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Fifty Years Since Swann

Mrs. Nettie Hunt, sitting on steps of Supreme Court, holding newspaper, explaining to her daughter Nikie the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision banning school segregation. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-127042

While Brown v. Board of Education gets the most attention for obvious reasons, it wasn’t until the 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that the Court really did anything to actually create school integration. How has it gone in the half-century since? I think we all know the answer:

But white families and President Nixon had different ideas. In the two years following the Swann decision, Nixon added two anti-busing jurists to the Supreme Court, and public support for desegregated busing vanished overnight: by 1972, polls showed opponents outnumbered supporters by a margin of 53 points.

In 1974, when the NAACP’s suit against segregation in Detroit-area schools (Milliken v. Bradley) came before the Supreme Court, a majority of the justices prevented a busing order from taking effect. Justice Potter Stewart, in the majority, asserted that the segregation of greater Detroit resulted from “unknown and perhaps unknowable factors.” But just because the segregation in Michigan wasn’t Jim Crow–style doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a history of de jure discrimination in the state, including redlining and exclusionary zoning. While the Court recognized the need to desegregate within a single district, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, it was unwilling to see how white flight into Detroit’s suburbs were responsible for the city’s segregated schools. 

While the Milliken decision did not overturn Swann, it did preclude the possibility of a nationwide busing program, effectively preventing wealthier white suburban districts from being integrated with poorer, urban Black ones. The Supreme Court’s post-Milliken jurisprudence would generally tolerate busing in the formerly explicitly segregated South, but not in the more-quietly segregated urban North.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, the South, under court orders, achieved the most racially integrated schools, while northern states generally dodged judicial scrutiny.

As Matthew Delmont, a professor at Dartmouth and the author of Why Busing Failed, told Teen Vogue, “It was very easy for white liberals, particularly in northern cities, to be in support of civil rights when it was a conversation about Selma, or Little Rock, or Montgomery, but when it came to integrating schools, neighborhoods, or workplaces in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, all of a sudden, liberals weren’t as liberal as they might have once seemed.”

In the mid-1970s, while Boston “was like a war zone” when it attempted to desegregate, Charlotte’s integration program reached new heights. By 1984, the Charlotte Observer editorial board declared that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.” That is, until 1999, when the Swann order was lifted after a disgruntled white parent sued, alleging that the district’s desegregation efforts discriminated against his daughter. Schools in Charlotte have slowly been re-segregating ever since, a pattern consistent across districts formerly under integration mandates.

“Busing is not unlike the brief experiment of Reconstruction,” Brooks lamented. “These were hard-fought gains that were properly celebrated but all too briefly held.”

I wonder where schools are the most segregated today?

Even as they’ve re-segregated, Charlotte and other Southern metropolitan school districts largely have not approached the degree of school segregation found in northern states. Today, the nation’s most segregated schools are found in ostensibly “liberal” states like New York, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland.

New York City is considered to be one of, if not the most segregated school system in the country. Half of the district’s white students are concentrated in just 11% of schools, disproportionately represented in the district’s most elite. But a group of student activists at Teens Take Charge (TTC) are fighting to desegregate the nation’s largest district.

Huh, imagine that. But look, it’s not racist to take your kids out of the local public school and move them to a private or just move entirely the suburbs. I mean, little Maddie and Connor DESERVE THE BEST. And who are you to suggest that I might be racist for replicating hundreds of years of white supremacy to make sure that my kids go to school with all whites except just enough students of color (preferably Asians or light-skinned Black kids from upper middle class families) so that they can get just enough understanding of diversity to understand that they have no responsibility for fixing systemic racism since they have a Chinese friend?

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