When it comes to racial and ethnic integration in our nation’s public schools, it matters significantly whether the federal government is friend or foe. This has always been the case, but it is particularly so now. More than three decades have passed since the last major federal initiative to promote school integration. Meanwhile, courts in recent years have substantially curtailed the remedies that can be achieved through school desegregation litigation and applied increasingly narrow interpretations to laws that once allowed private litigants to supplement federal government enforcement of civil rights. As a result, American public schools have witnessed two decades of resegregation and are more segregated today than they have been in over forty years. Forty percent of Latino students and nearly that same percentage of Black students attended intensely segregated schools, where ninety to one hundred percent of the population is non‐White. What is more, the relationship between race and poverty continues to run deep: forty percent of Black and Latino students also attend schools of concentrated poverty, where seventy to one hundred percent of the children are poor. By contrast, only about one in thirty White students attend such schools.
This Article takes a look back at the role that the federal government has played with regard to issues of school integration and school desegregation to see how history can inform what a new administration in Washington could do to reinvigorate the cause and advance the goal of racially integrated education. After briefly reviewing the role of the federal legislative and executive branches—in initially facilitating school desegregation and then, for most of the past four decades, withdrawing from the gains made—this Article offers recommendations the Obama administration for future actions. Beyond presidential leadership, the Article focuses primarily on the promise and potential of three federal entities: the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It suggests both an intentional, tailored effort to develop integration-maximizing strategies to deal with the government’s existing school desegregation docket, as well as an affirmative, multi-pronged effort to advance voluntary school integration initiatives, broadly defined.