Friday, June 29, 2007

Supreme Court Decision: Race should not be a factor

WASHINGTON, June 28 — With competing blocs of justices claiming the mantle of Brown v. Board of Education, a bitterly divided Supreme Court declared Thursday that public school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race.

Voting 5 to 4, the court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., invalidated programs in Seattle and metropolitan Louisville, Ky., that sought to maintain school-by-school diversity by limiting transfers on the basis of race or using race as a “tiebreaker” for admission to particular schools.

Both programs had been upheld by lower federal courts and were similar to plans in place in hundreds of school districts around the country. Chief Justice Roberts said such programs were “directed only to racial balance, pure and simple,” a goal he said was forbidden by the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he said. His side of the debate, the chief justice said, was “more faithful to the heritage of Brown,” the landmark 1954 decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. “When it comes to using race to assign children to schools, history will be heard,” he said.

The decision came on the final day of the court’s 2006-7 term, which showed an energized conservative majority in control across many areas of the court’s jurisprudence.
Read more.

What do you think about this decision? I found the use of Brown v. the Board of Education surprising as a justification for this ruling. My chief concern is the possibility of resegregation (we already have that essentially in Cincinnati through white flight).

On the other hand, I understand a parent's desire to determine where her child goes to school. So what I find difficult is that usually the reason a parent wants a child to transfer from one school to another is based on the quality of the school. While schools vary in their tax bases, you will always have parents who are unhappy with poorly run schools and who want to transfer to better schools. If this leads to a renewed racial split, is that acceptable to us as a society?

Roberts' comment that the way to stop discriminating based on race is to stop discriminating based on race struck me as oddly placed. Discrimination is the deliberate effort to prevent one race from having similar rights, privileges and opportunities as the other race. This ruling (it appears to me) no longer guarantees those to everyone, but allows for a silent, invisible creeping discrimination that comes through accommodating our impulses to stick to our own and to unconsciouly self-select our race when confronted with a choice.

A few years ago, a French woman on pomoxian yahoo list made the point that homeschooling was not democratic. That comment blew me away. What could be more democratic than the freedom to choose any educational style a parent felt suited his or her child? She retorted that if the educational choice I made depended on a certain income level, a mother who could stay at home, and allowed me to withdraw my bright, happy, stable children from the public school system, we were undermining the corporate whole of education in America. We would have better educated children (or worse) and the community would suffer. Democracy (as she described it) did not mean freedom of choice, but equality of opportunity (all citizens deserve the same opportunities wrt education, particularly since children cannot choose for themselves).

I don't know if I agree with her entirely, but her points made me rethink what I understood about *my* choices. Democracy needs to protect me not just from tyranny of the majority or the government, but also the subtle tyrannies of my own prejudices and discomforts in order for a pluralistic society to thrive. It is not democratic, in other words, for us to retreat into tribalism just because we can or want to.... if that is what will happen.

A few weeks ago, the news in our county featured a story that the tax structure for public education is being changed in Ohio so that inner city schools (with broken windows, no computers and no A/C) will get more money and schools out where I live (with state of the art computers, new band equipment for the trip to the Rose Parade, and professional quality theater productions) will get less. One of my friends was outraged. Her comment? "We earned that money and the inner city people are irresponsible. They'll waste it. I know these families. They come into the ER where I work. They wouldn't even know what to do with more money. And our programs will suffer."

All of these thoughts were swirling in my head as I read the Supreme Court's decision this morning.


Keith said...

Interesting post, but I think you are confusing equality of opportunity with a communist-style equality of outcome. Take your example of homeschooling. Equality of opportunity means everyone has the right to homeschool their children; equality of outcome means that everyone has to homeschool their child.

This is why yesterday's Supreme Court ruling is so good, it says the government must offer equality of opportunity not equality of outcome when it comes to parents choosing which school to go to.

julieunplugged said...

Is it equality of opportunity if you live in a school district that is underfunded and someone else lives in a district that is well-funded? children don't have choices. Parents do.

