When Crystal Meredith moved into the Louisville, Ky., school district five years ago, she chose to enroll her son Joshua McDonald in a public school. The closest one was already full, so administrators assigned him to a school 10 miles from his home. Preferring not to subject a kindergartener to a commute, Meredith applied to a nearby school that was not yet full.
But though there was room in the school, there was no room for Joshua. Admitting him, administrators decreed, "would have an adverse effect on desegregation compliance." His request was rejected because he was the wrong color: white.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down the use of race in assigning public school students in Seattle and Louisville. In the aftermath, there was considerable debate about the abstract legal principles being contested. But at bottom, the case was about whether it's permissible to close the schoolhouse door on a child because of his race.
Most of us would say no. The Supreme Court has previously said the same thing. In 1955, in the second of its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decisions abolishing segregated schools, it unanimously concluded that "racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional" and that "all provisions of federal, state or local law requiring or permitting such discrimination must yield to this principle."
Yet when this new verdict came down, assorted congressional Democrats condemned it not just as bad jurisprudence, but as a tragic departure from those precedents. "Today," declared Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), "the court turned its back on the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education that students of different racial backgrounds deserve an opportunity to attend school together." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who found the decision "appalling," asserted that since Brown, "it has been settled law that the Constitution requires racially mixed schools."
In fact, what the court ordered back then was not "racially mixed schools." What it ordered was the removal of laws and policies prohibiting racially mixed schools. The principle it upheld was nondiscrimination -- which would often (but not always) lead to racial integration.
In any event, what the Seattle and Louisville school districts were aiming at went beyond achieving integration to enforce a rigid racial "balance" in every school. Had Joshua been allowed to go where his mother requested, no one would have been denied the chance to attend a school made up of kids of different races.
At Franklin High School in Seattle, noted Chief Justice John Roberts, the use of race meant that the racial composition of the 2000-2001 freshman class was 30 percent Asian-American, 40 percent white and 22 percent black. Without it, the breakdown would have been 40 percent Asian-American, 21 percent white and 30 percent black -- not exactly the resurrection of Jim Crow. In neither district did the racial "tiebreaker" affect more than a tiny number of students. Integration was secure without the use of color-coding.
In other efforts to assure racial equality, we have managed to avoid inflexible racial quotas. The ban on discrimination in housing doesn't mean every town or every neighborhood has to be racially diverse. The law against discrimination in public accommodations doesn't mean restaurants have to turn patrons away because they would tilt the balance too far one way. In those realms, we recognize that, as Roberts wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
By continuing to discriminate, schools are apt to impede progress toward a color-blind society. Imagine a district that assigned students by religion -- to assure that Christians would be at least 50 percent of any student body, that Jews would not exceed 15 percent, and that Muslims would make up at least 3 percent.
Would that formula break down religious barriers? On the contrary, it would strengthen walls by encouraging students to see themselves and others as members of categories rather than individuals. By being blind to religion, we foster religious equality.
The real educational problems faced by minority kids today are not lack of white students to sit by but inadequate choice, lack of order, a shortage of good teachers and families who don't make a priority of learning. Most parents, given a choice between racially balanced schools and safe, sound schools, would unhesitatingly choose the latter. In the wake of this decision, education officials can now focus more on what's really important.
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