Dissertations and Theses @ UNI

Award Winner

Recipient of the 1998 Outstanding Master's Thesis Award - Second Place.

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Open Access Thesis


Racism--Michigan--Detroit--History; Race discrimination--Michigan--Detroit--History; African Americans--Social conditions--Michigan--Detroit--History; Detroit (Mich.)--Race relations--History; Segregation in education--Michigan--Detroit--History;


In 1954 the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling nullified the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) doctrine of "separate but equal." At the time, a racially dysfunctional America looked to the South to observe the results of the Court's sweeping statement. Few realized that, carried to its logical conclusion, the decision would necessarily bring into question the racial practices of every part of the nation. To the dismay of Northerners, blacks began to challenge the unofficial system of segregation which existed outside of the South. The most controversial aspect of this challenge centered around school desegregation and busing. When the courts acted in support of the desegregation movement in the North, the nation's white majority deftly mustered its political clout to frustrate further civil rights progress. At the center of this backlash was the school busing case which arose out of Detroit.

The 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley dealt with the desegregation of Detroit, a large urban-suburban area which was divided along racial lines--literally as well as figuratively. As with so many other Northern cities, racial separation was achieved through public and private housing discrimination, which produced one-race neighborhoods. This, together with the discriminatory actions and inactions of school officials, affected the racial composition of neighborhood schools, which then affected housing choices made by both races--producing a more and more tightly-wound spiral of apartheid. Blacks were effectively confined to the inner city, where property values were relatively low, and where the schools they supported were hard-pressed to provide the kind of education that white suburbanites were getting. This made it difficult to compete in the job market, which made escape to the suburbs a financial impossibility--not to mention the fact that blacks were likely to be kept out of white neighborhoods one way or another, whether they had the means or not.

For blacks, then, the inclusion of suburban school districts in a plan to desegregate Detroit might be a significant step toward equal distribution of community resources. For many whites, on the other hand, this scheme threatened to burst the bubble of comfortable suburban life. Nine Supreme Court justices would finally be asked to resolve the struggle between the clashing interests of America's urban-dwellers. In a five-to-four ruling which spawned three bitter dissents, the Court invalidated cross-district desegregation. The turmoil on the Court matched that in the nation as a whole: By 1974 the urban desegregation controversy had reached the boiling point among voters, and it seemed that a confrontation between Congress and the Court was imminent. The outcome of such a case depended on the resolve of Supreme Court members to protect minorities in the face of a resistant majority. In the end, the Court championed the power of the suburbs to maintain the status quo: Integration would be limited to Detroit proper, leaving the Detroit school district heavily black and the suburban districts nearly all-white. With this ruling, the Supreme Court demarcated the limits of minority rights vis-a-vis majority rights and, according to critics, created a "formula for American Apartheid."

Year of Submission


Year of Award

1998 Award


Department of History

First Advisor

John Johnson, advisor


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