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After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation

Author(s):Clotfelter, Charles T.
Reviewer(s):Bailey, Martha J.

Published by EH.NET (October 2004)

Charles T. Clotfelter, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xvi + 278 pp. $24.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-691-11911-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Martha J. Bailey, Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Legal scholars celebrate the case as a watershed in the struggle to end de jure segregation of the races. However, a growing consensus questions the opinion’s impact on racial segregation in public schools, the explicit target of the decision. Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of one of thirteen plaintiffs in the Brown case and head of the Brown Foundation recently challenged the efficacy of desegregation policy: “To what extent did we integrate? To what extent did our schools ever open their doors and have any kind of racial balance that we could call desegregation? I suggest that we didn’t … we were never there” [1]. In his book All Deliberate Speed, Charles Ogletree, a prominent civil rights lawyer and a self-proclaimed Brown baby, laments the failure of the case to equalize educational opportunity. He notes that “fifty years after Brown, there is little left to celebrate” [2]. Fifty years after the landmark case, it is clear that desegregation arrived slowly, and many question whether it occurred at all.

In After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, Charles Clotfelter, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Duke University and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, leads the reader in a systematic discussion of Brown‘s impact. He employs a quantifiable measure of “interracial exposure” to provide a rich picture of the degree to which desegregation was ever achieved and recent tendencies toward re-segregation.

Chapter One, the first of six primary chapters, lays out the historical context for the study by examining both the evolution of law and practice governing public education. High-profile Southern resistance, the Brown II or the “all deliberate speed” decision that allowed states to proceed slowly, and President Eisenhower’s reluctant enforcement are the well-known elements in the immediate aftermath of the decision. Yet Clotfelter is quick to debunk the inaccuracy of assuming integration proceeded slowly everywhere in the U.S. He notes that, “[i]n the first year following the decision, 156 districts, some 17 percent of all biracial districts in the [Border state] region, had begun the process of desegregation. By the 1956-1957 year, 70 percent of such districts had done so, and 30 percent of blacks in the region were attending schools with whites. By the 1963-1964 school year, only 7 percent of districts that enrolled whites and blacks were still segregated, and more than half of all the region’s blacks in public schools attended schools with whites” (pp. 24-25).

This chapter lays the basis for the subsequent discussion that carefully notes the coincidence in timing between changes in measures of racial exposure within schools and legal changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorized the attorney general to initiate class action lawsuits (Title IV) and other cabinet members to withhold federal funds for noncompliant districts (Title VI). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided for the use of federal funds to encourage desegregation or, rather, discourage resistance. From 1968, U.S. Supreme Court decisions established an “affirmative duty” to desegregate (Green v. County School Board of New Kent County) and the obligation to do so “at once” (Alexander v. Holmes).

But did these policies have much effect on pupils’ interracial experiences? Chapter Two argues that they did. This conclusion is based upon long run changes in a measure of “interracial contact” (usually defined as the number of black students who attended schools that were at least 90 percent nonwhite). The pre-1968 trends augment earlier work and are based upon extrapolations from published reports from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1967) and compiled enrollment data from forty-nine school districts covering the 1950-1965 period. The resulting picture in Table 2.1 is that within district racial segregation declines somewhat the years before 1968 and then precipitously from 1968 to 1972 in the South and Border states (though little changes elsewhere).

Moreover, Clotfelter extends previous work to examine whether re-segregation has occurred. He finds some evidence that schools are, indeed, re-segregating, though the amount of racial isolation in the South is far below that observed in 1968 and in the pre-Brown era. The most surprising finding is that segregation in the Northeast and Midwest did not change much following Brown. In fact, segregation in the Northeast rose steadily from 1960 to 2000, becoming by 1976 and remaining to this day the most segregated school districts in the nation. Clotfelter relates this to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley that effectively removed cross-district bussing as an option to achieve racial balance. This allowed people in areas with historically higher numbers of districts (the Northeast) to circumvent integration easily by small residential moves.

