Despite how we look to Brown v. Board as a critical moment in American history–which of course it is–it’s important to remember that for most American students, integrated schools never happened. With whites moving to the suburbs and the rise of evangelical Christian schools–a phenomenon that was a direct response to Brown–millions of white parents have done all they can to keep their children around other whites. That doesn’t mean that there are not still efforts to desegregate schools. The courts are still involved in this process in many districts, particularly in the South. But Republicans–such as Jim Crow advocate Pat McCrory–are pushing back hard. De facto Jim Crow schools are on the way back.
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.
Once again, it is truly shocking that Republicans have rallied around Donald Trump.