How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration.

Part 1: How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration.

Nathaniel Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by other black students, May 21, 1954, at the Saint-Dominique school, in Washington, where for the first time in USA the Brown v. Board.
Nathaniel Steward recites his lesson on May 21, 1954, at the Saint-Dominique school in Washington, D.C. after the Brown v. Board of Education decision is applied.

Photo courtesy AFP/Getty Images


“There is no place in the movement for the white liberal. He is our affliction.”—James Baldwin

Five years ago, while fervently supporting the candidacy of the man who would become America’s first black president, I came to the realization that I didn’t actually know any black people. Most of the people I did know (i.e., other white people) didn’t know many black people either. One, maybe two, was the norm. I asked one white guy I knew if he had any black friends, and he replied, “You mean ones that aren’t on television?”

I wanted to know why integration—actual, genuine integration—had failed so spectacularly. The result of that curiosity, published a little more than a year ago, was Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, which traced the history of the color line back through all the places I have lived and chronicled the various efforts to erase it: school busing, affirmative action, fair housing, etc. Recently, I celebrated my one-year anniversary as an official participant in the National Conversation About Race—writing bits for Slate, speaking at colleges, and sitting on panels moderated by Soledad O’Brien (which is how you really know you’ve made it).

When I started the book, after eight miserable years of George W. Bush and the euphoria of the Yes We Can crusade, I’d been driven pretty far left on the political spectrum. Taking on the issue of race, you’d think I’d have kept heading in that direction. But the more I read and researched, the more I went out and talked to people, I found that a funny thing was happening: I was becoming more conservative.

Which is not to say I was becoming a Republican. Because how could I? At this point, the GOP’s rap sheet of racial offenses is almost too long to recount. Pushing undemocratic voter ID laws, trotting out candidates like Herman Cain, calling Barack Obama the “food stamp president” … if it has to do with race, you can count on Republicans being wrong early and often.

The pernicious effects of Republican attitude on race are plain to see. But one of the more subtle consequences of the right’s willful incompetence is that there is rarely any thoughtful critique of the left when it comes to race. Affirmative action is unfair to white people and the Democratic Party is a plantation—that’s about as incisive as the rhetoric usually gets. Even when Republicans have a legitimate point to make about the shortcomings of some government program, it’s almost as if they can’t help blowing their own argument. They’ll start off talking sensibly enough about educational outcome disparities and within seconds they’re rambling incoherently about how black men don’t take care of their babies. It’s really astonishing to watch.

But the fact is that a lot of liberals hold on to some really bad ideas about race too. Some of the arguments they keep trotting out amount to little more than unexamined platitudes, riddled with holes. Fifty years after the March on Washington, America’s high school cafeterias are as racially divided as ever, income inequality is growing, and mass incarceration has hobbled an entire generation of young black men. Do we really think this is entirely due to Republican obstruction? Or is it also possible that the party charged with taking black Americans to the Promised Land has been running around in circles?

The left has been ceded a monopoly on caring about black people, and monopolies are dangerous. They create ossified institutions, paralyzed by groupthink and incapable of self-reflection. To the extent that liberals are willing to be self-critical, it’s generally to flagellate themselves for not being liberal enough, for failing to stand fast with the old, accepted orthodoxies. Monopolies also lead to arrogance and entitlement, and the left is nothing if not arrogant when it comes to constantly and loudly asserting its place as the One True Friend of Black America. And yet, as good as liberal policies on race sound in speeches, many of them don’t hold up in the real world.

There is no shortage of people ready to pounce on every instance of Republican racial insanity, but there is also no expectation that those Republicans will reform any time soon. It is therefore imperative that at least some Democrats begin to shift the discussion to what is wrong with themselves. With the right being derelict, the left assumes stewardship of our new multiracial America by default. So there is an added responsibility to get it right, to purge outdated orthodoxies, admit past mistakes, and find real solutions that work.

Taking the occasion of Black History Month, over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a series of pieces for Slate delving into the history and consequences of the liberal establishment’s mishandling of this volatile issue. And if you’re going to look at where the left went wrong in repairing the sins of Jim Crow, you have to start at the beginning, with the squandering of the greatest liberal victory of all: the 1954 Supreme Court decision meant to put an end to segregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education.

