Monday, July 02, 2007

A Color-Blind Constitution

So saith the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in the recent school integration case focusing on Seattle and Louisville, wherein those districts' efforts to integrate schools based on race was condemned.

My response? Ha! It's a nice thought that this little nation of ours will run on a color-blind paradigm, but let's get real. When has it ever, and when will it ever? I never pegged conservatives for being utopian, but this decision seems to swing the evidence that way. The notion that somehow race will not and does not play any role in American society is absolute nonsense; that somehow race should not be used AT ALL in making societal decisions is both moronic and misguided. Race is a factor in American life. Always has been, always will be. It's the hallmark of an out-of-touch Court that they would offer an opinion with that as a key determinant. Only Kennedy got it nearly right, when he said that diversity encompassed a variety of factors, qualities and experiences, some of which were specific to race and others that were not.

So I think their contention that race is not and should not be a factor in school demographics is pure fantasy. However, I also think the contention by the opposition that somehow this has diluted Brown v. Board of Education is a bit overstated. Those who disagree with the court's opinion have made much of its seeming overturn of Brown v. Board, but let's ratchet down the drama here. Unlike the districts covered by Brown, the school district in Seattle was never legally segregated and was not the subject of court ordered desegregation as a means of remedying past inequalities (to be completely accurate, the desegregation decree in Louisville was dissolved in 2000).

Therefore, IMHO, the Court absolutely upheld the letter of Brown v. Board (“to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis.” Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U. S. 294, 300–301), even if it ignored its spirit, which was to offer equal educational opportunities to all children regardless of race and without the yoke of state-endorsed declarations of racial inferiority. As the syllabus to the decision outlined:
Quoting Justice Powell’s articulation of diversity in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265, 314–315, the Grutter Court noted that “'it is not an interest in simple ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in effect guaranteed to be members of selected ethnic groups,’ that can justify the use of race,” 539 U. S.,at 324–325, but “ ‘a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element, ’ ” id., at 325. In the present cases, by contrast, race is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve “exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints,” id., at 330; race, for some students, is determinative standing alone. The districts argue that other factors, such as student preferences, affect assignment decisions under their plans, but under each plan when race comes into play, it is decisive by itself. It is not simply one factor weighed with others in reaching a decision, as in Grutter; it is the factor.

And therein lies the problem. The Louisville district, in its attempt to invoke the spirit of Brown v. Board, inexplicably separated students into "black" and "other," perhaps the most reductive and binary way to classify children...and decidedly NOT in the spirit of Brown. What? No Asian-Americans in Kentucky? No Latinos? Anyone else who might want to go to a nice integrated school? Neither district attempted any other means by which to balance the school's populations. From the Decision: "Under the Seattle plan, a school with 50 percent Asian-American students and 50 percent white students but no African-American, Native-American, or Latino students would qualify as balanced, while a school with 30 percent Asian-American, 25 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino, and 20 percent white students would not. It is hard to understand how a plan that could allow these results can be viewed as being concerned with achieving enrollment that is “‘broadly diverse,’” Grutter, supra, at 329."

Obviously, the solution to the dilemma of poor, crumbling, underperforming public schools vs. fantastic, world-class public schools supported by high property taxes in wealthier towns is not an easy one. If I had the answer I wouldn't be sitting here bellyaching about it on a blog. But there has to be one. And more importantly, there has to be honesty on both sides about what such an answer will take to find, and what it will mean to implement.

No comments: