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Millions Of U.S. Children Go To Racially And Economically Segregated Schools


Forty-five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed American education forever. Milliken v. Bradley was essentially about who should be responsible for desegregating schools. It came two decades after Brown v. Board of Education, where the court ruled that separate but equal was not equal or constitutional. As NPR's Cory Turner reports, by 1974, Brown's impact had stirred fear and anger among many white voters. And the court's Milliken decision marked a sharp turn away from integration.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: That fear and anger helped propel Richard Nixon to the White House. And in just a few years, he filled not one but four vacancies on the Supreme Court, including tapping Warren Burger to be chief justice.


WARREN BURGER: Arguments next in No. 73-4-34-35-36, Milliken against Bradley.

TURNER: Leaders from the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit had been sued by black parents for using policies that helped segregate Detroit's schools. Two-thirds of students there were African American, while growing suburbs were almost exclusively white. The plaintiffs argued that school policies reinforce racist housing practices that had trapped black families inside the city. It was a story playing out across the country.

MICHELLE ADAMS: This story was the story of American apartheid.

TURNER: Michelle Adams is a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City. She's writing a book on the Milliken case and says federal redlining of neighborhoods and race-based restrictions on house deeds made it hard, if not impossible, for black families to move to the suburbs.

ADAMS: They were contained, and over and over and over again the plaintiffs used this phrase contained and this theory of containment.

TURNER: And the children of Detroit were being contained by school district lines. The state was pouring money into shiny new suburban schools but building them behind district lines that acted like fences. A lower court judge ruled the only way to desegregate Detroit was to tear down those lines and to bus students between the city and 53 suburban school districts. The suburbs fought that ruling in the Supreme Court. Here's attorney William Saxton.


WILLIAM SAXTON: There is no evidence in this case that any school district in the state of Michigan, including Detroit, was established or created for the purpose of fostering racial segregation in the public schools.

ELISE BODDIE: First of all, he's making this issue a question of white guilt or innocence.

TURNER: Elise Boddie is a professor at Rutgers Law School, and she says Detroit suburbs were essentially saying...

BODDIE: We know there may be a problem of segregation, but it's not our fault. We're not responsible for it.

TURNER: No one disputed that Detroit's schools were profoundly segregated. The fight in Milliken was over who should have to fix it. Should those dozens of booming white suburbs have to share their schools and potentially bus some of their kids into Detroit? Michelle Adams says they didn't think so even though they had benefited from racist policies.

ADAMS: We all want to think about ourselves as, you know, independent actors who made their own way. It's very American. But when you peel some of that back and you're forced to acknowledge that, in fact, some of the things that you got were provided from a wide variety of actors that acted in a racist fashion, maybe you don't feel so great about it.

TURNER: The plaintiffs in Milliken argued the suburbs should not be allowed to hide behind artificial school district lines. But the suburbs said...


ROBERT DERENGOSKI: These are not artificial lines.

TURNER: That's Robert Derengoski, Michigan's solicitor general. And this tape of oral arguments in early 1974 comes from the website oyez.org.


DERENGOSKI: People arrange their lives according to where that line rests on the map. If you move the line, people would rearrange their lives over a period of time according to where those lines are.

TURNER: The suburbs argued the federal courts had no right to cross or change our school district lines or to force kids into or out of our schools unless they can prove that we're responsible for Detroit's segregation problem. A 5-4 court agreed. Of the five justices in that majority, four had been appointed by President Nixon. In the end, the suburbs were held blameless and their schools off-limits. Detroit was told to somehow desegregate itself - an unrealistic demand, said the court's only African American justice.


THURGOOD MARSHALL: For these reasons, the Detroit-only plan simply has no hope of achieving actual desegregation.

TURNER: Justice Thurgood Marshall offered this dissent.


MARSHALL: Under such a plan, white and Negro students will not go to school together. Instead, Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro school. The very evil that Brown was aimed at will not be cured but will be perpetuated.

TURNER: Marshall knew because schools are funded through local property taxes that these segregated big city districts weren't just separate but clearly unequal. Nearly half a century later, U.S. schools remain deeply segregated. According to a new report from the nonprofit EdBuild, roughly 9 million children still attend schools that are both racially isolated and that receive far less funding than schools just a few miles away separated only by school district line. Justice Marshall warned this should worry everyone.


MARSHALL: Our nation, I fear, will be ill-served by this court's refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.

TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can learn more about Milliken v. Bradley and the segregation of Detroit's schools that led to the case in the latest episode of Throughline, NPR's history podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.