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School Desegregation Efforts Under Attack

The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in a pair of lawsuits that could undo much of the progress made by communities working to abolish de facto school desegregation since the 1954 Brown v. Board decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in a pair of lawsuits that could undo much of the progress made by communities working to abolish de facto school desegregation since the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. Conservative activists are seeking to halt the completely voluntary efforts by Seattle and Louisville, Ky., to promote racially integrated education. Both cities use school assignment plans based on a variety of factors, one of which is the student's race. Many other cities throughout the country also follow this practice in their magnet school programs.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other major civil rights organizations, supports voluntary assignment plans that encourage school integration. The Center underwrote a social science statement submitted in October to the Supreme Court with the signatures of 553 social scientists and researchers, urging the Court to permit the continuation of voluntary race-conscious student assignment plans in American public schools.

The Spring 2007 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine will include the following commentary on the issue by Teaching Tolerance interim director Jennifer Holladay.

Then and Now 

Visit the Department of Education's website, and you'll discover (if you didn't know already) that educational equity is among the Bush Administration's top mandates: "Because of No Child Left Behind, closing the achievement gap is now a national priority."

And yet this year, the Educator-in-Chief instructed the Justice Department to file a Supreme Court brief opposing a social practice shown, time and again, to advance life opportunities for students of color: school integration.

That's right. The "pro-minority" Bush Administration opposes the creation of racially diverse schools where students of color are most likely to thrive and where all students are most likely to learn respect for differences.

It all started with some white parents in Kentucky and Washington state who were upset that their school districts took race into account when assigning students to schools. The parents filed a lawsuit, and, on December 4, their attorneys stood before the Supreme Court and argued that the districts' practice violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The stakes are high. If race-conscious assignment plans are outlawed, segregated schooling in America will escalate, and with it the perils of a society's racism left unchecked.

As the late Justice Blackmun noted, "To get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." Persistent patterns of residential segregation (and race-neutral assignment schemes) create a two-tiered system of education in the world's greatest democracy.

As the 21st century got under way, education for African Americans was more segregated than it had been two decades earlier; one-sixth of our nation's black children attend what researchers call "apartheid schools" -- schools that are virtually all non-white and that are plagued by poverty, limited resources, social strife and health problems. Apartheid schooling also jeopardizes the futures of millions of Latino students whose educational opportunities are limited by ethnicity and class and, often, by linguistic difference.

Integration is the necessary equalizer.

In a social science brief submitted to the Court, 553 of the nation's leading researchers concluded:

Segregated minority schools... have more teachers without credentials who teach subjects in which they are not certified, more instability caused by rapid turnover of both students and faculty, more limited academic curriculum, and more exposure to crime and violence in the school's neighborhood. Accordingly, the educational outcomes in segregated schools tend to be lower in terms of scores on achievement tests and high school graduation rates… Integration prevents the educational harms for students enrolled in these schools.

The social scientists noted other benefits of integrated schooling: modest achievement gains among students of color (with no corresponding decline among white students), elevated parental involvement in schools, the enrichment of students' critical thinking skills and increased access for students of color to the social and professional networks that historically have benefited white youths alone.

Further, as the Supreme Court noted in its historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, schools have an obligation to prepare children for "good citizenship." In a diverse democracy, and in a global economy, "good citizenship" requires unlearning prejudice and embracing tolerance. Attending a diverse school is perhaps the most effective way for young people to learn these lessons.

Decades of research have proven that, when people from diverse backgrounds interact, prejudices and stereotypes can melt away. Students in integrated schools reveal higher comfort levels interacting with members of different groups, when compared to peers whose educational experiences are racially isolated.

Integrated schooling may be particularly important for white youths who are relatively unlikely to have meaningful interactions with people of color elsewhere. Research confirms that white students in integrated schools possess higher levels of racial tolerance, and recent studies conducted in seven large districts (including those targeted by the current lawsuits) found these youths better equipped to participate in diverse workplaces and in a multicultural society. Unfortunately, given the contemporary state of school segregation, few white students are afforded these opportunities. Only 14 percent of them attend multiracial schools.

Next year, our nation will honor nine black school children who braved virulent racism and angry white mobs to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. It was nearly 50 years ago -- 1957 -- and three years after the Supreme Court deemed separate schools "inherently unequal."

Then and now, integration doesn't come easily. Then and now, segregated schooling is inherently unequal. Now, let's hope the Supreme Court sees these truths just as it did then.

Jennifer Holladay is the interim director of Teaching Tolerance and the senior adviser for strategic affairs at the Southern Poverty Law Center.