Legal Affairs July 2007

Is There a Middle Ground on Race?

The Supreme Court decision on school integration illustrates the pitfalls of both the conservative and the liberal approaches to the problem of race.

The dissenters accurately stressed that Seattle had reduced its reliance on race over time, ending up with a program that allowed all students to choose among 10 high schools but denied some their choices in order to engineer a prescribed racial mix. But the result was a program that produced only marginal increases in integration.

The program did not even touch elementary or middle schools, where the benefits of integration would be most profound. It barely touched Seattle's two poorest, nearly all-black high schools. And when it was suspended because of lawsuits, the racial composition of Ballard High School (for one) barely budged. Between 2000, when race-based assignments were used, to 2005, when they were not, Ballard went from 10.8 percent to 9 percent black; from 10.7 to 11.7 percent Latino; from 17.5 to 14.2 percent Asian; and from 56.4 to 62.3 percent Caucasian.

For such tiny gains, officials adopted a program with glaring flaws:

  • It imposed serious burdens on individual children in pursuit of a social-engineering goal that did no other child much good. An honor student named Andy Meeks, for example, asked to be placed in and was qualified for Ballard High's special Biotechnology Career Academy, which seemed the best place for him to thrive despite his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. But because he was white, he was denied his first choice (and his second, and his third) and assigned to a school that he could reach only by taking three city buses, with a round-trip commute of more than four hours a day.
  • The district "has failed to explain why, in a district composed of a diversity of races, with fewer than half of its students classified as 'white,' it has employed the crude racial categories of 'white' and 'non-white' as the basis for its assignment decisions," as Kennedy stressed.
  • The program invited manipulation by allowing families to change their self-selected racial designations in order to go to the head of the line for assignment to their preferred schools. And some schools clearly had academic programs that others lacked.
  • The school district has blessed a K-8 "African-American Academy" that is designed to be almost all-black so as to "increase academic achievement." As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in a concurrence, "Of course, if the Seattle school board were truly committed to the notion that diversity leads directly to educational benefits, [this] would be a shocking dereliction of its duty to educate the students enrolled in that school."
  • One "desegregation and diversity" bureaucrat provided a taste of the political correctness that pervades the Seattle school system by posting on the schools' website (until a few months ago) assertions that only whites can be racists and that "cultural racism" includes "emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology," "defining one form of English as standard," and "having a future time orientation."
  • This PC mind-set may help explain why Seattle has never seriously explored the most promising—and legally bulletproof—way to promote integration without discriminating based on race. That is to give underprivileged students, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, the opportunity to transfer to (mostly white) middle-class schools. (See my December 9, 2006, NJ column.)
  • All nine justices seemed equally uninterested in this socioeconomic-integration alternative, which is now used by some 40 school districts that educate about 2.5 million students. I hope that this does not reflect the complacency of some conservatives about the isolation of poor children in inferior schools. I also hope that it does not reflect the preference of some liberals for making politically correct gestures about race over finding solutions that work.

    Presented by

    Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor for National Journal, is teaching a course on the news media and the law at Stanford Law School.

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