A Drift Back to Segregation?

A ruling on racial isolation in Mississippi speaks to a troubling broader trend

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Could an education ruling speak to a drifting back toward segregation?

During her elementary school years in this rural Mississippi town, Addreal Harness, a competitive teenager with plans to be a doctor, said her classes had about the same numbers of white and black students. It was a fact she took little note of until the white kids began leaving.

Some left in seventh grade, even more in eighth, and by the time Harness, who is African American, reached Tylertown High School, she became aware of talk that has slowly seeped into her 16-year-old psyche -- that some white parents call Tylertown "the black school," while Salem Attendance Center, where many of her white classmates transferred, is known as "the white school."

"In my class of 2012, there's just seven white girls now," said Harness, raising her chin slightly. "The ones that left, they think Salem's smarter because they have more white kids, but it's not."

Last week, a federal judge ruled that a school board policy here in Walthall County has had the effect of creating "racially identifiable" schools in violation of a 1970 federal desegregation order. Although the case is unique in some ways, it fits a broader trend toward racial isolation that has been underway for years in American schools and has undermined the historic school integration efforts of the civil rights era.

More than half a century after courts dismantled the legal framework that enforced segregation, Obama administration officials are investigating an array of practices across the country that contribute to a present-day version that they say is no less insidious.