I do hear what you are saying... Americans value equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. Where I think this particular case is different is that we are dealing with children who don't have choices. They are subject to the strengths and weaknesses of their parents. So if a single mother on drugs raises her child in the inner city, the child's "choice" is limited.

So my question is: should it be when we're dealing with education?

brian said...

My thought when I heard about this was "This is the court I feared when George W. was elected to a second term." I'm afraid we're in for a giant step backwards in civil rights over the next 10-20 years.

To pretend that we are race neutral in this country is absurd, IMO. It's just an excuse for those with the privilege gained through centuries of manipulation of the system, to keep the privilege.


TiaDavidandourLittleChickens said...

"If this leads to a renewed racial split, is that acceptable to us as a society?"

It would be in Jacksonville, Florida, at least in the past 10 years.

We had forced busing due due to "white flight". Everybody except the school board hated it. Kids on buses well over an hour and the opportunity to be involved in your "neighborhood school" taken away. Most of the black kids coming to my pretty racially-balanced side of town (because theirs was entirely black) crossed a river to come to school and weren't able to be involved in anything extra-curricular. The white kids on buses didn't go to an inner city school (though some middle schoolers did)...they went to areas that were "black majority" not "black exclusively". So, we still had racially segregated schools.

This increased white flight to even more areas farther out, right into the next county. And, it seemed to me, there was just as loud an outcry from the black community: one of the black high schools had an excellent band and football program that parents wanted their kids in. It also had a lot of community involvement. They didn't want their kids sent over the river.

Interestingly, the schools have started to desegregate a bit more organically in that area. The downtown is experiencing a revival of sorts, bringing in many more white families to downtown and there are two magnet schools (one for art, another for science) downtown, drawing a voluntarily-commuting attendance.

I think our cultural lines are already blurring and will continue to do so without outside manipulation.

Anonymous said...

Democracy needs to protect me not just from tyranny of the majority or the government, but also the subtle tyrannies of my own prejudices and discomforts in order for a pluralistic society to thrive. It is not democratic, in other words, for us to retreat into tribalism just because we can or want to.... if that is what will happen.

While I see your point here I think there is something chillingly paternalistic and authoritarian about the state using coercive means to enforce individuals to order their lives around diversity. Our countries are democracies but we also consider ourselves to be free people. Democracy is not a value above all others. It is one that must coexist with notions like liberty, and I think liberty is threatened when the state starts correcting our own personal imperfections.

julieunplugged said...

Anon, do you think it was "chillingly authoritarian" to sign the Civil Rights Act or to outlaw slavery or to give women the right to vote or to guarantee equal wages for equal work?

Freedom has to mean that my freedom to pursue happiness is not a means to diminishing someone else's.

I don't know what the solution is in the schools, but I do know that the way things are now (at least in my city), whites have escaped being confronted with the reality of racism and inner city poverty. And as such, they are unrealistically optimistic about what it takes to rise above that condition in life.

carrie said...

She retorted that if the educational choice I made depended on a certain income level, a mother who could stay at home, and allowed me to withdraw my bright, happy, stable children from the public school system, we were undermining the corporate whole of education in America. We would have better educated children (or worse) and the community would suffer. Democracy (as she described it) did not mean freedom of choice, but equality of opportunity (all citizens deserve the same opportunities wrt education, particularly since children cannot choose for themselves).

This is not "democracy" this is socialism. This is what is wrong with No Child Left Behind. This says that "if I can't have it, neither can you." No one is allowed to get ahead, succeed, work hard and make a better life for themselves. This says everyone has to have the same thing. And I'm not even sure democracy means equality of opportunity, as in guaranteeing we'll all have the *same* opportunities. I'd have to think about that. She's the proverbial Dog in the Manger. (The starving dog comes into the barn, and finding no food he can eat, lays in the manger keeping all the other animals from eating. Since he can't eat, everyone will have to starve.)

Our system is far from perfect. I agree it's not right for some public schools to be well funded while others are falling apart. But then, I don't think the system of coercive public education is right to begin with. ;-)

Clay Johnson said...

