Supreme Court likely to U-turn on school integration
December 5, 2006
If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been at the U.S. Supreme Court this week, he would have preached of nightmares rather than dreams.
More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in its Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate-but-equal schools were inherently unconstitutional. The decision fueled the civil rights movement, ushered in an era of school desegregation and bolstered the optimism behind King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Over the years, however, the Supreme Court has chipped away at Brown. On Dec. 4, the court heard oral arguments in two cases that could, for all practical purposes, knock it over.
The issue is whether race can be used as a criterion in promoting racial diversity. Few observers expect the conservative majority to uphold the voluntary integration plans under review in Seattle and the Louisville, Ky., area. As The New York Times noted, at the end of the arguments, "the only question was how far the court would go in ruling such plans unconstitutional."
The severity of the court's likely U-turn on school integration is particularly apparent in the Louisville case. There the school system had been under a federal court desegregation order from 1975 to 2000. Afterward, it voluntary adopted a plan to prevent resegregation -- the one now under attack.
"Do you think that there's something of an anomaly there," noted Justice Ruth Ginsberg during arguments, "that you have a system that is forced on the school, that it doesn't want, it works for 25 years, and then the school board doesn't have to keep it any more, but it decides it's worked rather well, so we'll keep it."
As she noted, "What's constitutionally required one day gets constitutionally prohibited the next day. That's very odd."
In Louisville, racial concentration in the public schools has decreased as a result of the district's diversity plan, and white student enrollment has stabilized.
In Seattle, meanwhile, the district suspended its high school diversity plan when it came under legal challenge. Since then, racial isolation has increased. At one of the city's high schools, for example, one of every four students was white in 2000. By 2005, only one in 10 students was white.
Across the country, the "clear pattern" is one of growing segregation and separation, according to a report last January from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
The Supreme Court, the report made clear, has played a key role in those steps backward. Some urban schools are so segregated at this point that the only appropriate name for them is "apartheid schools," according to the report.
In Chicago, for instance, 26 percent of black students attend public schools that are 99 percent to 100 percent minority.
The peak of desegregation in the late 1980s coincided with rising high school graduation rates and a major decline in the achievement gap between whites and blacks, according to the report.
The Bush administration has sided with those opposing the racial integration plans. More important, President Bush's appointees to the high court are known to be hostile to race-based classifications that promote equality.
The president may earn the legacy: "I overturned the civil rights movement."
Barbara Miner is a columnist for the Milwaukee-based magazine Rethinking Schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.