Michelle Adams, professor of law at Cardozo Law School and co-director of the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy, shared research from an ongoing project concerning the social legacy of school integration at an October 20 talk sponsored by the Fordham University Colloquium on Race and Ethnicity, a project of Fordham Law School’s Center on Race, Law & Justice.
Following an introduction by Fordham Law School Professor and Center on Race, Law & Justice Faculty Director Robin Lenhardt, Adams gave a presentation entitled “The End of Integration,” which drew from her research for a book-length monograph on the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley.
The Milliken case, as Adams explained, hinged on a challenge brought by black parents to a 1970 Michigan state plan that would have geographically segregated schools throughout Detroit and its outlying suburbs. The federal judge who oversaw the case, a Hungarian immigrant named Stephen Roth, serves as the protagonist of Adams’s narrative, as he resolved the challenge to Michigan’s school decentralization proposal by mandating the integration of Detroit’s predominantly black urban schools with those of the city’s predominantly white outlying suburbs
“Most people don’t understand how segregation works in the current world, especially in the North,” Adams said. “The way that many of our schools and neighborhoods are structured—that is, segregation by race and class—concentrates and exacerbates disadvantage.”
Adams characterized her project as an attempt to describe one strategy for combatting that disadvantage—a strategy that met its end in 1974, with a 5-4 decision of the Burger court. Finding that the schools in Detroit’s suburbs had not actively engaged in segregation, the court ruled Roth’s integration plan void, thus, according to Adams, spelling the end of an effective strategy for reducing the racial achievement gap. “Integration,” she claimed, “improved outcomes not just for black students who underwent racial desegregation, but also for their children and grandchildren.”
According to Adams, her interest in Milliken arose from her belief in the efficacy of integration as a public policy, as well as from her recognition of the case as a “really great story.” By writing a book about the case for “the same people who read the newspaper every day,” she hopes to reintroduce integration into the public dialogue concerning race and education.
“I think the reason why our neighborhoods, and the schools within our neighborhoods, are racially segregated, isn’t necessarily because of private choice,” she said, “or certainly isn’t entirely because of private choice, but it’s largely because of government policy.”
In the history of Milliken and its aftermath, Adams sees three predominant lessons. The first is that the case could have gone the other way at the Supreme Court, creating a legal mandate for urban and suburban school integration. Second, she believes that the case highlights the importance of housing to school desegregation, a link that the Supreme Court rejected. Third, Adams believes that Milliken offers important insight as to why school district lines have been “deified” in modern urban policy, an orthodoxy that has contributed directly to the racial achievement gap.
“You’ve got at least a chance when you’re linking the futures of white and black children together,” Adams said, “and that’s what Milliken is about.”
Audience members questioned Adams following her presentation about her thoughts on current strategies for closing the racial achievement gap, specifically the ideological contest between efforts to provide equal funding to predominantly white and predominantly black schools, versus efforts to reconstitute those institutions on more equal footing.
“I worry about the limits of the ‘funding something in place,’ versus ‘changing the landscape’ arguments,” Adams said. “I think it’s an important discussion to have, but right now I want to talk about the people involved in the Milliken case, and the decisions they faced and how those decisions helped shape the world we live in today.”