The subsequent three chapters specifically address resistance to integration in the form of “white flight,” private school enrollment, and within school segregation. Chapter Three summarizes earlier research on the negative correlation of white enrollment and desegregation and then considers three alternative tests of the white flight hypothesis. Chapter Four examines trends in private school enrollment, concluding that these trends were a factor in re-segregation. To round out the picture Chapter Five outlines the qualitative and quantitative evidence for within school segregation. The evidence presented (all of North Carolina’s 117 districts in 1994-95 and 2000-01) suggests that within school segregation was very low in elementary schools, but that it increased with grade. In addition, within school segregation actually increased from 1976 to 2001 and Clotfelter argues that this seems related to academic tracking and the desire of white or more affluent parents to have their children assigned to more advanced classes.

While the Brown decision and subsequent enforcement did not concern racial balance at colleges or universities, integration in higher education is one potential, albeit indirect, outcome of public school desegregation. Chapter Six discusses patterns in the racial composition of institutions of higher education, including two- and four-year public as well as four-year private institutions. Clotfelter notes the differences in institutions, policy and Civil Rights laws governing higher education and discusses how differences affected changes in enrollment patterns. He argues that federal pressure led to rapid declines in segregation predominantly in the South and Border states from 1976 to 1998, while segregation increased in the Northeast and West during the same period. Despite considerable convergence, segregation remained highest in South in 1998.

So did Brown increase the educational opportunities of black pupils? In the end, the book side-steps this larger question about the importance of Brown and leaves this conclusion to the reader. Rather than painting a rosy or bleak picture of the effects, Clotfelter successfully sculpts a nuanced one. With illuminating examples and stories of diverse experiences, Clotfelter demonstrates an appreciation for the complexity of the issue but uses quantitative trends to make the larger case that Brown has affected interracial exposure in schools. Moreover, while Brown may not have achieved racial balance in classroom assignments, school assignments or even extra-curricular activities, Clotfelter argues that the degree of racial contact within schools is impressively high — especially when considering the rarity of interracial friendships and integrated neighborhoods outside of schools.

With this book, Clotfelter advances the search for answers by piecing together an impressive collection of quantitative analysis and qualitative evidence. Still, despite Clotfelter’s painstaking efforts, the manuscript at best provides a mosaic of snapshots of desegregation. Many times the reader is left searching for connections between the different places and time periods considered. In fact, one of the most striking features of the book is just how little comprehensive information exists and, as a result, how little economists and other social scientists know about the impact and import of this decision.

For the central claims of the analysis to be credible, one must believe that the small sample of districts with available data before 1968 are broadly representative of U.S. districts in general. This is unlikely, but it is not a deficiency in the analysis. Rather it points to a deficiency in the available data and resources. Another issue that may concern some readers — and one that Clotfelter acknowledges — is the question of causal links. Although Clotfelter mentions that his purpose is not establishing causation but “documenting measurable changes in interracial contact” (p. 6), the discussion often uses the legal history to explain the quantitative findings. While this correspondence in timing can be compelling, future work might pay more careful attention to the causal mechanisms that led to successful or unsuccessful desegregation policy.

Still, After Brown provides a fresh perspective and will serve as an indispensable reference to any scholar interested in U.S. desegregation. The questions left open in this manuscript point to how much interesting scholarship remains to be done on the topic. The need for more complete and extensive data, careful examination of causality, and comparisons of various desegregation strategies will prove interesting avenues to pursue as economists continue to sort out the institutional and educational impact of Brown.


[1] ‘Brown’ Plaintiff’s Daughter on Ruling’s Legacy. The Tavis Smiley Show, May 17, 2004.

[2] Charles J. Ogletree, All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Martha Bailey is a graduate student in the Department of Economics at Vanderbilt University. Her research examines how both legal and financial access to oral contraceptives catalyzed changes in fertility and labor-force participation among U.S. women in the period after 1960, and the impact of these changes on the wages of men. Other work with William Collins addresses the wage gains of African American women during the 1940s.

Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII