IN 1954, when the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed ``separate but equal'' schools, 1 in 10 public-school students was nonwhite. Today, the ratio is 1 in 3.
This demographic shift and a growing urban-suburban split is leading to the resegregation of American schools nearly 40 years after the Brown decision.
A combination of housing patterns, demographics, and decisions in federal desegregation court cases has left many inner-city school districts, particularly in the northern United States, with few white students and de facto segregation.
``You can't integrate an 85 percent-plus minority district,'' explains John Brittain, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a Connecticut school-desegregation lawsuit.
``The old gap between white and black schools has now been replaced by the gap between inner-city and suburban schools,'' Mr. Brittain says.
In the decades since Brown, court-mandated desegregation policies have created successful integration throughout the South. Today, the most extreme educational segregation is in the North.
``Brown was about the South,'' says Gary Orfield, a school-desegregation expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. ``Nobody understood Brown to be about the North and the black urban communities. The idea was to make the South more like the North.''
That initial goal has been accomplished or even exceeded, Professor Orfield says. ``Even though the South has far more blacks as a proportion of its population, black students there are in much more contact with white students.''
ONE reason for the success of school desegregation in the South is that school districts there were more likely to incorporate suburban areas into a desegregation plan, says Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.
But in the northern states, attempts to desegregate schools ``came up against a brick wall'' with the 1973 Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court decision, Professor Massey says. In rejecting a metropolitan plan that would have mixed Detroit's predominantly black schools with the largely white suburban school districts, the court ruled that urban-suburban integration is appropriate only if it can be proved that the suburbs helped create urban segregation.
``The Milliken v. Bradley case all but shut down the desegregation efforts, because even if you can show inner-city segregation, you cannot show that suburban segregation was responsible,'' Brittain says.
In deciding against the Detroit metropolitan plan, the United States Supreme Court deferred to the American tradition of community-based school systems and left the problem of segregation resulting from housing patterns unsolved.
``Class segregation is basically considered normal in our society,'' Orfield says. ``Everybody thinks that they have a right to buy into a better school system if their income is high enough to move to a suburb.''
But as underfunded urban schools sag under the weight of needy students and the US becomes more racially diverse, a reassessment is taking place.
Rather than focusing solely on race, many school districts across the United States are beginning to consider integrating economic classes as well.
``A lot of the advantages of school desegregation have come from class desegregation,'' Orfield says. ``Where plans did not result in class desegregation, the advantages were pretty skimpy.''
The US Constitution, however, ``doesn't say anything about the illegitimacy of discriminating on the basis of income,'' Orfield says. ``The legal leverage is much more powerful for racial segregation than it is for class segregation.''
Despite the changing demographics in America, the federal courts have done little to address the resegregation of schools. The Milliken ruling has been followed by a string of recent cases easing integration requirements. In 1991, the Supreme Court decided that Oklahoma City school officials should be released from court supervision once intentional segregation has been eliminated. Court oversight was not deemed necessary to remedy a recent resegregation of Oklahoma City schools.
Last year, the court revisited the issue in Freeman v. Pitts. In the suburban Atlanta school district of De Kalb County, Ga., half of the students go to schools that are 90 percent black.
But the justices ruled that the federal courts are not required to remedy racial imbalances resulting from demographic changes.
``Where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications,'' wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. ``It is beyond the authority and beyond the practical ability of the federal courts to try to counteract these kinds of continuous and massive demographic shifts.''
Nevertheless, this legal vacuum is beginning to be filled with community-based plans for addressing resegregation.
ACROSS the nation, local school boards are starting to get involved in the issue on their own, says Jonathan Wilson, a member of the Des Moines School Board.
``One of the problems with the federal desegregation cases,'' he says, ``was that the court ordered us to mix the kids. It didn't order us to teach them how to get along with one another. So people were thrown together and resented it. They tended to separate again if they could find a way. And they have found all kinds of ways.''
But as whites become an increasingly smaller percentage of the US population, many Americans are beginning to realize that solutions are necessary.
``We haven't had any serious discussion of this issue since we were a country that was 10 percent minority,'' Orfield says. ``I think we're going to start having that discussion. Lots of individual institutions and communities are trying to deal with one aspect or another of this. If there's a decently receptive climate in the country, those issues will come to the fore.''