Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief Personal History

When I started high school, there had been three high schools in my small Texas town: two white, one black. The year I started high school, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a Federal Judge ordered the black school closed and the two white schools integrated. The school I went to was "Robert E. Lee," and the school mascot, not surprisingly, was the Rebel.

By the next year there was a small fight (we called it a "riot" at the time) which closed about half the school (it was during one of four lunch periods; few of the students in class knew what was going on) for the day, and engendered some very bad feelings that night at the football game, and generally left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. After that, the school gave up the Rebels, the giant Confederate Battle Flag, and all the "Dixie" insignias, including that song as the school fight song (although the school song still mentioned the school colors: "...the red is for courage, the white for purity." The word "white" was always shouted belligerantly by the whites at pep rallies and school assemblies when the school song was played). I don't know how things are now in that school, although when I moved to Austin ten years later, the Most Liberal Town In Texas was still struggling with the issue of integration (and far less successfully, I'm ashamed to say). Since then, I understand, Brown v. Board of Education has been waning as the law of the land (the school district I live in now has five high schools, one predominantly black, but that fact doesn't seem to bother Federal judges anymore); I know there has been much notice paid to the decline of that ruling, but that's beyond the scope of my knowledge here.

And so here comes the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, in one of two rulings handed down today:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. authored the most important opinion of his two terms leading the court. He held that both plans, which categorize students on the basis of race and use that in making school assignments, violate the constitution's promise of equal protection, even if the goal is integration of the schools.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote.
Now, to be fair, I haven't read the ruling, only the article about it, and this language may be mere dicta, Justice Roberts' personal opinion and not ruling law in any way. But I read that language, plucked out by the Washington Post as significant (and I don't disagree), and I think: "On what planet?"

It would be great, of course, to stop discriminating on the basis of race by not discriminating on the basis of race, but how, exactly, do you do that without freezing the status quo? The school district I live in now has, as I mentioned, five high schools. The "best" high schools (in terms of test scores) are in the whitest, wealthiest part of the district. The "black" high school is in the poorest, "darkest" part of the district. The schools are fairly evenly funded, I'm sure; but there's no question the "black" high school needs far more help, far more support, far more attention, than the "white" high schools get. Is it discriminated against? Not in the sense the black high school in my hometown was. There is no longer quite the same "seperate but equal" standard that once existed. But does that mean no discrimination occurs at all?

The very assertion is laughable. You know, we have a rather extensive history of racism in this country which hasn't been completely erased simply because Burger King runs an ad where Sean Combs rouses the white franchise operator from his house to open the local BK so Mr. Combs and his krewe can get burgers late at night. I know Clarence Thomas made a mockery of the concept with his allegations of an "electronic lynching" (what does that even mean?) during his confirmation hearins, but the lynching of black men was a public spectacle within the scope of the past century, and was not uncommon as recently as 40 years ago. So when the Chief Justice pens a groundless and pointless tautology that really signifies absolutely nothing, I have to wonder again:

On what planet?

It is a breathtakingly stupid comment. I know it's been paraded by know-nothing pundits and empty-headed reactionaries for a decade or more now. But to see it being offered in seriousness by a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court...well, I think I'd rather read Annie Dillard on theodicy ("Holy the Firm"). There is more comfort (and sense!) in her work than I am finding in the news. Time to turn it off and return to meditation. As Thomas Merton said of the Desert Fathers, when all human society is in chaos, sometimes the only response is to grab a bit of flotsam in the flood and hang on for dear life.

That's what I'm doing to do now.

Addendum: it just gets worse. The NPR story on this case when it was argued notes:

Her lawyer, Teddy Gordon, says that does not change the fact that the school board's race-conscious student assignment plan is unconstitutional. He claims it "is a pure quota," adding, "We've color coded children."
Which, of course, we did do, once. Now it's a matter of whose ox is being gored. Sorry, that argument doesn't pass the smell test. And then there's the reality of America post-Brown v. Board of Education:

PTA board member Mary Myers says the race-conscious assignment plan has ... equalized school resources. "My children do not have to sit next to a white child to learn," she says, "but they need the resources of that school," and under this system, "they all get the same resources."

What's more, she says, diversity is more than a word: "I just like to see that 'cause I'm 48 years old, and came from a segregated school system."

Haddad, the school board member, echoes that sentiment. "Children see other children differently than they saw back in 1975..." she says. "They like all the kids. They don't differentiate between them, and I think that is really, really important as they grow up into the real world."
That is very true. I grew up very aware of race, and of differences based on race. My daughter doesn't recognize the differences I did. That is what is important.

Chief Justice Roberts would return us to the world I grew up in. As the war protestors used to say in my childhood: "Hell, no! We won't go!" The other encouraging bit of this: the Supreme Court is very out of step with the country:

What the parents want is important, the school board says. It points to the fact that white students were fleeing the Louisville public schools by the thousands until the board adopted a plan in the mid-1980s that combined race-conscious student assignment with choice. Suddenly, school attendance stabilized.

Indeed, racial concentration in Louisville's public schools has decreased, in contrast to a rise nationally. A survey conducted by the University of Kentucky found 77 percent of Louisville parents favoring the guidelines, even though it means that a majority of the children are bused, often from one end of the sprawling school district to the other. The reason for the guidelines' popularity, says PTA President Paula Wolf, is that there are so many different programs and approaches to educating children offered throughout the district.
The people are far ahead of the "leadership" which would lead them backwards.


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