The Case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Why Didn’t School Desegregation Work?


After well over a half-century of efforts to desegregate American schools, many schools and even school districts continue to be concentrations of racial and ethnic minority students. Why is this? In academic and activist circles, the common answer is the “failure of will” explanation. This holds that we would have created schools that were not identifiable by race or ethnicity if only the courts and the federal government had continued to pursue the aggressive policies of coercive student redistribution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think, though, that if we look at what actually happened in school districts over the decades, it becomes obvious that top-down programs of forcing social change ran counter to deeply ingrained social patterns that did not involve only prejudice, but also rational self-interest.

Yesterday, I started looking at what happened in desegregating districts with a brief history of one of the most celebrated cases, Little Rock. Today, I’ll continue this by examining another historically important district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, which, like Little Rock, is often presented as one of the success stories of school desegregation.

Charlotte MecklenburgCharlotte offers an important and interesting case for any survey of desegregating school districts. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system was historically significant because it began the national move to judicially mandated busing as a means of achieving desegregation. The district is even more worthy of a brief examination, though, because Charlotte acquired the reputation as “The City that Made It Work,” and it was held up as a model for efforts at student redistribution throughout the nation.

If, in fact, Charlotte was as successful as often suggested, we should look carefully at it and see why. Even if this were a case with a relatively positive outcome, though, it would be wise to be skeptical of claims that these outcomes could be repeated in other locations. Good public policy does not assume that exceptions can become the general rule.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system dates back to 1959, when the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, which contains it, voted to merge their two school systems. The system made some attempts to desegregate following Brown, and some black students did attend predominantly white schools in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The schools were still largely segregated by race by the mid-1960s, though.

In 1965, Darius and Vera Swann sued the school district because their son, James, was not allowed to attend the school nearest his home, which was an all-white school. The Swanns, then, only wanted to send their child to a school in their own neighborhood. Ironically, their legal case would help to send hundreds of thousands of students away from their own neighborhood schools.

The Swann case went before Federal District Judge James B. McMillan. In April 1969, Judge McMillan issued his decision, arguing that neighborhood schools were discriminatory because black residents lived mainly in a single section of the city. Judge McMillan maintained that “as a group Negro students score quite low on achievement tests (the most objective method now in use for measuring educational achievement)” as a consequence of attending all-black schools. The judge ordered the district to employ all means of desegregating, including busing.

The school board appealed Judge McMillan’s ruling. The case reached the Supreme Court, and two years later the high court upheld the decision. The result was an explosion of similar desegregation plans. The 1971 school year opened with new plans for assigning students by race in over 100 school districts.[iii]

Judge McMillan, the plaintiffs, and the school board came to agreement on a plan of action in 1974. The judge declared himself satisfied and removed the school from direct supervision, although the school board would have to continue to follow the 1974 plan. One of the key features of Charlotte’s program was the pairing of elementary schools. A school in a majority white neighborhood would be paired with a school in a majority black neighborhood and enough students would be transported from each to create racial balances.

The desired racial mixture could frequently not be created with just two schools, so students were drawn from other locations, known as “satellites.” Most of the students who came from the satellites were black. This placed greater inconvenience on black students than on white, but most involved parties were convinced that sending white children into mostly low-income, black neighborhoods, would cause whites to leave the public schools.

From the beginning, then, those in the Charlotte- Mecklenburg district carrying out school desegregation did recognize the possibility of white flight, and they made serious efforts to avoid it. The pairing strategy was not used at the junior high or high school levels. The higher grades had larger enrollments, so they drew on larger numbers of satellites. Again, these mainly came from black neighborhoods.

There was one important exception to the placement of satellites in black neighborhoods, though. White students in the well-to-do neighborhood of Eastover were sent into the formerly black West Charlotte. To make this palatable to whites, school authorities had to put new educational programs in West Charlotte. The district also re-drew the boundaries of West Charlotte so that these would include more middle class black families and exclude many of the poor black families previously within the area.

Unlike many of the other cases in this chapter, Charlotte did not lose its white students. The changes in the district’s overall make-up during the years of aggressive desegregation were comparatively small. In the 1974-75 school year, the system was 34% black. By 2001-2002, it was 42% black. Charlotte continued to retain its racial diversity during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

According to the district’s statistics, in the 2012-2013 school year blacks still made up 42% of the overall population. Whites had indeed declined as a proportion, from just under 50% of the school population to 32%, while Hispanic and Asian representation had grown to 18% and 5%, respectively. However, changes in student make-up were gradual, and small enough to be attributed almost entirely to demographic shifts having nothing to do with the schools.

At first glance, then, Charlotte does look like the rare success story in school desegregation. It managed to put students of different races together in its schools. It did not cause whites to flee the system. There was no downward spiral in the quality of education in the district. A closer look, though, suggests that Charlotte does bear out the economic model of schooling that we described in the previous chapter.

