Segregation in American society as established by the Jim Crow laws in the South has been challenged by the civil rights movement that took hold in the 1960s. The legal segregation of public accommodations, facilities, employment, and other aspects of life has been challenged through changes in laws and customs. However, while the results on some dimensions are striking, such as the desegregation of public facilities, the results in other areas have been mixed, such as the desegregation of housing.
The meaning of desegregation has changed as the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions have evolved. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Court viewed school desegregation as the removal of barriers established by school segregation statutes requiring blacks to attend segregated schools—that is, the absence of explicit segregation by law. Thus freedom-of-choice plans that allowed all students to select any school in a school district theoretically would be racially neutral. But in the 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County decision, the Court called for affirmative action to be taken because racially neutral plans such as freedom of choice were not racially neutral in practice or in their effects. Thus the Court moved from viewing desegregation as having laws neutral with respect to race to calling for affirmative steps to desegregate schools and achieve racial balance.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 distinguished desegregation from racial balance: " 'Desegregation' means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but 'desegregation' shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance." This definition was the result of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey's maneuver to overcome southern opposition to the bill; the clause was to allow for ending de jure segregation but not forcing schools segregated by individual actions—that is, de facto segregation—to have to achieve racial balance.
Integration is generally viewed as achieving the next step in the process, bringing about the social interaction of the groups that have been brought together physically or the social assimilation of minority students into a school such that they are accepted as social equals and receive equal educational opportunity. To some extent the federal courts have had integration as a goal in desegregation orders, for they have ordered ancillary programs and examined the Green factors in their decisions, including the desegregation of staffs and extracurricular activities.
Most often today, desegregation refers to racial balance, that is, comparing school racial enrollments to systemwide balance. However, David Armor has argued in Forced Justice (1995) that the level of racial balance required by the courts has not been consistent across court cases. "The first challenge in designing a desegregation plan is to define desegregation … but even in federal case law no single standard defines a desegregated school.". Nor does every school have to achieve a particular racial composition. Some schools, in fact, may remain predominantly black (or white) under certain circumstances.
The courts have referred to segregated school systems as dual systems and desegregated systems as unitary systems. The requirement of the landmark Brown decision was that the vestiges of dual school systems be eliminated "root and branch." In the last decade the requirements of a unitary system have been specified by U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), Freeman v. Pitts (1992), and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995).
School desegregation plans may be voluntary or mandatory. This refers to the degree of parental control over student assignment. The extent of desegregation may be measured by several indexes, including the index of dissimilarity, the index of interracial exposure, and the index of racial isolation. The courts typically measure school desegregation with categorical racial balance standards (e.g., all or certain schools must be within 15 percentage points of the school district's racial composition) or absolute categorical standards (e.g., all or certain schools must be between 10% and 80% minority).
At the college and university level the definition of desegregation has also evolved over time, but the comprehensive federal decision was reached in 1992. In United States v. Fordice, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that simply removing the barriers that states had set to prevent blacks from attending state colleges and universities was not sufficient to achieve desegregation of higher education—that is, race-neutral policies were insufficient. States had the obligation to remove the vestiges of segregation. The Southern Education Foundation concluded in its 1995 report that the 12 southern states it studied had not achieved equal access for blacks in higher education. At most of the South's flagship universities, whites constituted more than 80% of the enrollment, while a majority of blacks attended historically black colleges and universities. In 1994, the states of Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia were still under official scrutiny by the Office of Civil Rights, and as a result of the Fordice decision the office was going to review the status of other states.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 2004; Raffel, Jeffrey A. Historical Encyclopedia of School Segregation and Desegregation: The American Experience. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.