Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Race in Schools: A Move Beyond Integration to Diversity

Many journalists have categorized the recent decision regarding race-based assignments in high schools as a win for conservatives. After all the decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, seems to turn back the clock on progress that has been made regarding race and race relations in the United States.

Yet summing up the decision in so many words is not that simple. The 185 page decision is quite nuanced. The conservative plurality authored by CJ Roberts, and joined by Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy is quite careful in not striking down any race based means of achieving the high school's end goal of creating a diverse student body, but only goes so far as to say that purely race based means of doing so are unconstitutional. The opinion does not overturn any past precedent, but merely serves to clarify it. Kennedy's concurrence serves to emphasize this distinction.

He says:

"This Nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated societythat ensures equal opportunity for all of its children. A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district, in its discretion and expertise, may choose to pursue. Likewise, a district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered. What the government is not permitted to do, absent a showing of necessity not made here, is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification. Crude measures of this sort threaten to reduce children to racial chits valued and traded according to one school’s supply and another’s demand."

Both liberals and conservatives should agree that this crude classification of children solely on the basis of race is unconstitutional. It goes against the very meaning of the Equal Protection Clause. It would also go against the very individualized method of review that the Court in Grutter approved. The court made it explicit in the two University of Michigan affirmative action cases that the reason for approving one system of review and striking down another was the more individualized method of review where race was not equated with diversity, but one of many factors that could contribute to the meaning of diversity. Justice Kennedy should be applauded for upholding and making special note of this precedent, even though he did not join in the majority's opinion in Grutter.

The decision conforms to what much of Bakke, Grutter, and Gratz have told us over the past 30 years. The days of pure race based integration measures for simply remedying for the effects of past discrimination are over. We have moved beyond integration for the sole purposes of integration. Integration serves a new goal now. That new goal is diversity. The goal, it appears, serves a dual purpose: 1) increasing education and tolerance among members of society and 2) remedying for the effects of past discrimination.

While remedying for the effects of past discrimination may not be necessary anymore at some point (as O'Connor prophetically said in Grutter that affirmative action measures would be expected to end in 25 years), it seems that as long as there is a society that values education and tolerance, race will be an ever present factor in discussions about diversity and society will never truly be colorblind.

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