After a federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school on November 14, 1960, in the midst of racial tension and violence. Bridges attended William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and with U.S. Marshals by her side; she became the first black child to enter an all-white school in the history of the American South.
After a federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted Ruby Bridges to school on Nov. 14, 1960. She became the first black child to enter an all-white school in the history of the American South.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Justice/U.S. Marshals


In 1999, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA published a widely read report titled “Resegregation in American Schools.” Analyzing racial-balance percentages from school districts nationwide, the study found that our educational system made steady, significant progress toward a healthy racial composition up until the mid- to late-1980s. After that, the trend reversed dramatically. As of the 1996-97 school year, the ratio of black to white students in public schools fell below the level achieved in 1972. In 2006, 73 percent of black children attended schools with at least 50 percent minority enrollment, and 38.5 percent attended schools with at least a 90 percent minority enrollment. Since then, the numbers have kept heading in the same direction.

In the left’s narrative, the culprit for this backsliding is always the same: conservative, Republican-appointed justices like William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, who gutted the legal foundation for Brown and rolled back busing and other integration initiatives in order to protect the white, suburban majority. But that’s only half true, a fact illustrated by the very word liberal academics have coined to describe the phenomenon: resegregation.

Resegregation is a misleading term because it implies that the left’s large-scale integrationist schemes were working, and would have continued to work, if not for the meddling of Republicans. But to believe that premise, you’d have to accept the assertion that the peak year for school integration happened 25 years ago. Does anyone remember the mid- to late-1980s as a flowering of adolescent racial harmony in America? I don’t. The truth is that the left has crafted a narrative about the death of Brown v. Board, a convenient one that serves its own ends. The reality is much more grim, and it starts in the place where Democrats drove the school bus into the ditch: Detroit.

The urban riots that rocked Detroit in 1967 were among the worst in the nation. White flight in the Motor City was well ahead of the curve. By the early ’70s the city’s public school population was 69.8 percent black and climbing fast, even though the metro area, as a whole, was only 19 percent black. In 1971, in the case of Milliken v. Bradley, District Judge Stephen J. Roth found that the Detroit school board had employed illegal measures to keep its schools racially segregated, in violation of Brown v. Board. But because so many whites had already fled the city, there weren’t enough white kids left to integrate Detroit’s schools. Roth ruled that the only way to create a meaningful racial balance in Detroit’s public schools was to include all of the surrounding suburban school districts in the proposed remedy; he mandated that the state of Michigan create a busing plan that would take thousands of black kids out into fortress suburbia and haul thousands of white kids back downtown.

Though nearly two decades had passed since Brown v. Board, school desegregation was really just getting started, and the buses had barely left the lot when America elected Richard Nixon, who, as a part of his Southern Strategy, had campaigned against forced busing and had brokered a deal with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, trading convention delegates in exchange for a promise to stem the tide of integration as much as possible. Once in office, Nixon appointed anti-integration staffers to the federal agency charged with enforcing integration. And when the departure of Justice Abe Fortas left a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president told his attorney general that the replacement should be “a conservative Southerner” who was “against busing, and against forced housing integration. Beyond that he can do what he pleases.”

After Nixon’s first two appointees for Fortas’ spot were rejected for upholding Jim Crow laws and/or espousing white supremacist ideologies, the president managed to find Harry Blackmun, a Midwestern conservative palatable enough to win confirmation. Unfortunately, thanks to death and retirement, Nixon was given the opportunity to appoint a total of four justices in under four years, packing the Court with anti-integrationists. When Milliken made it to the Supreme Court on appeal in 1974, the justices reversed the lower court’s decision by a 5–4 margin—with all of Nixon’s men in the affirmative—saying that the adjacent municipalities of a metropolitan area could not be compelled to cross city or county lines in a cooperative desegregation program. Suburban whites who paid suburban property taxes could not be made to send their kids to the city for school. Detroit could only bus students inside Detroit, which by that point meant it could only integrate black kids with other black kids.

Pres. Nixon with Sammy Davis, Jr., new member of National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, July, 1971.
President Nixon with Sammy Davis, Jr., new member of National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, July 1971.

Photo courtesy Marion S. Trikosko/U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Justice Byron White wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion, noting that segregated school systems had been overturned under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which charged states, not cities or counties, with providing citizens equal protection under the law. Therefore Michigan had the constitutional authority to balance race across an entire metropolitan area if it was so ordered. In overruling the inter-district plan, the Supreme Court elevated the sovereignty of suburban school districts over the sovereignty of the state of Michigan in a way that had never been done before.

