Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Separate But Equal?

The Supreme Court is considering hammering in yet another nail on the coffin lid of racial integration in American schools. The case it has decided to study (and to use to make diversity programs ever harder to carry out) has to do with school assignment:

In the first test of school integration efforts to come before the court since Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Samuel Alito joined the bench last term, the justices heard two cases — one from Seattle, the other from Louisville — that examine whether using race in school assignments violates the Constitution's equality guarantee.

The court has supported affirmative action policies in education, most recently in 2003, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined the nine-member court's four liberals to allow colleges to consider race in admissions to get diversity.

O'Connor is retired now, replaced by Alito. And Monday's two hours of arguments indicated that the court is moving toward a harder line on race-based policies.

The key player appeared to be Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is at the ideological center of the court. As the liberals asked questions that suggested they supported the school districts' policies, Kennedy joined conservative justices in expressing skepticism about programs that transfer some students out of their neighborhoods to counteract racially segregated housing patterns in those cities.

Kennedy bristled at the notion of "characterizing each student by the color of his or her skin," even for benevolent reasons. He rejected arguments that such policies do not stigmatize or otherwise harm students because all pupils end up with a place in a classroom, even if they are denied the school of their choice.

"The question is whether or not you can get into the school that you really prefer," Kennedy said. "And that in some cases depends solely on skin color. You know, it's like saying everybody can have a meal but only people with (a particular) skin can get the dessert."

Now that last paragraph is a most hilarious one for anyone who has studied the U.S. educational system, because the average black student goes to a school with far fewer resources than the average white student, and in a much more concrete sense giving up on legal attempts at integration wll leave many black students without "dessert". Without education which qualifies him or her to go to college, for example.

But something other than that is more important for these wingnut judges: Things must look extremely neutral in a very narrow legalistic sense and under no conditions can there be any inconvenience to anybody (white).

Believe it or not, I understand why some white parents are angry when their child is not allowed to attend a nearby school for reasons of racial balance. I do understand the concerns. But I'm not sure if these parents and others who oppose any programs attempting to keep at least a few schools racially desegregated really understand what is at stake here. Without exaggerating very much, a country which pays no attention to racial integration might end up in a civil war one day. A country consisting of segregated groups living separate AND unequal lives is not going to be a peaceful one for very long.

Don't believe me? Well, how about considering the history of racial segregation? You must have heard about the segregated water fountains, the segregated restaurant lunch counters, and you must have heard about the Civil Rights movement which ended all those things. And you must have heard that schools were largely racially segregated until the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in the 1950s. This Supreme Court decision made intended racial segregation in schools illegal and required school districts to institute programs that would cause schools to become integrated.

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Especially considering the fact that the average black schools had but a spoonful of the pie the average white schools offered their students in resources. Indeed, the Supreme Court argued that "separate" can never be "equal". This was in response to a nineteenth century case, Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had found that trains could have separate negro compartments as long as they were as comfy as the white compartments. It was the very fact of intentional segregation and its psychological consequences on black children that the Supreme Court of the 1950s found so objectionable.

Fast forward to the first decade of the second millennium, and the Supreme Court finds rather different matters objectionable. Segregation isn't a problem at all. Rather, it is the attempts to desegregate that are causing racial discrimination. So.

To be fair, this turnaround is not a new thing. Desegregation was resisted from day one and progress has moved on at a snail's pace if at all. There are several reasons for the slowness of any change, including racism, but the one most often quoted has to do with the need to bus children long distances at tender ages if schools are to be integrated. Or as in the most recent case under examination, to direct children to schools which are not their parents' first choices. These moves are necessary for one very simple reason: racial/ethnic segregation in housing. Blacks and whites mostly don't live in the same areas, and the same applies to Latino and Anglo families.

Let's ask the important question: Supposing the new wingnut-enforced Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in education, what will the consequences be? My answer is a simple one: Such a decision will make education more segregated along racial and ethnic lines. It will also cause a larger quality difference between the average education a minority child receives and the average education a child belonging to the majority receives.

Why the latter prediction? Because public education in the United States is largely funded from local taxes. Poorer areas have less money for schools and will end up having schools with fewer resources. Blacks and Latinos are, on average, poorer than white and Anglo families, and are more likely to live in poor school districts. What the consequences of these quality differences will be for the future positions of blacks and Latinos in the society I leave to you to consider.

It could be that these effects don't matter that much for wingnuts who are uninterested in a fair and harmonious society. It could also be that things might not get much worse than they already are, for even though intentional segregation in education is illegal, "unintentional" segregation is commonplace. A few years ago a study found that two-thirds of all black and Latino children attended schools where the students belonged mostly to minority groups. Add to that the white flight into private schools and suburban public schools and one might cynically argue that the wingnut Justices can't do much more harm than already exists.

One might so argue, but one would be wrong. Things will certainly become worse if it's clear that the option of doing nothing is the preferred one. Races and ethnic groups will become more isolated from each other and education will become more uneven. The education a child gets will depend even more on his or her race. The very argument Kennedy seems to find so reprehensible is the one his opinion might bring about.