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A series of articles on
Race and ethnicity
Main topics

Main article: Social integration

Desegregation is the process of ending racial segregation, most commonly used in reference to the United States. Desegregation was long a focus of the American Civil Rights Movement, both before and after the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, particularly desegregation of the school systems and the military (See African-Americans in the United States military before desegregation), as was the closely related but somewhat more ambitious goal of racial integration.

Abolitionist movement[]

Reactions to the practice of slavery and what should be the proper response to it were varied, also, among its opponents. Some of those who called for Abolition were equally adamant that upon being freed, Blacks should be transported to Africa. These Abolotionists supported the American Colonization Society, which helped established the independent nation of Liberia. Other, more radical Abolitionists called not only for an end to slavery but for immediate racial integration. Their agitation lead to occasional successes such as the overturning in 1843 of Massachusetts' anti-miscegenation law, a state law banning the marriage of whites and non-whites, but these were exceptions. Even after the "peculiar institution" of chattel slavery was outlawed in the U.S. after the American Civil War, many of the effects and the racist white mindsets which it had created did not disappear.

Segregation after the Civil War[]

After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, a series of constitutional amendments were passed which guaranteed civic rights and the right to vote to African-Americans:

  • The Thirteenth prohibited slavery.
  • The Fourteenth, among other things, granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States, assuming they are "subject to the jurisdiction thereof."
  • The Fifteenth guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.

Together these amendments allowed blacks a large role in the political process during the Reconstruction. On both a per capita and absolute basis, more blacks were elected to political office during the period from 1865 to 1880 than at any other time in American history. After the disbanding of the Freedmens Bureau and other Reconstruction institutions, federal officials decided that the enforcement of voting rights was strictly a state matter. This states' rights interpretation of federalism was overthrown when the United States Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 almost a century later.

Racial desegregation was handed a setback in 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require facilities to be racially integrated as long as they were equal. The separate but equal doctrine prevailed for well over a half-century until it was reversed in 1954 by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court found that racially separate facilities were inherently unequal.

In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded to foster racial integration and fair treatment toward citizens of color. One of the founders of this group was the black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois. Other important groups fostering integration were the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League, and, later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Racial integration was also encouraged by the leaders of most Jewish groups and of some labor unions, although many unions vigorously opposed it, viewing black labor as competition with white labor.

Desegregation in the military[]

Starting with King Phillip's war in the 17th century, African-Americans fought and died alongside whites in an integrated environment in the North American colonies. They continued to fight in every American war integrated with whites up until the War of 1812. They would not fight in integrated units again until the Korean War.[1]

During the Civil War, Blacks enlisted in large numbers in the Union Army, particularly in the later stages of the war, but served in segregated units under the command of white officers. While a handful of Blacks were commissioned as officers in World War I, white officers remained the rule in that conflict as well, and carried over in large part into World War II also.

One of the greatest advances for racial integration was Executive Order 9981 by President Harry S Truman to racially integrate the armed forces shortly after World War II, which he had the authority to do under Executive Order without the need for any enabling legislation to be passed by Congress, where it likely would have met with strident opposition, particularly from representatives of many of the Southern states. Richard B. Russell, Democratic Senator from Georgia had in May 1948 attached an amendment to the Selective Services bill then being debated in Congress. The Russell amendment would have granted draftees and new inductees in the military an opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to serve in segregated units. His amendment was defeated in committee. Executive Order 9981 was signed on July 26, 1948. In June 1950 when the Selective Services Law came up for renewal, Russell tried again to attach his segregation amendment, and again it was defeated.

At the end of the month, the Korean War broke out and the U.S. Army, which had done very little desegregating since Truman had issued his order, sent the segregated Eighth Army to defend South Korea. Most African American soldiers served in segregated support units in the rear, and the rest served in segregated combat units, most notably the 24th Infantry Regiment. The first months of the Korean War were some of the most disastrous in U.S. military history. The North Korean People's Army nearly drove the American-led United Nations forces off the Korean peninsula. Commanders on the ground, faced with staggering losses in white units began accepting black replacements, thus integrating their units. The practice occurred all over the Korean battle lines and proved that integrated combat units could perform adequately under fire. The Army high command took notice and formally announced its plans to desegregate on July 26, 1951, exactly three years after Truman had issued Executive Order 9981.

Shortly after this, Morning Reports (the daily report of strength accounting and unit activity required of every unit in the Army on active duty) of units in Korea were required to append to the section on enlisted strength the line "NEM XX OTHER EM XX TOTAL EM XX" where XX was the number of Negro and Other races. This was possible because the Form 20s for enlisted personnel recorded race at the time. For example, the percentage of Black Enlisted Personnel in the 4th Signal Battalion was maintained at about 14 % in the period from about September 1951 to November 1952 mostly by selectively assigning replacements of one race or another. It was assumed by the morning report clerks of this battalion that all units in Korea were doing the same. The Morning Reports were classified "RESTRICTED" but should be available for research by now. (Citations needed from Korean War Records in Kansas)

African American naval service stretches back to the beginnings of the nation. Thousands of black men fought in the American War for Independence, many in the new Continental Navy. We will never know their names, their heroism, or even all their numbers because of poor record keeping. A great experiment was the USS Mason, a ship with black crew members and commanded by white officers. Rumor has it that some called it "Eleanor's folly," after President Franklin Roosevelt's wife. The Mason’s purpose was to make sailors serve in billets other than stewards and messmen, both strictly menial jobs. The Navy had already been pressured to train black sailors for billets and Mrs. Roosevelt had insisted they be given the jobs that they were trained to do. This experiment in the eyes of those who served was one historic step on the long road in society and the military that awaited African Americans during a time when enforced segregation was ending.

