The Applied Research Center is dismayed by today’s decision from the United States Supreme Court (pdf file) to overturn lower court rulings allowing the districts of Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky to use race in making school assignments. This decision is especially disappointing, given that the majority of the Court affirmed race as an important factor to consider in educational equity and school integration. For more than half a century, the moral compass of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education has guided our nation toward integration and equal treatment. The Court’s conservative bloc has led us backwards.
The 5-4 decision included Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, said that schools should use factors other than race to achieve racial inclusion. Roberts wrote: “[In Brown] it was not the inequality of facilities but the fact of legally separating children based on race on which the Court relied to find a constitutional violation.”
This is a disingenuous use of Brown against desegregation efforts. As they were 50 years ago, racial segregation and unequal facilities remain closely linked. In California, for example, a state that ranks number one in school segregation among Blacks and Latinos, 75 percent of high school seniors of color will not complete the courses they need to enroll in the state’s public colleges.
Brown has been relentlessly attacked by its opponents for five decades. As they worked to repeal and rewrite the mandate through constant legal and legislative challenges, segregation has been on the rise. Schools are now more segregated than they were 30 years ago. The need for race-explicit integration programs is as urgent now as ever.
We appreciate the dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote that the majority opinion “reverses course and reaches the wrong conclusion. In doing so, it distorts precedent, it misapplies the relevant constitutional principles, it announces legal rules that will obstruct efforts by state and local governments to deal effectively with the growing resegregation of public schools, it threatens to substitute for present calm a disruptive round of race-related litigation.” We also note that Justice Anthony Kennedy, although he joined the majority, validated the idea that race can be a factor if used narrowly to ensure integrated schools.
Racial segregation in schools results from discrimination against people of color in housing and employment. Sharply divided living and working conditions produce similarly divided educational systems. It is folly to accept the majority’s assertion that a situation created through highly calculated social engineering can somehow be reversed through spontaneous individual choices about where to send one’s child to school.
The strength of Brown was its insistence on explicitly confronting race as a critical factor shaping access to quality education. The conservative justices have corroded this critical tool. Although the nation’s highest court may be divided on this issue, communities, school administrators, and elected officials must rededicate themselves to addressing the discriminatory policies that continue to leave students of color separate and unequal.