Thursday, June 28, 2007

On School Integration and The Supreme Court of the United States

Remember the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision? It argued that racial segregation of schools should be ended, because "separate" is inherently "unequal". One part of the evidence in that case was a sociological study which showed that black children thought white dolls were better and more desirable than black dolls. But most of the evidence was about the enormous inequities of resources between the racially segregated school systems.

Fifty-three years later, the Supreme Court of the United States has made another decision on school integration. Purposeful school integration should be ended because it is discriminatory:

In a decision of sweeping importance to educators, parents and schoolchildren across the country, the Supreme Court today sharply limited the ability of school districts to manage the racial makeup of the student bodies in their schools.

The court voted, 5 to 4, to reject diversity plans from Seattle and Louisville, Ky., declaring that the districts had failed to meet "their heavy burden" of justifying "the extreme means they have chosen — discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments," as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.

Today's decision, one of the most important in years on the issue of race and education, need not entirely eliminate race as a factor in assigning students to different schools, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a separate opinion. But it will surely prompt many districts to review and perhaps revise programs they already have in place, or go back to the drawing boards in designing plans.

The opinion's rationale relied in part on the historic 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools — a factor that the dissenters on the court found to be a cruel irony, and which they objected to in emotional terms.

Guess which Justices were with the majority? Yup:

In the now familiar lineup, Justices Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. sided with the chief justice on most points.

The blogs at the National Review site (a conservative paper) had this to say on the decision:

Today's Supreme Court decision striking down Louisville's and Seattle's race-based student assignment plans will surely lead to much gnashing of teeth, recriminations, and accusations of America slipping back to the era of Jim Crow. Politically correct experts, educators, and advocacy types will express outrage and declare their intent to find a way — any way — to ensure that the remaining handful of white students in urban districts attend schools otherwise populated by black and Hispanic children.

They're wrong. Not because we shouldn't feel guilty that so many of our urban schools are racially isolated. Of course we should. And not because Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of an integrated society isn't compelling. Of course it is. But the surest route to such a society is to help all children achieve academically, prepare for higher education as well as jobs with futures, and enter the great American middle class. Because here's the good news: Middle-class black children living in suburbs are much more likely to attend racially diverse schools than poor black children are. The way forward is through progress — which starts with academic progress. That means shaking up the urban school systems that are producing such abysmal results.

When I read that response and also when I read the initial decision by the SCOTUS I had the same odd experience of parts of my brain separating and floating above me in the clouds. Because of that cloud-cuckoo-land aspect.

First, note that the National Review blog post doesn't tell us how we are going to achieve all the wonderful things we should do with inner-city schools populated predominantly by minority students. Schools are funded mostly from local property taxes, which means that poor areas get poor schools. Whenever a proposal tries to change this, the middle-class parents go into a rebellion. In short, there will be no improvements of urban schools as long as this is how the system works. So all that extra stuff in the blog post is meaningless.

Second, the whole SCOTUS decision smells of ignoring the fact that people of color are, on average, poorer and less powerful. To imply that a system that ignores this is somehow fair and balanced is silly.

Put it this way: If I had a child denied access to my most preferred kindergarten, say, I would have very little trouble taking that imaginary child to another good kindergarten or a private school, and I'm not especially rich. But if I was stuck in a ghetto, with two jobs and little education, the slot in a good kindergarten for my child might be the only chance that child ever gets. Now put the two Echidnes in the story fighting each other in a court system for the same kindergarten slot. The SCOTUS says that the rich Echidne must win if the slot is in her backyard. Because she will be a victim of discrimination otherwise. The poor Echidne can just get a third job to pay for a private kindergarten slot.

A hidden underpinning in this whole discussion is the question what integration was supposed to achieve. Was it better education for minority children? Was it an attempt to reduce racism in the society? An attempt to create a society where all children had equal opportunity? I don't quite see what the recent SCOTUS decision thinks it is achieving, but it's none of these things, for sure.

Yes, I am upset over this ruling. I'm one of those politically correct goddesses, I guess. Or perhaps I just happen to have a heart. I'm also frightened of a racially segregated world. It's not good for anybody's basic security.
Scott Lemieux has a good piece from the legal eagle angle. He also makes a point I forgot to make in this post, which is the fact that this decision rules out most things courts could do to remedy the effects of past discrimination. Such remedies will always have effects on others in the present time. Hence remedying discrimination is...discrimination!