Background/Context: Milliken v. Bradley (1974) (Milliken I) is a pivotal Supreme Court case that halted a metropolitan school desegregation remedy between Detroit and 53 surrounding suburban school districts. In a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Milliken ruling was a significant retraction from the landmark Brown v. Board (1954) (Brown I) ruling that 20 years earlier deemed state imposed racially segregated schools unequal and unconstitutional. The effects of the Milliken decision neutralized school desegregation efforts in the United States, especially in the North. We, therefore, revisit the significance of Milliken over 40 years later.
Purpose: The purpose of this study is to examine the context and contradictions in Milliken. In doing so, we review select federal school desegregation cases that informed the judicial and plaintiff’s thinking in Milliken, and provide an in-depth description of the city of Detroit and Detroit Public Schools, prior to and during Milliken. We also analyze how the Milliken decision reinforced what we refer to as the “contours of privilege” as well as materialized property rights for white, suburban students and school districts at the expense of African American students in Detroit Public Schools.
Research Design and Methods: A qualitative content analysis was employed for this study. Our analysis draws on a review of existing literature about Milliken beginning in 1970, policy documents, legal filings, and local newspaper articles on the case. We use critical race theory’s whiteness as property to guide this analysis.
Conclusion: The findings suggest that the Supreme Court protected white, suburban students’ educational rights and interests in Milliken. This was accomplished through the contours of privilege as reproduced in Milliken, which include acknowledging inequity but not disturbing racially inequitable systems, restricting black educational rights and perpetuating white privilege, and exercising the right to maintain dual educational systems. The study concludes with policy implications in light of Milliken.