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June 29, 2007

’Meredith’ and ’Seattle’: racist or anti-racist?

It's rare to see the Supreme Court, and the public, as sharply divided over a case as they seem to be over yesterday's rulings in Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education. Even with the recent partial-birth abortion ruling that drew so much ire, at least people could agree, to a point, on what the Court did. But here, if you listen to the uproar going on, you'd think the court did two things at the same time: discriminated on the basis of race, and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race. As the Washington Post puts it, "Three justices took turns reading sometimes-biting opinions that portrayed the ruling as either the natural affirmation or a bitter betrayal of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision of 1954."

Thus, we have this from Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion:

The parties and their amici debate which side is more faithful to the heritage of Brown, but the position of the plaintiffs in Brown was spelled out in their brief and could not have been clearer: "(T)he Fourteenth Amendment prevents states from according differential treatment to American children on the basis of their color or race." What do the racial classifications at issue here do, if not accord differential treatment on the basis of race?

Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again – even for very different reasons. For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle, or that have removed the vestiges of past segregation, such as Jefferson County (Ky.), the way 'to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,' is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

And this from Justice Breyer's dissent:

The plurality pays inadequate attention to this law, to past opinions' rationales, their language, and the contexts in which they arise. As a result, it reverses course and reaches the wrong conclusion. In doing so, it distorts precedent, it misapplies the relevant constitutional principles, it announces legal rules that will obstruct efforts by state and local governments to deal effectively with the growing resegregation of public schools, it threatens to substitute for present calm a disruptive round of race-related litigation, and it undermines Brown's promise of integrated primary and secondary education that local communities have sought to make a reality. This cannot be justified in the name of the Equal Protection Clause.

Public opinion seems to be divided among much the same lines, as you can see here and here.

Personally, I have no firsthand experience with busing or the other integration techniques at issue here. The one memory I can look back on that has any relevance at all is from when I was in fourth and fifth grades, when the older kids in my neighborhood whose parents couldn't send them to private school were bused off to Progress Academy, or, as every kid in the neighborhood called it, Progress Prison. It was widely known that it was the worst, most dangerous school in the area, and it was also widely known that -- short of private school, as I said -- if you were selected to go there to fill the racial quota that had been set up by school officials, you couldn't get out of it. I wasn't worried about it personally because my sister and I were fortunate enough to be able to attend Christian schools. And our military upbringing meant that we'd be gone from the area before Progress Prison could become an issue for me -- though it would have been for my sister, who might have had to be bused our last year there if not for the Christian school. But I did feel badly for the kids who had to go there, and to this day I wonder how sending kids to a dump was supposed to do black or white kids any good.

But that was a very long time ago and, as I said, very far from being a firsthand experience. So I'll desist and throw the topic open to those of you who do have some actual experience with it, as a parent, a teacher, a student, or just a concerned citizen who knows the issue. What do you think the effect of this ruling will be?

(You can read the full text of the ruling here.)

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Comments

Brian

I think your memory is extremely telling. You were lucky enough to be sheltered from the harsh reality that is every day life for many, many Americans because of your privilege. We declare that sufficient time has passed and we urge for "equality in education" all the while re-segregating our schools (not just by color but also by quality) and leaving the under-privileged in the same state we put them in to begin with.

This is not about colorblind education. This is about privileged white people not wanting to worry about or with deal America's grittier problems. Not wanting to recognize the inherent privilege that they have been born into.

I received a college education, worked summers at my dad's law firm and quickly landed a job at a national network after graduating. Yes I am smart, yes I studied, yes I test well, yes I am driven. But if I'm honest, I probably couldn't coasted along and ended up not much worse of.

I am the recipient of so much privilege and it is so easy for me to be blind to it. That is why I must work daily to not abuse my privilege and to undermine the systems which deny it from others.

I'm not sure if forced integration via redistricting is the proper course of action. I doubt you can "force" people to care about others. I can see from your post though that integration gave you a perspective into a world you otherwise would not have entered ... and you didn't even go there.

So do I agree with the SCOTUS? I don't know. But I do know that something needs to be done about the state of education for the underprivileged in our country and I hope that as Christians we can answer Christ's call and start working on some solutions.

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