Why the Supreme Court Matters–Educational Apartheid

photo credit mbell, via Flickr

So Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of a Nation didn’t just make me question my own children’s educational futures in their very white schools. It also made me very, very, very angry at the Supreme Court.

In June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a potentially fatal blow to one of our nation’s most foundational court decisions and to the bedrock of educational equity in modern U.S. society. The Court overturned two lower court opinions that allow local school districts to develop and implement integration plans to achieve educational equity through racial balancing. Even more perverse than the decision itself was the fact that the conservative majority of the Court opined in its opinion that this ruling was somehow in keeping with the spirit of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and quoted from the landmark case. I hated the decision at the time, perhaps especially from my vantage point as an advocate from the home state of the Brown decision, but I grew to hate it more and more and more as I read Kozol’s forays into highly segregated schools and reflected on how the Supreme Court has, essentially, issued a ruling more in keeping with Plessy v. Ferguson, claiming that, despite all we have learned about the evils of segregation, that separate can be equal.

Segregated schools, we have to remember, are not only severe societal ills in and of themselves. They also foment division and continued injustice throughout life, both as a result of the inferior educations afforded in all-‘minority’ schools, and because, without the opportunities to learn alongside each other, today’s youth are likely to perpetuate racial division as they grow. The return of ‘apartheid schooling’ is also a moral defeat for the forces of civil rights; as one of the most visible and hardest-fought victories, its erosion today takes an inevitable toll on the continued momentum for justice. As Kozol writes, “I cannot discern the slightest hint that any vestige of the legal victory embodied in Brown v. Board of Education or the moral mandate that a generation of unselfish activists and young idealists lives and sometimes died for has survived within these schools and neighborhoods.” That’s ugly. And it has serious consequences. How can we build a thriving democracy without the full contributions of our youth of color?

Kozol’s book was published in 2005, prior to these turn-back-the-clock decisions and shortly after the related court decisions that dismantled much of the Affirmative Action framework that was starting to ensure a pipeline of highly-educated leaders of color for our classrooms and central offices and statehouses. That knowledge made me cringe, wondering how much worse things may get, now that school districts have lost some of their more effective tools for achieving integration, even against public will. Kozol is honest about the political and even practical difficulties in achieving real integration, especially in light of increasing residential segregation, and we as social justice advocates have to be also. But we also have to be honest about the costs of succumbing to these difficulties, about the destruction of young lives and entire communities, and the decimation of our hopes for a recovery from racism. And, as Kozol points out, the idea that institutionalized racism could be dismantled in the South seemed quite improbable, even impossible, 60 years ago, too.

The U.S. Supreme Court is surely not solely to blame for this resegregation of American schools. By failing to provide financial incentives for integration, or even to fully fund schools populated by students of color, Congress shares some of the fault. So, too, do urban planners and real estate developers, inadequately courageous school personnel, and suburban parents like me. But the reason that we have a judicial system in the first place is so that these crucially important issues of social justice, vulnerable to political pressures, can be decided in the light of our constitutional protections rather than the whims of the electorate or the fear of the cowardly many.

And they’re not doing their job.

So, now, rather than integration, which really was working during the very few years and in the relatively few places that it was energetically pursued, we have ‘school reform’, euphemistic and cynical attempts to give students of color as equal an education possible in a segregated environment. We smile and say that ‘money isn’t everything’ when talking about underfunded, minority-heavy schools, while fighting to the death over school funding for our kids’ schools (where, apparently, money does matter?). We intervene all the time in these schools when it comes to standards and scrutiny, but then call for ‘local control’ on issues of funding equity. We administer the same standardized tests to students of color and call it accountability, without ever holding ourselves or our elected officials accountable for providing real educational opportunities to those kids before testing day. We pretend that technology, or having an African-American President, or something else makes today fundamentally different than 1953, and that, somehow, today, separate can be equal.

We, in essence, lie, to ourselves and to our children, and the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to go along with it. And, so, when social workers wonder why the judicial system matters, or how it really impacts social policy, I wish that I could speak just in vague generalities, or speak just about the past: about Brown v. Board, about welfare rights, about those cases back then. But, unfortunately, we need look no further than our classrooms, and what our nation has decided to do to children of color.

But all is not lost. If the third branch of government isn’t going to fulfill its role, then it is again going to depend on the ultimate moral watchdog: the consciences of people of good will, those of us committed to social justice and capable of mustering moral outrage at what is surely an abomination. It wouldn’t be the first time that the purportedly apolitical Supreme Court has followed, not led, the call for justice from the streets. What we need, as Kozol persuasively states, is a good battle cry. And ‘adequacy’ isn’t going to cut it. We have to call segregation racism, and call that racism wrong, and take a stand for the future of our children, and those children we are reluctant to claim. We owe it to them, and we owe it to Linda Brown, her parents, and other warriors for justice who dared to state the obvious: separate was not, is not, and can never be equal.

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