Supreme Court integration case will impact public schools
November 30, 2006
The Supreme Court must uphold the principle of equal, integrated schools.
On Dec. 4, the court will hear oral arguments in two cases from Louisville, Ky., and Seattle to determine whether public school districts can consider race to achieve racially integrated schools.
The Bush administration and a number of conservative groups want the high court to strike down race-conscious plans in Louisville and Seattle. And they want to outlaw any future consideration of race -- even if it means that public schools will become more resegragated.
More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the Constitution's "separate but equal" doctrine with its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This case helped end state-sponsored segregation in public education.
Since Brown, the court has not only rejected racial segregation of all kinds, it has carefully preserved the right of states and localities to voluntarily pursue racial integration in their schools.
After three decades of court-ordered desegregation, the Louisville school board is voluntarily integrating its schools. It has finally arrived at a school assignment plan that the community has accepted and embraced. The plan takes race into consideration.
The Bush administration is opposing this plan. It assumes that the Constitution is indifferent to whether the government is using race to integrate or segregate America's public schools. It and other opponents charge that efforts to integrate schools are as equally offensive to the Constitution as segregation was.
The administration's position runs contrary to the court's decision in Brown -- as well as the half-century of Supreme Court cases on school integration since Brown. The landmark Brown decision identified segregated schools -- not race, per se -- as the evil the high court sought to remedy. In its conclusion that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the court recognized the educational and social harms of segregation, regardless of its cause.
The decision did not suggest that considering race to integrate schools was unconstitutional. Instead, it paved the way for race-conscious efforts to remedy intentional Jim Crow segregation.
Since Brown, the court has rejected racial segregation of all kinds, while carefully preserving the right of states and localities to voluntarily pursue racial integration in their schools.
Claiming that voluntary integration is no different from segregation is itself offensive -- particularly to Louisville and other school districts that, for decades, have been following federal court orders to use race-conscious means to integrate their schools.
It also offends the core purpose of the 14th Amendment. As a group of historians recently concluded, "The purpose of the 14th Amendment was to fully incorporate blacks into the fabric of civic, economic and political life."
It would be hard for these communities to accept that, while the Constitution "required" their school boards to integrate for all those years, the same Constitution absolutely "prohibited" their school boards from ever again taking race into account.
In an ironic twist, such a decision could force Louisville to stand by as its schools return to the same segregated conditions that a federal court initially found unconstitutional three decades ago.
Let's hope the Supreme Court comes down, once again, on the side of justice and equality.
Jack Greenberg argued Gebhart v. Belton, one of the five Brown cases in the Supreme Court, and is a former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.