Nixon’s Supreme Court shut down Detroit’s busing plan on nakedly political grounds. Metropolitan areas are interdependent ecosystems. They share highways, electrical grids, sewerage systems—just not schools. But here’s the thing: just because the plan was shut down for racist reasons doesn’t change the fact that the plan needed to be shut down. It was a ludicrous idea. For Detroit to have met the standard of racial balance set by the court, it would have had to expand its bus fleet by 350 new vehicles at a cost of more than $12,000 each in order to move tens of thousands of children across 53 independent school districts at a hard cost of $25 per student per month during a time when the Detroit city school system was already several million dollars in debt. This was busing on the scale of the Normandy invasion, executed twice a day, five days a week, with 12- and 13-year-olds.

In the South, where busing originated, most people lived in small towns and cities. Even the biggest metro areas, Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., weren’t really that big at the time. Though thoroughly segregated, blacks and whites lived in relative proximity in the South, and moving a couple hundred kids this way or that wasn’t a huge logistical obstacle. That wasn’t true in the bigger cities of the urban North and sprawling West, where massive, isolated ghettos had been formed by redlining and other discriminatory housing policies. In those cities, busing proposals reached great heights of absurdity. To meet its court-imposed deadlines, Los Angeles would have needed to expand its fleet by 800 buses to redistribute tens of thousands of students in a school district that covered hundreds of square miles.

Segregation in the North was a different disease than segregation in the Deep South. Yet Democrats prescribed the same course of treatment. Busing advocates had fallen victim to a common human fallacy: If it’s not working, do it more. It’s a mistake we all make when we really believe in something. And a lot of hardcore liberals ardently believed in integration. How did they fail so badly in their efforts to achieve it?


The left’s first blunder on integration: Not actually knowing what integration was.

For the decade after Brown, white schools in the South evaded and resisted integration. Then, under Lyndon Johnson, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, the agency charged with implementing school desegregation) finally stepped in and took a strong hand, demanding that schools move beyond token integration by showing “statistical proof of significant progress.” Backed by a unanimous Supreme Court, HEW brought the full weight of the federal government to bear, imposing sweeping mandates of racial balance on metropolitan school districts. Emboldened by the victories of the New Deal, Washington’s best and brightest had learned to dream big, to put their faith in top-down, technocratic solutions to society’s ills. That’s how they approached public housing and urban renewal, that’s how they approached Vietnam. School busing was no different. They fired up the buses and sent X percent of black kids over here and Y percent of white kids over there. If America refused to integrate, the government would redraw the map and do it by administrative fiat.

Police officer seizing Dr. Martin Luther King by his pants and leading him to a paddy wagon, after an anti-segregation march in Birmingham, Ala., 1963.
Police officer seizing Dr. Martin Luther King by his pants and leading him to a paddy wagon, after an anti-segregation march in Birmingham, Ala., 1963.

Photo courtesy New York World-Telegram/Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

While this probably seemed—and, in some ways, was—an unavoidable response to white stonewalling, it created a new problem: It set us chasing a mirage. There’s no such thing as “statistical proof” of integration. Integration, as Martin Luther King put it, is “true intergroup, interpersonal living … the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities.” Integration is the forming of relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Schools could be forced to desegregate—that is, to accept black students—but genuine integration, as King said, was an “unenforceable” demand. The government can put us in the same room, but they can’t make us get along.

To this day, the language of racial balance, as used by the left, keeps us talking about “integrated schools.” But institutions don’t integrate. People do. If a school is 3 percent black, but all of those students are actively engaged in making friends and participating in student activities, then those children are well and fully integrated. If a school is 20 percent black but all the black students stay on their own side of the cafeteria and then get bused home at 3 p.m. every day, then there is no integration taking place at that school. Trying to measure integration with percentages is like trying to measure your weight in inches.

The left’s second blunder on integration: Busing wasn’t actually what black America was asking for.

A line of African American and white school girls standing in a classroom while boys sit behind them, May 1955, Barnard School, Washington, D.C.
A line of black and white school girls in a Washington, D.C. classroom in May 1955.

Photo courtesy Thomas J. O’Halloran/U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Because Brown v. Board was such a landmark decision, the idea of integration and the larger civil rights movement became somewhat synonymous, wrongly so. Black America wasn’t fighting for integration, per se. They were fighting for agency, the right to exercise control over their lives and, hopefully, to enjoy the full protection of the government while doing so. In education, that’s not what they got. They got a policy that demanded white schools produce statistical proof of significant progress, and one where whites were in charge of executing the burdens imposed on them by the courts. Black schools were unilaterally closed down, their students divvied up and distributed to whatever white school needed to adjust its numbers in order to avoid being sued, often over the very loud protests of black parents; at angry town hall meetings, integration was denounced as a white supremacist plot to destroy the black community. Some black students, fearing the prospect of a hostile white environment, dropped out of school rather than ride the bus.