Additional reading[]

  • Knocking Down Barriers: Fighting for Black America by Truman K Gibson Jr. and Steve Huntley, Northwestern 2005. ISBN 0-8101-2292-8

Modern civil rights movement[]

File:Jose and Miguel.jpg

Interracial friendships have been facilitated by desegregation.

In 1957, in the wake of the Brown decision, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation order by sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas when the Governor of the state resisted allowing black students (known as the Little Rock Nine) to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower used United States Army troops, when Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized troops from the Arkansas National Guard to prevent it, setting a precedent for the enforcement of court orders relating to racial integration by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. (See also: Little Rock Integration Crisis.)

The greatest growth of racial integration occurred as a result of the Civil Rights movement. The best-known spokesman for racial integration during the Civil Rights era was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. As a result of the movement, the majority of the legal basis for racial segregation was removed and the primary barriers to racial integration remained social and customary ones, which could not be repealed as could laws. As legal barriers came down and members of the races began to interact more freely, the dream of racial integration began to be more of a reality. Still, the United States remains somewhat segregated in housing patterns, although far less so than previously, and very segregated religiously; nearly all of the leading Protestant denominations still have predominantly white and predominantly black bodies, although there is a slow spread of racially integrated ones, particularly among the Pentecostal and community church movements.

In the 1971 case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that forced busing of students may be ordered to achieve racial desegregation. However, such court enforced school desegregation efforts have since been politically and judicially eroded. According to Jonathan Kozol, in the early 21st century U.S. schools have again become as segregated as in the late 1960s.[2]

Impediments to an integrated society[]

The impediments to a truly racially-integrated American society now come from many directions. Some are overtly racist white groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which although far less influential than in times past still has many followers of its various factions. Other opponents of integration are Black nationalists and certain fundamentalist religious groups.

Other impediments include backlash against multiculturalism and against policies such as racial quotas and forced busing and complacency, in the form of viewing desegregation as a fait accompli.

According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the actual desegregation of U.S. public schools peaked in 1988; since that time the schools have become more segregated. As of 2005, the present proportion of Black students at majority white schools "a level lower than in any year since 1968." [2]

Some critics of school desegregation have also argued that court enforced desegregation efforts were either unnecessary or self-defeating. Large numbers of middle-class and wealthy white people moved to the suburbs in order to escape the integrated school system.

Sociologist David Armor in court testimony and in his book Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law (1995) said that efforts to change the racial compositions of schools had not contributed substantially to minority school achievement. Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas, in their books A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002) and Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (2005) argued that continuing racial inequality in the larger American society had undermined efforts to force schools to desegregate. They maintained that this continuing inequality had resulted in connections between school achievement and race. Therefore, the achievement levels of American schools were generally associated with their racial and class compositions. This meant that even parents without racial prejudice tended to engage in "white flight" and "middle class flight" in seeking the best schools for their children. As a result, efforts to impose court-ordered desegregation often led to school districts in which there were too few white students for effective desegregation as white students increasingly left for majority white suburban districts or for private schools.

Asian admission quotas[]

For more details on this topic, see Lowell High School (San_Francisco)#Academics and admissions.

In the 1994 federal court case Ho v. San Francisco Unified School District, parents of Chinese American schoolchildren sued, alleging racial caps under a 1983 consent decree constituted racial discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The desegregation plan did not allow any school to enroll more than 50 percent of any ethnic group. But this had a perverse effect on the admissions of Chinese students who were the largest ethnic group in the district, and Asians of all ethnicities were well over 50 percent of students.

Articles in the newspaper Asian Week documented Chinese American parents who successfully challenged that since Chinese Americans were already nearly half the student population, this had the effect of requiring competitive Lowell high school to apply much higher academic admission standards for Chinese American students than other students. Somewhat ironically, the civil rights group Chinese for Affirmative Action, led by Henry Der, sided with the district, arguing that such standards were not harmful to Chinese Americans, and were necessary to avoid resegregation. In effect, a ruling designed to eliminate discrimination had instead created one of the only schools which could legally discriminate against Chinese American students, and an organization dedicated to the elimination of discrimination against Chinese was supporting a policy which effectively did just that. In 2006, Chinese parents would continue to protest race-based school assignments.[3]

The best means for achieving desegregated schools in a largely segregated, unequal society continues to be a matter for debate and disagreement.

See also[]


  1. African Americans in the Korean War. U.S. Army. URL accessed on 2008-03-09.
  2. Jonathan Kozol, Segregation and Its Calamitous Effects: America's "Apartheid" Schools, VUE (Voices in Urban Education), Number 10, Winter 2006, Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University.
  3. [1] Back to School for Integration: The Catch-22 of Excellence and Diversity Without Race, Asian Week

External links[]

Template:Types of Segregation

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