How Trump is hastening the resegregation of Southern schools

Nettie Hunt explains the Brown v. Board of Education ruling to her daughter on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. More than 60 years later, schools in America are growing more racially segregated. (UPI photo via the Library of Congress.)

America's schools are more racially segregated than they've been in decades. Between 2001 and 2014, the number of schools that are more 90 percent low-income students of color more than doubled. Half a century after Jim Crow officially ended, more than one in five students attended racially segregated schools last year in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, according to a recent report from Loyola University in New Orleans. A 2014 study from the University of California-Los Angeles found that schools in the South are as segregated as they were in 1967.

Since 2000, hundreds of schools have been released from federal desegregation orders, and this has led many Southern communities to redraw attendance boundaries in ways that result in schools that are more racially and economically segregated. After the Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama were released from a court order, for example, the city's large, integrated high school was replaced by three smaller schools — one of which is 99 percent black.

Some school districts that were intentionally segregated after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision against segregated schools are still under court desegregation orders dating back decades. Most of them are in the Deep South.

Civil rights advocates are concerned that the Trump administration is embracing policies that will drive resegregation. For instance, the Justice Department backed the request of a Mississippi school system seeking to be released from its desegregation order — a reversal from the Department's position before Trump took office. And Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos eliminated her department's Opening Doors program, which aimed to encourage voluntary desegregation. DeVos is also a prominent backer of school vouchers and charter schools, which are contributing to resegregation in many states.

In Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional. "In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," the ruling said. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice, empowered to sue school districts under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, pushed recalcitrant Southern school systems to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s.

School integration hit its peak in the late 1980s, when more than 40 percent of black students attended majority-white schools. Since then, a more conservative Supreme Court has chipped away at this progress. The Court has "actively thwarted public school desegregation even in districts where democratically elected leaders support increased efforts at integration," noted Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress.

In 2007, the Court ruled that voluntary integration efforts in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, were unconstitutional. The opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts compared the voluntary integration plans to Jim Crow schools, though acknowledging they were enacted "for very different reasons."

Will courts back off integration? 

Federal courts in the South remain actively involved in desegregating many districts. In Cleveland, Mississippi, for instance, students are just finishing their first school year in a racially integrated system — the result of 50 years of litigation. The South became the most integrated region for students after the federal government began to enforce the Brown decision. Despite increasing school segregation, the South is still the country's most effectively integrated region. Countywide school desegregation efforts are more common in the South because a few Southern states have laws that discourage secession from countywide districts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that desegregation efforts cannot cross school district boundaries, but larger districts mean that more diversity was possible within them.

Communities across the South, however, have begun dividing up school districts — splitting more integrated countywide systems into wealthier suburban and poorer urban districts. Some legislatures have gotten involved in those efforts. In 2015, for instance, Florida lawmakers introduced a bill to allow school district secession, though it did not pass. And in North Carolina, the General Assembly recently considered allowing communities to incorporate their own school systems. North Carolina's largest districts, which include the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh, were once models of desegregation, but a recent report from the N.C. Justice Center found intensifying resegregation across the state in the last decade.

Many court desegregation orders require judicial approval before districts can be split up. For example, federal courts have allowed several districts to secede from Alabama's Jefferson County school district, which includes the city of Birmingham. But in February, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request by the Birmingham suburb of Gardendale to secede from Jefferson County. The trial court found that Gardendale activists and local legislators pushing to secede had "acted with a discriminatory purpose to exclude black children from the proposed system."

The 11th Circuit agreed, noting that the "Gardendale secession movement started when the schools in that City were becoming racially diverse," thanks to a desegregation order that allowed students to transfer between county schools. In an opinion by Judge William Pryor, a Republican appointee, the 11th Circuit found that secession would also thwart desegregation efforts and send "messages of inferiority" to the black students. The court rejected concerns about how students and parents might react to its ruling, noting that the desegregation that followed Brown wouldn't have happened "if animosity alone could thwart constitutional imperatives."

Given the crucial role that federal courts continue to play in desegregation, civil rights advocates are concerned about Trump's judicial nominees — two of whom are facing criticism for refusing to state that Brown was correctly decided. Asked about the case during their confirmation hearings, Wendy Vitter and Andrew Oldham, nominated to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, declined to comment on Brown or other specific cases, even though some past Circuit Court nominees have unequivocally endorsed Brown.

Another Trump judicial nominee, Tennessee state Sen. Mark Norris, has come under fire for his personal role in the resegregation of schools in the Memphis area. After a federal court ordered desegregation by busing in 1973, white families fled the Memphis district for other communities in Shelby County. By 2010, 86 percent of the municipal district's student body was black, while white students were a majority in the county. That year, the city district voluntary surrendered its charter and allowed the district to be absorbed by the county.

Norris responded by authoring a bill to create an exception to the state's ban on cities and town incorporating their own schools districts that would apply only to Shelby County. The bill delayed the merger for three years and "pacified the county's largest and wealthiest suburbs by creating the legal means for their secession," according to law professor Michelle Wilde Anderson. A Democratic legislator said the goal of the bill was "to allow those four or five towns in Shelby County to be able to form their white school districts." Six communities established separate school districts, robbing the remaining county schools of much-needed resources.