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Five Questions with R. Shep Melnick author of “The Crucible of Desegregation: The Uncertain Search for Educational Equality”

As of May 17, 2024, it has now been seventy years since Brown v. Board of Education, the pivotal case that declared that separating children in public schools based on race was unconstitutional. This momentous decision meant that the days of “separate but equal” as defined by Plessy v. Ferguson were officially overruled, signifying that the US was set on desegregating their school systems.

R. Shep Melnick, author of
The Crucible of Desegregation, posits that Brown—while vital in the pursuit of racial equality—was a decision that contained fundamental ambiguities. The Crucible of Desegregation argues that the Supreme Court has never clearly defined what desegregation means; therefore, this is no singular interpretation or framework for the lower courts to use as a means of evaluating the racial health of their districts’ schools. Melnick argues that years of ambiguous, inconsistent, and meandering Court decisions left lower court judges adrift and forced them to apply contradictory Supreme Court precedents in a wide variety of highly charged political and educational contexts. As a result, desegregation policy has been patchwork, with little opportunity to effectively analyze its success and failings.

In this post, we chat with Melnick about his research and reflect on Brown’s legacy along with the persistent patterns and disagreements that continue to roil education policy.

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While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

Most surprising was what a terrible job the Supreme Court did in the 1960s and 1970s explaining to lower courts, school officials, and the public what the crucial word “desegregation” means.  Without explicitly saying so, it vacillated between two much different understandings: one that prohibited the use of racial classifications by school officials and another that sought to curb racial “isolation” by requiring the assignment of students to schools on the basis of race. To this day the Court has failed to explain exactly what Brown v. Board of Education requires of local schools.

A second surprise was how quickly the lower courts latched onto preliminary—and flawed—social science evidence to give them guidance where the Supreme Court had left them adrift. Hearing no evidence to the contrary, they came to see getting the “right” racial balance as the silver bullet that would eliminate the racial achievement gap and promote racial harmony.  As more evidence emerged, this apparent social science consensus evaporated.

The third surprise was the extent to which our failure to be clear about what “desegregation” means has inhibited us from figuring out what has worked and what has not. In effect, we conducted hundreds of experiments across the country but made no attempt to understand the varying goals of these desegregation efforts or to compare their results.

What does “desegregation” mean? Has its definition changed within our current cultural-political landscape?

The meaning of “desegregation” has long been uncertain and contentious; in 1954, it meant preventing states from maintaining separate schools for white and Black children. Both the lawyers for the NAACP (explicitly) and members of the Supreme Court (implicitly) endorsed the “colorblind” interpretation of the Equal Protection clause first enunciated by Justice Harlan in his Plessey dissent. 

By the late 1960s, the term had taken on a different meaning among many policymakers. In 1967, the US Commission on Civil Rights claimed, “Negro children who attend predominantly Negro schools do not achieve as well as other children . . . whatever the source of such segregation may be.”  For a while, “desegregation” came to mean promoting equal educational opportunity by eliminating majority Black schools. This required judges to mandate a particular ratio of white and Black students in each school building.

Eliminating what became known as “racial isolation” required extensive busing of students in the North and West as well as the South. When the Supreme Court restricted judges’ authority to order interdistrict busing in 1974, “desegregation” took on yet another meaning: the requirement that the student body in each school reflect the Black/white composition of the school district as a whole. Often, this meant spreading the declining number of white students evenly throughout a predominantly minority school system.

As the number of Hispanic and Asian students has surged and the percentage of white students has dropped, it has become even harder to come to any agreement on what “desegregation” means. What does it mean to “desegregate” a large urban school system whose student body is overwhelmingly minority? Should we seek to spread Black, Hispanic, and Asian students evenly throughout the district? Or make sure there are at least a few white children in each school? At what cost in terms of money, travel time, and parents’ access to their children’s schools? It might be time to admit that the politically loaded term has lost any discernable meaning and to focus instead on the many other features of our schools that desperately need improvement.

What can we learn from the long history of desegregation? What has improved educational opportunities for minority students and what has not?

Isolating the effect of a particular policy change is almost always difficult. Doing so when we cannot agree on what “desegregation” means is even harder. As one noted scholar explained, “the social situations that our society labels as ‘desegregated schools’ vary to an extraordinary extent.  . . . Hence in practice researchers have studied very different situations without always recognizing that the fact that a situation is legally or popularly dubbed as desegregated does not guarantee that it has a great deal in common with other similarly labeled situations.” As a result, much of the research on the short-term educational consequences of desegregation has been (in the words of multiple literature reviews) “inconclusive.”