In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell's discussion of what he calls the constrained and unconstrained visions provides a really helpful framework for approaching the equality of opportunity and equality of outcome divide in modern American politics. I strongly suspect that the very divide he discusses there is evident throughout the various Justices' opinions. Don't miss Sowell's book.

I printed the (180 pages of) opinions out today, and will withhold judgment until I read them. Broadly though, it seems like there is a difference between segregation by voluntary choice (families choosing where to live) and segregation by government coercion.

As far as whether it would be acceptable if this causes a "new racial split," two things come to mind. First, no, it isn't remotely acceptable to me, but overcoming conscious or subconscious racism requires radical spiritual transformation. Second, the elites of society who also strongly advocate integrated schools will now (more than before) require the courage of their convictions to attain their vision. They will need to move into and create integrated neighborhoods.

julieunplugged said...

Clay thanks for your thoughtful reply and the recommendation of Sowell's book. Have you read John Rawls? Does his vision of "Justice as Fairness" fit with Sowell's?

Do you have a blog and will you present your opinion after you read the Supreme Court's opinions? I would love to read what you have to say.

Sandie said...

I didn't read all the comments so forgive me if I repeat something. First I am speaking as someone who lives in Louisville and has dealt extensively with their system. It is UNFAIR! In Louisville you are either Black or Other and all schools have to have at least 30% black and no more than 70% other OR no more than 70% black and at least 30% other.

Schools are also in magnet clusters which have to reflect this split. What has happened here is that they have put the best schools in the worst economic neighborhoods, most of those neighborhoods are comprised of black families. The black neighborhood kids however could only go to these amazing schools if the "other" kids could be recruited to attend.

The parents of the "others" often didn't want their kids in those neighborhoods or on the buses for 1.5-2 hrs one way because we have had some real issues with bad behavior on buses the last 5 or so years. So, these amazing schools were running at 65-70% capacity and the black kids who lived next door to them could not attend them because not enough 'other' kids did.

The reverse also happened, many 'other' kids lost spaces in the magnet classes nearer their houses because they had to stay 'in the cluster', but a black kid would always get in before an 'other' kid because the schools were terrified of dropping below that 30% mark.

One big problem with this system is that Louisville is no longer 30% black as a city. The last time I saw it published it was closer to 18-20%. The Asian and Hispanics have grown at a much faster rate, but in Louisville for school purposes they are counted as white.

So, basicly if the schools really offered choice, the schools would be better off. Parents have to choose a school, and so that already involves them in the process, then the district has been telling them, oh you can't have that one instead of supporting the parent's choice.

If I had a child in public school, the two highschools I would consider are both in the worst part of town, but the education and self-esteem the kids are coming out with is incredable.

carrie said...

I've been doing more thinking about the woman's reasoning that homeschooling is undemocratic. I have an analogy.

Take universal health care. What if the government devised a program (on the scale of public education) for health care and paid for it with tax money. (Gee, that sounds familiar!) First, we'd get bloated, top-heavy, and unresponsive management, but that's another topic. Say you or I had a child (spouse, parent, etc.) that needed something other than the routine, scheduled care. According to that woman you quoted, it would be "undemocratic" to leave the system in order to get private care, even if you could pay for it. So, according to her sentiments, one shouldn't, in a democracy, be able to opt out of any of the "systems" simply because of an ability to pay for it. Tell that to the thousands of Canadians who come to the US for surgery they can't get in Canada. Or at least they can't get in time. Average wait for bypass surgery there (last time I looked it up) was something like 3 to 6 months.

Justice and humanity (and Christ)require we take care of the poor. But that isn't done, imo, by leveling the quality of goods and services for everyone to some arbitrary lower standard in order that no one is able to "get more." That smacks of class warfare. Socialism hasn't worked, especially not in larger, geographically and economically diverse countries.

You know, this reasoning (no one should get less or more, no one should lose, no one should shine, "we're all special") is why they are doing away with dodgeball and kickball and other competitive sports at school. I mean, this amorphous blobbing of America goes on and on.....

julieunplugged said...