White families did not leave the system, at least in part, because the district substituted segregated classrooms for segregated schools. Desegregation expert Roslyn Mickelson observed that “The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system instituted widespread curricular tracking at the secondary level at about the same time that it began to comply with the Supreme Court’s Swann orders to desegregate. Since the mid-1970s, the top tracks—those with the best teachers and most challenging curricula and pedagogy—have been overwhelmingly white while the lowest tracks have remained disproportionately black.”

At the end of the 1970s, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) denied the school district a major grant on the grounds of excessive within-school segregation. By the early 1980s, Charlotte’s schools appeared to have student bodies that were highly mixed in race. Beneath this appearance, though, a 1981-82 survey of tracking in English classes showed that “in this district acclaimed for its desegregation successes, relatively few black students experienced a genuinely desegregated education, even in its showcase high school.”

Even with the segregation inside of schools, the institutions themselves tended to move slowly toward more racial separation. In a study of Charlotte schools from 1991 to 1993, the Charlotte League of Women voters concluded, “the system appears to be continuing to drift toward blacker and whiter schools. Across the three year period, with few exceptions, the whitest schools got whiter and the blackest schools got blacker, whether they were elementary, middle, or high schools.”[vii]

At the beginning of the 1990s, the district largely replaced busing with a magnet school program as a strategy for achieving desegregation. Magnet school enrollments would be kept at 40% black and 60% white. This meant that whites, with (as we will see) much higher achievement levels than blacks, were limited in their access to magnet schools. White parents therefore sued the district, calling for unitary status and an end to race-conscious enrollment policies.

Nearly thirty years after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system had made desegregation history, Judge Robert Potter ruled in September 1999 that the system had achieved desegregation, and he decreed that race could no longer be considered in school assignments.[viii] With the end of judicial control, “the previous twenty year drift toward re-segregation accelerated markedly.” Students began to return to schools in their own neighborhoods, which were still largely black or white.

In 2009, looking back on the decade since the end of court-ordered desegregation, The Charlotte Observer noted that “in the ensuing decade, suburban schools became more numerous, more crowded, and generally remained higher performing. Last year about two-thirds of CMS’s white students attended majority white schools in the suburbs. Center-city schools, including many magnets, have seen white and middle-class students dwindle. About two-thirds of the black and Hispanic students who make up CMS’s majority attended schools where less than 25 percent of students are white.”

On the North Carolina Writing Assessment test for 2004, among CMS seventh graders, 62.3% of whites were in the top two levels, compared to 27.5% of black students. On the tenth grade portion of this test, 73.6% of whites and 41.8% of blacks were in the top two levels. On the North Carolina high school comprehensive test for reading in 2004, 82.2% of whites and 43.9% of blacks were in the top two levels. On the math test, the two top levels contained 84.8% of whites and 45.9% of blacks.

The black-white achievement gap had been given by Judge McMillan as his reason for ordering desegregation by any possible means. The judge’s mandate did not eliminate this gap. It continued to exist after desegregation had been in effect for nearly a third of a century.

Relatively speaking, then, Charlotte-Mecklenburg did indeed have one of the most successful desegregation histories. The redistribution of students did not destroy the system. But neither did it end inequality in educational outcomes. For a time, at least, it created the illusion of a desegregated district by replacing segregated schools with segregated classrooms.

The only way families of children with relatively strong academic performance were willing to place their children into schools filled with children of relatively weak academic performance was through in-school racially segregated classrooms. Yet even then, like a centralized economic authority suppressing market forces, the authorities would have to use continual coercion to suppress individual choices. As soon as the judiciary removed itself from the school system, the schools began to re-segregate almost immediately and the re-segregation by neighborhoods continued over the years that followed.

[1] On the “lavish praise” heaped on the Charlotte school system after desegregation, see Stephen Samuel Smith, Boom For Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

[ii]Quoted in Ibid., 60

[iii]Ibid., 62.

[iv]Ibid., 63.

[v]Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, “White Privilege in a Desegregating School System: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Thirty Years After Swann,” in The End of Desegregation?eds. Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III (New York: Nova Science Publications, 2003) 97-119.

[vi]Smith, Boom for Whom?, 83.

[vii]Quoted in Alison Moranta, “Desegregation at Risk,” in Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, eds. Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation (New York: New Press, 1996), 195.

[viii] Sue Anne Presley, “Charlotte Schools are Scrambling,” Washington Post, November 8, 1999, A3.

[ix]Smith, Boom for Whom?, 6.

[x]Ann Doss Helms, “Schools Ruling Led to a Decade of Change – End of Race-Based Assignment Launched Ripples Whose Merit is Still Debated, and Fresh Calls for Vision,” The Charlotte Observer, September 10, 2009, B1.

[xi]Test results are taken from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools website, accessed November 8, 2013,

Self-Educated American Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2014 Carl L. Bankston III.