Monday, May 21, 2012

Desegregation Nostalgia

In “Making Schools Work,” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, David L. Kirp repeats a tale repeatedly told by Gary Orfield and the other advocates of the racial redistribution of public school students through “command and control” techniques. According to this story, coercive redistribution of students was a wonderful success until abandoned in the 1980s. We could repeat this success if only we would return to the policies of earlier years.
One of the problems with this story is that the resegregation of schools resulted, at least in part, from white families and later middle class black families fleeing from school districts in order to escape judicially directed desegregation, leaving the most disadvantaged minority students behind. At the same time, whites decreased as a proportion of public school students in general so that nearly half of all public school students in the U.S. were non-white by 2010. In urban areas, whites were under one-fourth of all public school students. In school districts around the United States that have large minority populations and especially in districts that have large low-income minority populations, there just aren’t enough white students to go around in order to achieve any kind of effective desegregation.
The principle that schools should not discriminate against minority students was a genuine accomplishment of the post-Brown era. However, desegregation failed to re-design American society not only because of its own unintended consequences, such as middle class flight, but also because the courts from the beginning did not embrace that hubristic goal. As early as the 1968 Green v County School Board of New Kent County Virginia decision, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that desegregation was to undo the damage of de jure segregation, not to remake society. The Green decision also stated that desegregation mandates must be limited in time and must have temporal endpoints. The Court reiterated these points over the course of the following decades, notably in Pasadena v Spangler in 1976 and in Oklahoma City v McDowell in 1991.
At the end of his essay, Kirp speculates that “[i]n theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount fo integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries…” Anything that we would like to imagine is possible in theory, but, based on past history, I’d suggest that any amount of cross-boundary movement substantial enough to make a difference would result in new waves of flight out of suburban schools near large cities into private schools and more distant suburbs. However, Kirp and I are unlikely to have practical tests of our competing theories. As early as 1974, long before the Court supposedly turned its back on desegregation, the Supreme Court recognized in Miliken v Bradley that the courts cannot order desegregation strategies across district boundaries. Forcing school districts to accept students from families that do not vote for district school board representatives and who do not pay local taxes for schools was pretty clearly unconstitutional, even during what Dr. Kirp recalls as the golden age of desegregation.

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