When the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregated public schools violated the Constitution, it was obvious that the schools had to be "desegregated."
But since 1954 there has been continuing confusion about exactly what it means for schools to be desegregated. This confusion has produced court decisions and public policies that, far from putting racism behind us, have made race a more and more important factor in public life and political discourse.
The Supreme Court argued that assigning black children to separate schools would cause inferiority feelings in those children. Inferiority feelings, in turn, would discourage those children from trying to learn. Since learning requires active effort, these feelings would undermine the education, and hence the life prospects, of minority children. Therefore, contrary to the Court's 1896 decision upholding "separate but equal" railroad cars in Plessy v. Furguson, separate public schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court did not argue that black children could only learn if they attended schools in which there were also white students. Indeed, such an argument would itself have had troubling and quite possibly racist implications. If we read its 1954 and 1955 followup decisions carefully, it appears that the Supreme Court only required eliminating dual schools systems, one system with schools for white children and a separate one for black children.
When Brown v. Board was decided there were, as there are today, "racially identifiable" neighborhoods in many cities. These neighborhoods reflected several factors, including socio-economic differences, racially discriminatory real estate firms, and perhaps "birds of a feather" preferences of many people (black and white) to live with neighbors who looked like themselves. These racially-identifiable neighborhoods meant that if dual school systems were replaced, as properly demanded by the Supreme Court, with a single system of neighborhood schools, many students would henceforth be attending schools in which most if not all students were of their own race.
But black students would not have been assigned to these schools on the basis of their race. So, according to the Supreme Court's logic, attending such schools would not have produced the inferiority feelings that discourage educational attainment.
To avoid inadequate financial support for neighborhood schools predominantly filled with minority children, a requirement of equal per student funding for all schools in a city would have been reasonable.
The courts, however, went far beyond the Supreme Court's rationale in Brown v. Board of Education, and began insisting not only that public schools be desegregated, but that they be integrated. It was assumed that the opposite of segregation was integration, and integration ultimately was interpreted to mean that the racial composition of each neighborhood school should reflect the racial makeup of a city's overall population.
The pursuit of integration then led to busing in pursuit of "racial balance" in all the schools, "white flight," and big city schools predominantly populated by minority students anyway. As interpreted by well-meaning journalists and other observers, these schools were "re-segregated" because they were not integrated.
The fundamental mistake in this whole tragic situation was the assumption that the opposite of segregation is integration. Integration, however, is not the opposite of segregation. The actual opposite of segregation is assignment to schools without any reference to the student's race at all, one way or the other.
Integration and segregation both assign students to schools on the basis of their race. True, they do it for opposite purposes. Segregation aims at separation, at apart-ness (or apartheid, as it was called in racist South Africa). Integration aims at togetherness, at "racial balance."
But both of these policies treat people on the basis of their race. They both assume that race is a legitimate factor in deciding how to treat people. Since I believe that racist stereotyping reflects extremely confused thinking, I must vehemently disagree with this assumption.
Segregation and integration both make a child's race a basis for deciding how to treat that person. Both reinforce our unfortunate natural inclination to sort people into categories that have nothing to do with their merits. They undermine achieving the goal stated by Martin Luther King a decade later when he said that "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
As the Supreme Court said in its second decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1955), which discussed how to implement its first decision, school boards needed "to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a non-racial basis . . . " It is too bad that everybody did not take that statement literally.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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