Not all black parents believed in integration. Those who did wanted a say in how it played out for their children. Some busing programs were voluntary, but by and large black children had to bus where HEW told them to bus. Mandatory racial-balance requirements insisted on it. With Jim Crow, black America lived under an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school. Now, with busing, black America lived under … an onerous, top-down system that told them where their children could and could not go to school. A 1972 Gallup poll showed that 77 percent of whites were against busing. The same poll showed 47 percent of blacks were against it as well. Many black Americans did believe in the school bus and the access it provided, and busing might have been a viable tool for those families had it been smartly and surgically applied. It wasn’t. It was presented in a sweeping fashion that denied many blacks the agency they sought.

The left’s third blunder on integration: Sending white kids to black schools.

After Brown, white parents fought for 15 years, doing everything in their power to keep black students out of white schools. But when the courts started mandating that white students bus into black schools, white parents didn’t fight for much longer. They just left. They fled for gated communities and private academies; they opted out of the social contract and they haven’t been back since, at least not as far as public education is concerned. Even in Berkeley, Calif.—bastion of liberal, progressive America—when the school district tried to implement a busing plan in 1964 that would take white students into black schools, local white parents launched a recall election to try and throw out the entire school board.

Were those parents being petulant, entitled, and racist? Yes. They also weren’t wrong. Because integration is two different things. It is “intergroup, interpersonal living,” learning to empathize with one another through shared cultural experience. But integration is also about access to wealth and power. Integration is the means through which marginalized groups gain entrance to the benefits already enjoyed by the majority. “I cannot see,” King said, “how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing, and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.”

In this sense, integration is the process of moving in and up. Recognizing that access to power in America is controlled by the social networks and cultural norms of the white majority, the Supreme Court declared that black students had the right to gain access to those resources. But in the quixotic quest to produce racial balance across vast metropolitan areas, as in Detroit, liberal judges and legislators decided to start sending working- and middle-class white kids in the opposite direction, to low-income, majority black schools—in other words, away from centers of power.

Sending a couple dozen white kids to a majority-black school may offer a rewarding cultural experience, it may count as “diversity,” but it is not integration. A black school may offer a perfectly good education, academically speaking, but the one thing a majority-black school does not offer—not in America, anyway—is greater access to the social networks and cultural norms that govern the allocation of wealth and power. For integration to be taking place, by definition, you have to have a critical mass of middle-class, upwardly mobile people into which the marginalized group can then be integrated.

Reading lesson in African American elementary school in Washington, D.C., 1942.
A reading lesson in an all-black elementary school in Washington, D.C., 1942.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Middle-class white kids were never going to get on buses and go and “integrate” black schools because middle-class white people are already integrated, in the middle class. Their immigrant parents or grandparents likely started the process of assimilation for them, overcoming social and cultural barriers to give their kids the tools to move further up the ladder. Why would those families turn around and send the next generation in the opposite direction? White people weren’t going to let that happen. And since white people are integrated, with power, into every level of American life, they had the leverage to make sure that it never did. The day the U.S. government put the first white kid on a bus to a black school? This experiment was over.


Caught up in the righteousness of their cause, liberals failed to understand what the fight for integration was really about, and failed to self-correct. The left’s overreach in Detroit opened the door for the Supreme Court to subvert Brown with a dangerous new precedent in Milliken. After that case, busing continued, and new plans were implemented, but only on one side of a very bright line. Now, all a suburban enclave had to do was vote to incorporate, zone itself with prohibitively expensive housing restrictions, and then that suburb could be as economically, socially, and geographically isolated from the city as it wanted to be. Where Brown had invalidated the idea of separate-but-equal for individual schools, Milliken went back and granted it to whole towns. The urban landscape would remain almost as segregated as it had been under Jim Crow; the legal mechanisms that allowed for it had just shifted.

