May 13, 2003
May 17 is the 49th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark, unanimous ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, but the purpose of that decision has been lost in the debate over affirmative action.
The court's decision determined that racially segregated public schools provide an "inherently unequal" education for black children and were therefore unconstitutional.
Judging by the questions asked last month about the reasons for the University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions policies, the current justices of the Supreme Court seem to have forgotten that segregation dims the educational horizons of racial minorities.
Today, as a result of the high court's subsequent decisions hedging on desegregation -- including its infamous 1974 Milliken vs. Bradley ruling that blocked an interdistrict remedy to Detroit's racially isolated schools -- the nation's schools and neighborhoods are heavily segregated by race and class.
Despite this segregated landscape, Supreme Court justices feign ignorance as to why some colleges and professional schools still need to resort to "quotas" and differential admissions standards in order to compensate for minorities' generally lower test scores.
The lawyers defending the University of Michigan's policies might have asked the justices, "If, as the court opined in 1954, segregated schooling is likely to damage minority children in ways 'unlikely ever to be undone,' how can affirmative action be unconstitutional?"
Nothing has changed in the social science or educational data to disprove the court's unanimous judicial declaration of 1954 about the devastating impact of segregation. In fact, a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University confirmed the damage that segregation is doing to minority kids. In what it calls "apartheid schools" -- including those in Detroit -- there is "enormous poverty, limited resources" and a concentration of "social and health problems." Inner-city schools are among the nation's worst.
With such patterns of racially isolated, underperforming public schools, minorities find themselves with deficits and other disadvantages when applying to college and going further.
It is no wonder that "quotas" have become, for many predominantly white, elite and competitive schools, necessary if these schools are to admit more than a minuscule number of minorities.
Conversely, the much smaller numbers (in comparison to advantaged whites) of blacks and Latinos with competitive scores and backgrounds will be in high demand -- but not available to integrate every school that vies for them.
Sooner or later, the Supreme Court will need to realize that they have themselves to blame for this apartheid situation. It is the Supreme Court itself that has pulled back and away from integration and has allowed urban school systems to become darker and poorer.
Right now, colleges are caught in the crosswinds of a storm over merit and equity. Those against "special" admissions are suing, and racial minorities are still pushing up against the gates of the academy for access, knowing that higher education is the only feasible route for them out of poverty and second-class citizenship.
But rather than own up to their judicial responsibility to place the constitution on the side of racial minorities, the conservative Supreme Court merely keeps reviewing the crudest special admissions policies, those crafted to achieve a modicum of racial diversity, admittedly through double standards for minorities.
In these circumstances of shifting and cynical judicial decisions about race and ineffective remedies to segregation, it has become next to impossible for the academy to satisfy everyone, much less comply with the unpredictable decrees as to what constitutes an acceptable inclusionary program.
Now, just one year shy of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, society has returned to "separate but unequal." The only way out of this apartheid could begin next month with a clear Supreme Court decision and mandate on the merits of affirmative action at the University of Michigan.
The court should not only affirm race-conscious affirmative-action programs, but it should also simultaneously acknowledge its own complicity in having impeded for three decades the integration of the lower schools in places like Detroit. Doing so could finally lead this nation out of complacency and denial about how apartheid in public education presents a compelling state interest to correct.
Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition (www.nycivilrights.org) and a former assistant national director of the NAACP.