Sunday, July 01, 2007

Court-supported Resegregation

The New York Times has an article about the implications of the new Supreme Court decision on policies to achieve integration in public schools, along with excerpts from the justices' opinions. The San Francisco Chronicle has another article on the negative response of civil rights advocates.

It is interesting to me that the majority decision(s) seem(s) to be very focused on a very narrow slice of "here and now." They argue that a specific group of white children wanted to attend school A, and because of the diversity policy, they cannot attend that school. The only harm they sustain is a curtailment of choice. This action is wrong, their advocates argue, because the denial was based on their race. There is not an argument about the quality of the 2 schools in question or any other harm that is caused.

It seems to me that the idea of integration as articulated in Brown versus Board of Education (and, subsequently, the practice of affirmative action) was rooted in historical trends of discrimination that had a clear negative impact on African American students. Not being allowed to attend the white school had clear negative consequences for the plaintiffs, related to their education and their health. Yes, I said health. Unlike children today who are bused to their assigned school, African American children as young as 5 or 6 in Topeka (and in other settings) often had to walk very long routes (up to several miles) to get to their schools. Their parents often had no cars, and local buses were reserved for white children.

Justice Roberts' emphasis on color-blindness as articulated as a goal in the Brown decision is very limited in its scope, and it ignores later laws and decisions that recognized the utility of color-awareness in righting old (and persistent) wrongs. Color-blindness is a neutral value at best, and like any totalizing approach, it lacks important nuance that informs policy and practice. If we stopped gathering data on academic achievement, dropout rates, and other educational outcomes for students of color out of a righteous sense of color-blindness, we could cavalierly say that we have no race problem in education. It would not mean that there is not racially-based disparity. Color-blindness is not a clear and easy force for social good. We must recognize that race matters in this country, and the way to work for justice is to recognize the impacts of race and work to maximize the good for all people.

The NYTimes quotes a number of scholars who say that this decision will have little effect on American society as a whole, because we (that is, school boards, college trustees, and corporate types) generally believe in the positive effects of diversity. I don't know if I buy that. We certainly don't support this value when it comes to purchasing our homes (see Gary Orfield's work on residential resegregation). We don't necessarily support this value when constituting our families and friendship circles.

After my family moved when I was 6 years old, I spent the rest of my youth (as a white Jewish girl) in a very diverse suburban community: going to school, working, befriending, participating in school activities, and dating people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures than my own. This experience improved my life as a white person. I am comfortable with differences, and I have a better understanding of the range of lived experiences, interests, and concerns that people in different cultures can have. I tend to seek out situations where I can live, work, and have relationships with people of different cultures and ethnicities. (That is not to imply that I don't have my biases; I do, and I still have to work to address them.) I seek out these situations not because I want to "learn" or out of some sense of seeking out the "exotic Other," but because this diversity is what is comfortable and familiar to me. After 20-some years in other settings, I can honestly say that very few white people I have met share this experience or perspective.

I don't know if the push for racial diversity in schools is a lost cause. I hope not. I think that those of us who had these experiences of growing up together need to raise our voices and argue for the benefits of diversity at every level of society. I was not raised to be color-blind. I was raised to see color, race, ethnicity, and culture, and value all of them. I was also raised, and trained in my later years, to see institutional racism and work to address its insidious effects.


cd said...

Nice piece.

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