We all know what happened to upper- and middle-class whites after that. By 1980, public schools in Memphis, Chicago, St. Louis, and Newark were more than 70 percent black. Schools in Washington, D.C., were more than 95 percent black. Busing had just started, and white people were already gone, ducking out to private schools and suburban enclaves. Far less documented is the fact that black families with the leverage to get out often did the same. In Birmingham, where I grew up, middle-class blacks pulled whatever strings they could to get their kids into Ramsey, the top magnet program in the city. Failing that, they coughed up the tuition to send their kids to John Carroll, the relatively integrated Catholic school. Those parents hadn’t marched on Montgomery just to have their kids bused off to marginal county schools full of C-average white kids in order to satisfy some arbitrary metric of racial balance in the greater metropolitan area. They’d marched to gain control over their children’s education.

While the black bourgeoisie went about sidestepping the school bus to pursue integration on their own terms, many blacks who lacked the leverage to escape busing grew resentful at having their kids caught up in a system in which they had no say. As nationalist sentiments rose with the Black Power movement of the 1970s, parent groups in Harlem and elsewhere began demanding community-based control of their own schools to implement Afrocentric teachings and curricula. Resentment festered on both sides of the racial divide. In the end, once all the blacks and whites with the means to bail on busing did bail on busing, all you were left with was an ever-diminishing pool of lower income black kids and white kids being shuffled around the map in order for America to pretend it was solving a problem.

Two black parents wait in line to enroll their children in the first grade at a previously all-white city school in Nashville, August 27, 1957.
Two black parents wait in line to enroll their children in the first grade at a previously all-white city school in Nashville, Aug. 27, 1957.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

At that point, you’d think people would have learned. But a decade after Milliken, in Kansas City, Mo., liberals pursued integration in a way that made Detroit’s aborted busing plan look eminently reasonable. As in most urban areas, by the early 1980s there weren’t actually enough white kids left in Kansas City’s public system to create racial balance of any kind, and since whites could not be compelled to return from the suburbs, the courts ordered Kansas City to build magnet schools of such unsurpassed quality that white people would voluntarily bus their kids back downtown.

Under the magnet plan, the Kansas City school district was transformed into an educational Disneyland, with 15 new schools and 54 fully renovated ones. There was a performing-arts magnet, a computer-science magnet. There were television and animation studios, an Olympic-sized swimming center, and a model United Nations complete with full translation capabilities. The program, originally budgeted at $250 million a year, was soon burning through more than $400 million a year. To administer the massive endeavor, Kansas City was spending $11,700 per pupil, nearly twice the Missouri average. 

Sadly, the judge in the case had overlooked one minor detail. White people already had good schools—in the suburbs, where they lived. The magnet plan was a colossal failure. Expecting that it would lure upward of 10,000 whites from the suburbs, the city allocated $6.4 million in transportation costs to bus them in. The greatest number of whites bused in from the suburbs in any one year was 1,476; the lowest was 387. Desperate to produce some kind of racial balance to justify its actions, the district resorted to holding enrollment slots vacant for suburban whites. Meanwhile, the children of tax-paying black residents were denied seats in the magnet programs they wanted. After spending $1.7 billion over the course of a decade, the district’s black-white achievement gap in standardized testing hadn’t closed by so much as a decimal point. The high school dropout rate among blacks was more than 50 percent, and, when all was said and done, the percentage of white students in the district had fallen, from 26.4 percent to 24.1 percent.

In 1995, the Supreme Court finally called an end to the magnet plan in the 5–4 case of Missouri v. Jenkins. White liberals screamed injustice. White conservatives declared victory. Over on the black side of the aisle, there was a mix of rejoicing, relief, and resignation—integration fatigue. “We’re tired of chasing white people,” one black Kansas City resident told Time. Freed from the mandates of the court, the black community was happy for the opportunity to assert greater control over the district and focus its resources on their needs—and they did. The now-majority-black school board took three of the city’s schools and turned them into Afrikan Centered Education schools, where students go through a K–12 Afrocentric immersion program. The district’s enrollment continued to plummet, forcing the city to close half of the overbuilt schools. The massive infrastructure, and programming tailored to attract white students from the suburbs, didn’t fit the needs of the community. In 2011, the district lost its accreditation. Today, white kids make up less than 9 percent of the enrollment in Kansas City public schools.


Time called Kansas City the “Waterloo” of court-ordered integration. It was, but it didn’t have to be. We could have done this better. Back in my old high school in Birmingham, white parents fought to stop the school bus. The district judge in the case eventually ruled that while black students would be bused into the school system, white students would not be required to bus to black schools. With that half-victory, my town gave up and begrudgingly took its medicine. Busing proceeded without incident and stayed in place at our school for nearly four decades. Today, the school is almost 10 percent black and—more important—you’ll find most of those kids sitting all over the cafeteria. And this is in a suburb of Birmingham, at a school whose official school flag used to be the Confederate Battle Flag. In suburbs like Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Mt. Airy, Penn., comprehensive fair housing programs were weighted ahead of overwrought busing plans, and are often held up as the best examples of integration America’s got. None of these places are post-racial utopias, by any means, but they are places where integration proceeded in accordance with a few clearly understood principles and took into account the interests, and political tolerance, of both white and black parents. Because of that, some progress was made.