Well Sandie, you certainly speak from experience. What is fairness according to how you would define it?

Carrie, I was stunned by this woman's pov which is why it hasn't left me. It challenged my assumptions and I continue to find myself interacting with her pov when I think about education, health care and a variety of issues related to the well being of the state and citizens.

I can't so quickly say that socialism doesn't work without also saying that health care and education in America don't work either... for many of us. Without a job that covers you and your family's health care, you pay your way and let me tell you - it's expensive! Health care may have more research and capacity in America, but lots of people are in medical debt beyond their ability to ever repay it as well (even people who had coverage and who are dropped after serious medical calamity).

And let's not forget the way doctors, insurance, and hospitals create a huge money machine that necessarily limits our choices to use midwives or alternative medicines because the insurance companies "won't cover them." In Italy, my aunt's midwives were covered the same as doctors.

I can't say that European health care is a disaster. It has different limitations and benefits than ours.

So I keep thinking about education and how my choices impact my community and vice versa.

carrie said...

I guess my point is that the public education system in this country didn't work for me, and I'm mighty glad I had an alternative! I wouldn't want my choices for health care or education to be artificially limited because the choices weren't the same for everyone.

But then, whether the gov't ought to be involved in education or health care is a much broader topic, and not the one you've addressed here! ;-)

Ish Engle said...

Hi Julie! I don't know if you know this, but I consider you my "liberal" friend. :-)

Anyway, two comments. First, discrimination is not just trying to restrict the rights of one group, it is also trying to enhance the rights of one group. In the reference, he is talking about a system that says "when two children are equally qualified to attend school X, race is the deciding factor." What about a coin flip? What about rock-paper-scissors? How is saying "well, you're [insert race here], so you get to go in" a non-discriminatory method of choosing? I think that's what he meant by referring to Brown.

Second, I would posit that the American school system was more successful before it started so many of its socializing programs. When we pushed students to achieve and made them responsible for their own success or failure, rather than coddling to the slower learners, we had a system that turned out scholars who were on par with other countries (and ahead of many). As we started to slow down the quick learners and moved toward a "no child left behind", which we did long before GW, we started saw a decline in the quality of graduate. I watch my daughter every year start off well, and struggle the last two quarters. Why? Because she's bored to tears and not being challenged, and our system no longer encourages or allows for her to continue to push on, at least in our area.

Anyway, I thank you for your thought provoking ideas, and for your enlightening opinions which, often, are very different from my own and from my experience.

Dave said...

I have not yet arrived at a strong opinion on this decision, even after doing a bit of reading on it and listening to various commentators on a couple of podcasts. My gut reaction is to not be too bothered by it because I'm not so much in favor of the idea of shipping kids across school districts to create "balance" in terms of ethnic or cultural composition of the student body. Neither I nor my family have been affected by these questions in a direct way - my kids went to public schools in walking distance in elementary and high school years, and took a bus to middle school just because it was too far to walk. We liked the local schools and believe that they received good educations, even though our district is a "working class blue collar" type area, certainly not the wealthiest or most fancily appointed in the region.

I think children should go to school as close to where they live as possible, and that the schools should be fairly and adequately funded. So from what I've heard, that's where future negotiations will be directed - over how resources are distributed at the state and local level.

The biggest thing I regret about the decision is that it gives a kind of legalistic cover to people who want to contend that "segregation is over, we need to move on, we need to take a 'color-blind' approach to such issues," or who try to equate all forms of pro-diversity efforts as forms of "discrimination." We may not stop white-flight altogether, but I think the parents who flee integrated, culturally diverse neighborhoods are really inhibiting their own children's development. Diversity is an asset and should be seen that way - too many people still regard it as a "concession" or worse, and I think that's a mentality that will simply not hold out over the long-term, but is likely to inflict a lot of pain in the meantime.

Sandie said...

Just wanted to let you know I wrote out some of my thoughts on school fairness on my ponderings site.