The Public Interest

School desegregation and the limits of legalism

David L. Kirp

Spring 1977

THE courts today are almost alone in making and implementing school desegregation policy. Although by now this has become almost axiomatic, things were quite different a decade ago. During the mid-1960s, Congress, the executive branch, and the courts acted in concert, exercising extraordinarily effective leadership. That joint effort began to collapse when the Supreme Court expanded both the constitutional meaning of de jure segregation and the scope of what school districts were required to do in rectifying this wrong. As desegregation spread nationwide, and increasingly took the politically menacing form of “forced busing,” the executive branch and Congress first withdrew from and then sought to undermine what had become an almost exclusively judicial effort. Today, desegregation is a matter of rule-mindedness, obedience to (or defiance of) court decisions.

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