Nettie Hunt, sitting on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., explains the significance of the Court's May 17th, 1954 desegregation ruling to her daughter Nikie, 3, in Nov. 1954.
Nettie Hunt, sitting on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, explains the significance of the court’s May 17, 1954 desegregation ruling to her daughter Nikie.

Photo courtesy New York World-Telegram/Sun Collection/Library of Congress

Today, whenever the failure of integration comes up, the usual political posturing always follows. Conservatives accuse liberals of destroying neighborhood schools with their big-government social engineering, and liberals accuse conservatives of exploiting race to pander to white voters. What nobody ever points out is that both of these things can be true at the same time. But in the left’s narrative, the bad guy always stays the same: conservative courts killed the wonderful progress that was being made. Yes, conservative judges were out looking for ways to kill integration in any way they could, but integration was hobbled and bleeding by the time those judges showed up. Rehnquist and Scalia just dumped the body in the river.

Today, America’s schools are more racially homogenous than they were 25 years ago. But to say that those schools are “resegregating” is to misstate the facts. They can’t resegregate. They never integrated. We moved a lot of kids around for the sake of making things look good on a spreadsheet, but our communities and social networks remained largely unchanged. The racial balance created by busing was a fiction, and in the absence of those programs we’re just seeing the country for what it has been all along, what it never stopped being: separate and unequal.

So what do we do about it now? Not much—not in terms of education policy, anyway. Some cities still have token integration efforts here and there, but nothing on the scale we had back in the 1970s. Thanks to the legal precedents set in Detroit and Kansas City—and other recent cases in Oklahoma City, Louisville, and Seattle—court-mandated programs aimed at creating racial balance are increasingly a dead letter. Just last week in Little Rock, Ark., the historic flashpoint where National Guardsmen had to escort black students into the segregated Central High School in 1957, the courts decided to throw in the towel after a nearly 60-year, billion-dollar effort to bring proportional racial balance on the city’s schools. (They’re still 66 percent black—better than many districts but hardly proportional.) 

Nine black children are escorted by US paratroopers in full battle dress on September 25, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas from Central High School.
Nine black children are escorted from Central High School by U.S. paratroopers in full battle dress on Sept. 25, 1957 in Little Rock, Ark.

Photo courtesy AFP/Getty Images

Today, the movement for school integration, such as it is, is at loose ends. There are those, like schools officials in Little Rock, who like the idea of integration but are so tired of fighting for it that they’d rather spend the time and effort educating poor and minority kids where they are. There are the old-school liberals, embodied by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, who decry resegregation wherever they find it and call for large-scale government interventions to fix it, something the Supreme Court and the public have less and less of an appetite for. In between are the local grassroots experimentors, the idealistic reformers who will try just about anything—magnet schools, charter schools, whatever—to try to achieve diversity in the classroom. In its “A System Divided” series, the New York Times has for the past few years been chronicling the efforts of exasperated administrators who have spent millions of dollars in federal grant money every year in small-bore efforts to attract white kids to minority schools and then are mystified when the white kids don’t show up.

So far, nobody seems to have a solution that works, but a good start would be an honest assessment of what went wrong the first time and why. It would also be useful to go back to Brown and recall what the Supreme Court actually instructed schools to do. Its directive was clear: eliminate the last vestiges of state-sponsored segregation “root and branch.” In that formulation, segregated schools are really just the branches, growing out of racially homogenous neighborhoods and towns. If we want any kind of long-term solution to this problem, we have to look at housing, zoning, mass transit, property taxes. That’s where the roots of our racially balkanized and economically stratified cities lie. We can hack away at the branches all day long, but if we don’t deal with the root of the problem, we can’t expect anything different to grow back in their place. We won’t solve the problem of segregated schools by shuffling black kids around the map. We have to give black families the agency and the opportunity and the leverage to decide where on the map they want to be. “True integration,” King said, “will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.” That may sound like a lofty mountain to climb, but if we set our sights on anything less, we’re not attacking the right problem.

Next week: How the liberal embrace of affirmative action sold black America short.