Separate and Unequal

"Now segregation seems almost to be the order of the day. We don't have many people who believe that integration's even possible or worth attempting anymore, not in the government at least. You don't hear it from the president or other leaders here in Washington. You don't hear it being mentioned in political campaigns. We've made a mockery of the decision of the court in 1954 and yet we continue to commemorate its anniversaries." &endash; US Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), quoted by Jonathan Kozol, Shame of the Nation

Chief Justice John Roberts wants us to believe that the US Supreme Court is standing up for a color-blind society. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote in a June opinion that determined the voluntary desegregation plans in use in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., to be unconstitutional.

Writing for a four-judge plurality in the 5-4 decision (Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate, concurring opinion) that in June struck down what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called the "racial aspects of student assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.," the chief justice twisted the court's historic 1954 Brown ruling, which ordered an end to segregation in the public school's declaring that Brown stood for color-blindness.

"Before Brown," he wrote, "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."

But Brown was not about "color-blindness." It was about eradicating a system of state-sanctioned segregation, a system that allowed local school districts, municipalities and states to create separate schools to serve black and white students. The Warren court ruled in Brown that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and that segregated facilities "deprived (students) of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment."

Conservative jurists and politicians long have viewed the Brown decision with derision and they have worked diligently over the years to change the terms of debate from integration and equality to color-blindness.

But "color-blindness" is not the issue. The phrase, while alluding to an altruistic goal, is really nothing more than code among conservatives for allowing the racial status quo to remain in place.

As Gary Ikeda, general counsel for the Seattle school district, told the Post-Intelligencer in June after the court issued its ruling: "We have had a racially neutral student assignment system for the past five years, and our fears of having schools become more segregated have become fulfilled."

Patricia J. Williams, writing in The Nation in July, explains the conservative attitude as meaning "that any openness to race as a social factor is by itself the vice of prejudice. Diversity, rather than being the product of color-blindness, is now a pernicious form of color-consciousness, no matter whether in pursuit of integration or segregation."

Complicating matters has been the voluntary segregation of neighborhoods that has developed over the year, a trend in which social and economic class has come to stand in for race. Blacks and Latinos are not excluded from the new suburbs, necessarily, but because a much larger portion of blacks and Latinos tend to be poor or lower-working class they end up being excluded anyway.

This has resulted in a pattern of school segregation that the author Jonathan Kozol, in his 2005 book The Shame of the Nation, calls "apartheid schooling." The assumption among the public, he writes, is that segregation has "gradually, but steadily, diminished in more recent years."

"The truth, unhappily, is that the trend, for well over a decade now, has been precisely the reverse," he writes. "Schools that were already deeply segregated 25 or 30 years ago, like most of the schools I visit in the Bronx, are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools that had been integrated either voluntarily or by the force of law have since been rapidly resegregating both in northern districts and in broad expanses of the South."

With this resegregration comes the same problems that faced students in the segregated South of the past -- and a slew of new ones. Schools that are majority black and Latino, according to Kozol and many national studies, tend to receive less funding, rely on less-qualified teachers and are forced to meet punitive "standards" that turn urban schools into testing academies where little creative learning take place. Plus, these schools are forced to deal with a concentration of social ills -- poverty, hunger, drugs, crime, broken families &endash; that tend to bleed into the schools, exacerbating the already difficult circumstances.

The answer, unfortunately, is not equalizing funding -- politics and state budgets make this a tenuous option on which to pin our hopes -- but a recommitment to integrating American society.

"Integration is, it still remains, the goal worth fighting for," Rep. Lewis told Kozol. "You should be fighting for it. We should be fighting for it. It is something good unto itself, apart from all the other arguments that can be made. This nation needs to be a family, and a family sits down for its dinner at a table, and we all deserve to have a place together at that table. And our children deserve to have a place together in their schools and classrooms, and they need to have that opportunity while they're still children, while they're in those years of innocence."

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in New Jersey. E-mail See

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2007

Home Page 

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.