Recent studies of the long-term effects of desegregation have been somewhat more encouraging. A study by Rucker Johnson found a strong relationship between the number of years students spend in a desegregated school on the one hand and the total years of education, adult wages, adult health status, incarceration rates, and poverty rates on the other. A more extensive study by Anstreicher, Fletcher, and Thompson found “qualitatively quite large” positive effects in the South, yet “no substantive effects outside of the South.” In the South, desegregation was part of an extensive attack on the racial caste system and led to increased spending on schools attended by Black students. Changes throughout the rest of the continental US were not nearly as dramatic.

In 2006, 553 social scientists signed an amicus brief supporting Seattle’s effort to use racial assignments to promote diversity in its schools. They warned, though, that “racially desegregated schools,” are not “an educational or social panacea and the extent of benefits will depend on how desegregation is structured and implemented.” At times desegregation orders have increased racial conflict and competition rather than promoted racial harmony. To the extent that desegregation leads to more funding and smaller class sizes for Black students, it seems to help. But simply throwing Black and white students together in the same school building does little to improve educational quality. As is usually the case with educational reforms, the devil is in the details.

How did the desegregation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s contribute to educational change beyond the question of race?

One of the most important and beneficial consequences of Brown v. Board and its progeny was renewed attention to various underserved student groups. It is no coincidence that federal funding for education increased substantially in the 1960s, or that it focused on students from low-income families. Soon after enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress passed legislation designed to improve educational opportunities for English learners, women and girls, and students with disabilities. Much of this legislation adopted a civil rights model—most notably Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Regulations and guidelines issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under these laws and the 1964 Civil Rights Act have further expanded that federal effort. For women and girls, the education story is one of amazing success. Female students now outperform their male counterparts in virtually every realm of education. Likewise, students with disabilities now fare far better than they did before the passage of the key legislation in 1975. The costs have been significant and the paperwork onerous, but the educational improvements are undeniable. Although we struggle to provide adequate instruction to the growing number of English learners, federal funding and federal mandates have prohibited schools from leaving them to sink or swim in classes conducted solely in English.

Virtually every president and major presidential candidate this century has described education as “the civil rights issue of our time.” The most important education law of the 21st century, No Child Left Behind, put the racial achievement gap front and center. Our success in reducing that gap has been modest—but not for want of trying.

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?

First, I hope my book alerts readers to the dangers of failing to be clear about the purposes of the desegregation effort. We need to stop pretending that we all agree on what “desegregation” means, why we want it, how we measure it, and how we should go about achieving it. The words “segregation” and “resegregation” are frequently used as political weapons that do more to polarize than to promote beneficial change.

Second, it should alert readers to the difficulty of achieving educational reform in a political system as fragmented and decentralized as ours. We have over 14,000 school districts in this country, each with substantial autonomy. Schools themselves are decentralized bureaucracies—coping organizations, to invoke James Q. Wilson’s useful term. The federal judiciary that has been interpreting and enforcing Brown v. Board of Education is itself highly decentralized, with little Supreme Court review of the lower courts’ thousands of structural injunctions. Especially when the Supreme Court mumbles, the lower courts must fend for themselves.

Third, I hope that my book dissuades at least a few people from invoking that popular phantom “structural racism” to explain every feature of our education and legal systems. The Jim Crow system in the pre-1964 South was indeed a racist structure. Our efforts to address the long-term consequences of that racial caste system and the pervasive discrimination that occurred elsewhere in the country have not eradicated that terrible legacy. But we have made substantial strides, and our failures have been more a consequence of inadequate knowledge and institutional incapacity. Undoing the effects of centuries of slavery, legal segregation, and racial discrimination is hardly an easy task. We should recognize both how much we have in fact achieved, and how hard it is for government in a liberal democracy to achieve sudden changes in social mores and the distribution of human capital.

R. Shep Melnick is the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Professor of American Politics at Boston College and cochair of the Harvard Program on Constitutional Government. He is the author of The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in EducationBetween the Lines: Interpreting Welfare Rights, and Regulation and the Courts: The Case of the Clean Air Act.

The Crucible of Desegregation is available now on our website or from your favorite bookseller.