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Desegregation in Theory and Practice

Throughout the 1960s it became evident that desegregation was not a clear-cut issue by any means. As communities struggled with finding the best ways to desegregate, the racial divide seemed to grow rather than diminish. Desegregation theory and practice could take different forms.

Southern states, which had borne the brunt of the negative publicity about segregation, began to point out that the Northern states were equally culpable, albeit in a different way. For years the South had de jure segregation — in other words, segregation mandated by law. In the North, while there were no segregation laws on the books, most blacks and whites lived in separate enclaves; often the groups did not mix, and their children attended local schools. Thus, in the North there was de facto segregation in the schools because neighborhoods were segregated.

Busing and "White Flight"

Among the methods communities tried to desegregate the schools was the busing of black students to predominantly white schools. Since the black schools tended to be in poorer neighborhoods and had fewer resources, it seemed to make sense to bus black students to white schools until a balance of black and white students was attained. The case in the U.S. Supreme Court that set the ground rules for all future busing decisions in the courts was Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which was decided in 1970. Two years earlier, the Court had ruled in Green v. County School Board that the school board had the responsibility to integrate the schools and to do so promptly. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg (Virginia) school board was found to be out of compliance and was assigned a plan known as the Finger Plan (named for the man who devised it). Under the Finger Plan, schools throughout the district were to work to attain more racial balance in the schools by busing children into the schools.

Busing is one illustration of how difficult it is to achieve true desegregation. In the decades after Swann, other communities implemented busing. Invariably, busing is not well-received by blacks or whites. Legislating action is one thing, but legislating attitude is quite another. In many large urban cities, whites who could afford to move to the suburbs, where the population (and consequently the schools) were predominantly white, left inner-city schools with dwindling white student populations. In Denver, the school district was found to be practicing "subtle racism" by the U.S. Supreme Court in Keyes v. School District No. 1. A busing program was implemented, but the way the system was initially set up many elementary school students spent half a day in a de facto segregated school and half a day in an integrated school.

The 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley addressed the issue of "white flight" to the suburbs by suggesting that one remedy would be to bus suburban children into the inner city schools in which whites were the minority. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that suburban students could not be used to desegregate inner city schools. White flight continued. Because most of the people left behind were poor or working-class, cities lost a tax base. As cities became poorer, less money was spent on education. Blacks and other minorities who could afford to move did so, and the inner city populations became statistically poorer. By the end of the twentieth century, many of the largest cities in the United States had public schools that were racially imbalanced and sadly in need of funding for maintenance, basic supplies, and more teachers.

The Needs of the Children

Lost in many of these contentious proceedings was the simple question of what was best for the child. Children are not born with a predisposition to racial prejudice, but they are forced to live with the decisions of adults. In the inner cities, public education has not improved, and in affluent communities, de facto segregation is still common. While some see desegregation efforts such as busing as a positive move, others argue that the money spent on busing programs would be better spent in revitalizing poor neighborhoods and schools so that children could get a good education in their own neighborhood. The contrasts between desegregation theory and practice could be be significant. But that brings back the question of segregated neighborhoods. Many people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds look at desegregation with a mix of cynicism and resignation.

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