oversight even where segregation prevails, at times taking the lack of action in cases as evidence that the problems have been resolved.

Desegregation orders were meant to guarantee black and Latino children the right to an equal education. They addressed a range of issues, including the diversity of teaching staff, racial balance in schools, curriculum, discipline and facilities.

The orders uniquely empower parents to fight actions by school districts that might lead to greater segregation or inequality. In districts under court order — having been found in violation of the constitutional rights of black children — parents do not have to prove intent, only that black students could be harmed.

Since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has sharply curtailed the power of parents to challenge racial inequities in schools. Districts not under court orders are largely prohibited from considering race to balance schools. And parents in these districts must show that school officials are intentionally discriminating when they make decisions that adversely affect black and Latino students.

And so, as desegregation orders are ignored, forgotten, or lifted, black parents are losing the ability to effectively challenge school inequality.

Over the course of months, ProPublica has compiled the nation's most comprehensive and accurate data on active desegregation orders. We used legal databases and academic studies and contacted more than 160 school districts across the country. This effort uncovered confusion, neglect and inaction.

For example, the lawyer for the school district in Hollandale, Mississippi, said he didn't know if the desegregation order that had long ago been imposed on the district was still in effect.

"I haven't looked at anything or researched it. I've never read the order," the lawyer, Bennie Richard, said.

The order is, in fact, in place, but it has been 30 years since the school district submitted the required reports detailing its efforts at furthering integration.

In Washington, Georgia, court records show the school system remains under a federal mandate to desegregate. This was news to the district's lawyer, who, in an interview, told ProPublica the order had been lifted in 2000.

The U.S. Justice Department provided ProPublica with its list of active desegregation orders, but even this data was a bit off: At least two orders on it had ended and a few more are in dispute.

The department would not allow its officials to be interviewed for this article. And it refused to respond to a dozen written questions concerning how it monitors, enforces, and litigates desegregation cases.

A department spokeswoman sent a one-paragraph response that said the department will "continue to use all tools available to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students."

The U.S. Department of Education, whose Office of Civil Rights also is charged with monitoring desegregation efforts, would not allow its officials to be interviewed.

The agency initially refused to provide a list of desegregation plans that it oversees, saying in an email that "students and communities feel sensitivity" about being categorized by race and by the fact that their schools remain "subject to ongoing legal oversight regarding desegregation obligations."

A few days later, after ProPublica said it would push for the information, the press secretary for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the agency could provide a list, but required time because officials needed to "do some final checks on our end to be sure everything is correct." Two weeks later, ProPublica has not yet received the list.

Wendy Parker, a former Justice Department lawyer who now teaches at Wake Forest University School of Law, said she found the general confusion about the orders "stunning."

The superintendent of the Yancey County Schools in North Carolina, for instance, asserted that a court order had never been imposed on its schools. But court records at the federal archives in Atlanta show not only was Yancey County placed under a desegregation order in 1960, but the order remains in force.

In response to additional questioning, the district's lawyer, Donny Laws, said the district was placed under court order but that, "I can safely tell you that's the first time it's been mentioned in Yancey County in 45 to 50 years."

Some school officials interviewed by ProPublica said they had been frustrated in their attempts to simply determine the status of any ongoing federal oversight. A school board lawyer for Warren County, North Carolina, said he contacted the federal courthouse in Raleigh to see whether that district's court order had ended, but said court officials told him the records had been shipped to the federal archives, and thus they couldn't give him an answer.

The lawyer asked ProPublica to send him the court records if we found them. We did find the archived case docket for Warren County and it appears the order remains active.

But confirming the status of desegregation orders is not easily done.

The bulk of orders predate the Internet, so many can't be found online.

Across the country, original court orders and their underlying records have been destroyed by fire, shipped to a central archive center, or lost in the dusty parchment graveyards of courthouse basements. Some orders have lain dormant for so long that everyone involved, including judges and lawyers, are either retired or dead.

The federal government was not a party to all of these cases, many of which originated with civil rights organizations. In some instances, these agencies, too, have not closely monitored districts' progress.

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Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative reporter at ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom in New York City. 

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