The Supreme Court Just Took Us Back to the Days of Segregation
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In a 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday, the Supreme Court told local school districts that they cannot take even modest steps to overcome residential segregation and ensure that schools within their diverse cities themselves remain racially mixed unless they can prove that such classifications are narrowly tailored to achieve specific educational benefits. But they swear they haven't overturned Brown v. Board of Education. Writes the Chief Justice:
Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again.even for very different reasons. For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle, or that have removed the vestiges of past segregation, such as Jefferson County, the way to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis ... is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
To which, in sad dissent, Justice Stevens responded:
There is a cruel irony in The Chief Justice's reliance on our decision in Brown v. Board of Education , 349 U. S. 294 (1955). The first sentence in the concluding paragraph of his opinion states: "Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin." This sentence reminds me of Anatole France's observation: "[T]he majestic equality of the la[w], forbid[s] rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread." The Chief Justice fails to note that it was only black schoolchildren who were so ordered; indeed, the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools. In this and other ways, The Chief Justice rewrites the history of one of this Court's most important decisions....
The Court has changed significantly since it decided School Comm. of Boston in 1968. It was then more faithful to Brown and more respectful of our precedent than it is today. It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision.
The court's 185 page opinion is here, and I'm still digesting it. Judge Kennedy concurred in the result but not in parts of the opinion, holding that eradicating racial isolation could be a compelling interest, but that the school districts had not proven the need for racial classifications here. [The other four conservative justices held that racial balance, as a goal in and of itself, can never be constitutionally valid.] Otherwise, he bloviates: "Under our Constitution the individual, child or adult, can find his own identity, can define her own persona, without state intervention that classifies on the basis of his race or the color of her skin."
In another separate concurrence, Justice Thomas explains that schools in which blacks are racially isolated might actually be a good thing for such students, and gets snippy with the Court's liberals: "Regardless of what Justice Breyer's goals might be, this Court does not sit to 'create a society that includes all Americans' or to solve the problems of 'troubled inner city schooling'. We are not social engineers. The United States Constitution dictates that local governments cannot make decisions on the basis of race. Consequently, regardless of the perceived negative effects of racial imbalance, I will not defer to legislative majorities where the Constitution forbids it.... Justice Breyer's good intentions, which I do not doubt, have the shelf life of Justice Breyer's tenure. Unlike the dissenters, I am unwilling to delegate my constitutional responsibilities to local school boards and allow them to experiment with race-based decisionmaking on the assumption that their intentions will forever remain as good as Justice Breyer's."
Both Seattle and Louisville are racially diverse cities, although not each neighborhood is a diverse one. So to ensure that the schools within their districts each remains representative of the city as a whole, the cities have used race as a factor in determining school assignments so that no school bends too far away from the city's overall demographics in its composition. In Seattle, for example, schools that are at least 55 percent white give preference to nonwhite applicants, and those that are at least 75 percent nonwhite give preference to whites.
Today's decision is a conservative activist one, gutting Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny and supplanting local school districts' ability to determine what's best for their students. As Justice Breyer's opinion on behalf of the four dissenters begins, and it's a majestic one:
These cases consider the longstanding efforts of two local school boards to integrate their public schools. The school board plans before us resemble many others adopted in the last 50 years by primary and secondary schools throughout the Nation. All of those plans represent local efforts to bring about the kind of racially integrated education that Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954), long ago promised -- efforts that this Court has repeatedly required, permitted, and encouraged local authorities to undertake. This Court has recognized that the public interests at stake in such cases are "compelling." We have approved of "narrowly tailored" plans that are no less race-conscious than the plans before us. And we have understood that the Constitution permits local communities to adopt desegregation plans even where it does not require them to do so.
The plurality pays inadequate attention to this law, to past opinions' rationales, their language, and the contexts in which they arise. As a result, it 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 racerelated litigation, and it undermines Brown's promise of integrated primary and secondary education that local communities have sought to make a reality. This cannot be justified in the name of the Equal Protection Clause.
But to further understand why this was wrong, you also need to look at the appellate court that reviewed the Seattle plan and approved of it, with some of the strongest praise coming from libertarian darling Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee (edited for clarity):
When the government seeks to use racial classifications to oppress blacks or other minorities, no conceivable justification will be sufficiently compelling.... When government seeks to segregate the races , the courts will look with great skepticism at the justifications offered in support of such programs, and will reject them when they reflect assumptions about the conduct of individuals based on their race or skin color.... Programs seeking to help minorities by giving them preferences in contracting, see, e.g., Adarand, and education, see, e.g., Bakke, benign though they may be in their motivations, pit the races against each other, and cast doubts on the ability of minorities to compete with the majority on an equal footing.
The Seattle plan suffers none of these defects. It certainly is not meant to oppress minorities, nor does it have that effect. No race is turned away from government service or services. The plan does not segregate the races; to the contrary, it seeks to promote integration. There is no attempt to give members of particular races political power based on skin color. There is no competition between the races, and no race is given a preference over another. That a student is denied the school of his choice may be disappointing, but it carries no racial stigma and says nothing at all about that individual’s aptitude or ability. ...
It is difficult to deny the importance of teaching children, during their formative years, how to deal respectfully and collegially with peers of different races. Whether one would call this a compelling interest or merely a highly rational one strikes me as little more than semantics. The reality is that attitudes and patterns of interaction are developed early in life and, in a multicultural and diverse society such as ours, there is great value in developing the ability to interact successfully with individuals who are very different from oneself. It is important for the individual student, to be sure, but it is also vitally important for us as a society. ... The school environment forces students both to compete and cooperate in the classroom, as well as during extracurricular activities ranging from football to forensics. Schoolmates often become friends, rivals and romantic partners; learning to deal with individuals of different races in these various capacities cannot help but foster the live-and-let-live spirit that is the essence of the American experience. I believe this is a rational objective for an educational system—every bit as rational as teaching the three Rs, advanced chemistry or driver’s education. Schools, after all, don’t simply prepare students for further education, though they certainly can and should do that; good schools prepare students for life, by instilling skills and attitudes that will serve them long after their first year of college.