Revolution #95, July 15, 2007
U.S. Supreme Court Fortifies The Savage Inequalities
On June 28, by a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court—headed by the Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts—struck down school admission policies in Seattle and Louisville that used students’ race as a factor to maintain diversity in individual schools.
Make no mistake about it: this ruling is a savage attack on the rights of Black people in this country. It signals an official turning back from even a pretense of a commitment to end white supremacy in the public schools, and it virtually removes the ability of people to use the courts to do that. And it will lend strength to every racist and reactionary in this country, sending a signal of approval from the highest court of the land.
What They Are Reversing
To understand why and how this is so, we need to look at the ruling that was overturned in all but name: Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown that overtly, openly segregated school districts were illegal. Prior to that point, American schools were, especially but not only in the South, segregated by law and by lynch mobs. Black people were forced by law into substandard and dehumanizing schools. And this kind of state-enforced segregation, the Supreme Court had declared in an earlier 1896 decision, was consistent with the U.S. Constitution.
Brown reversed all this. By a 9-0 margin the Supreme Court now held that attempts to label segregated education as “separate but equal” were fraudulent and violated the Constitution. And it called for the schools to be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” This decision was a result of pressure from below, especially the anger of increasingly urbanized Black people in the cities of the North and South. And it was an attempt to improve the image of the United States around the world at a time when U.S. imperialism was sinking its claws into Asia, Africa, and Latin America and trying to sell itself as the beacon of freedom and democracy.
Brown vs. Board of Education set off massive changes in the United States. People around the country (and around the world) watched as courageous Black students defied howling mobs, racist politicians, and vicious police who sought to bar their entry into schools. But it quickly became clear that simply ending the “separate but equal” standard in education would not bring about any real changes. White supremacy was too deeply embedded in every aspect of American society. So struggle continued to rage, and in some places the courts ordered plans that would take into account and attempt to overcome segregated housing patterns, unequal taxation, etc. Even though these concessions always fell far short of what was needed, they still had significance. The movie Remember the Titans gives a sense both of how fiercely such plans were resisted—and how, once the schools were desegregated, it both opened up opportunities for Black students and also enabled some of the whites to begin to overcome the racist and white supremacist attitudes they had been brought up with.
But all this ran up smack up against just how deeply white supremacy is embedded in society. Despite two decades of courageous struggle, where many gave their lives, only a dent was made in the societal patterns of school segregation. By the 1970s, the system had unleashed the “backlash.” Politicians and media fanned and promoted deep-seated views among white people that their economic and social problems were the fault not of the system and those who control society, but of people even more oppressed and exploited than themselves.
For the past 30 years or so, what gains were made in the struggle to integrate schools, and society as a whole, have been under attack—often in the form of claims that whatever small progress was made in remedying still-overwhelming and pervasive segregation constitutes “reverse discrimination.” But through all that, it was still accepted law that the courts had to attempt to remedy discrimination, segregation, and inequality.
Now, in its June 28 ruling, this Supreme Court has slammed and all but locked the door on any efforts to challenge school segregation through the courts.
Think about it. What does that decision, and the whole history that underlies it, say about the depths of the white supremacy that permeates every fiber of America? And what does it say about the determination of the highest court in the land, and the government more generally, to now fortify all that?
What kind of a statement is this about the kind of future this system has for Black people and other oppressed peoples? What does it say about the kind of society this is, and is becoming more starkly every day?
The Supreme Court Ruling
The Louisville plan overturned by the Supreme Court required each school to have a minimum Black student enrollment of 15 percent and a maximum of 50 percent. In Seattle, the plan used the students’ nationality as a “tie breaker” for admissions into schools where more students applied than there were slots, in order to keep the schools from deviating more than 10 percent from the overall balance of whites and nonwhite students in the school district.
Both the Seattle and Louisville programs had been upheld by lower federal courts. And they are similar to plans in place in school districts around the country—which are now deemed unlawful under the Supreme Court ruling. An attorney for the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation--which was involved in the suit against the Seattle program and has similar suits against school districts in Los Angeles and Berkeley—crowed that the Court decision could affect 1,000 school districts.
By declaring that school districts now cannot use race as a factor in desegregation plans (when any such plan by definition would have to rely on “racial criteria” to have any meaning), this Supreme Court ruling is slamming the door on even the most modest integration plans.
As for the little ray of hope supposedly held out because one justice, Anthony Kennedy, wrote a separate opinion holding the door open for some even more limited desegregation plans, that was little more than a fig-leaf to cover over the real nature of what is going down. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, “Let's not grasp at straws here. While Kennedy kept the court from definitively shutting the door on school integration, it's clear what direction we're headed.”
The Hypocrisy and Cynicism of Invoking the “Colorblind” Standard
In an act of obscene hypocrisy and heartless cynicism, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race" and school desegregation went against a “colorblind” Constitution.
This invocation of “colorblind” is hypocritical because race affects everything in this society, cutting across economic lines, and impacting everything from what happens when your car is pulled over by the police to what kind of medical care you get, to where you can live. If you “don’t take race into account” in assigning schools, kids will go to school where they live. And where they live is very much dependent on their nationality.
Postwar America was profoundly stamped by government policies that subsidized loans for whites to move to the suburbs, and prohibited loans for people to move into integrated communities. An article in the New York Times noted that “The initial leases in Levittown [New York], America's pioneering post-World War II suburb, announced in bold capital letters that its homes were not to be ‘used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.’” (“Study Calls L.I. Most Segregated Suburb,” NYT, 6/5/07).
And these conditions continue today, even if in slightly (slightly!) covered-over forms. In the same New York Times article, commenting on discrimination in housing on Long Island, New York, today, Andrew Beveridge, a Queens College sociologist, told the New York Times that ''It's almost like a township in the South African sense.”
So “colorblind” schools are, in reality, profoundly segregated schools. You can say that white and Black students all must meet the same criteria to get into an elite magnet high school. But when one student comes from an inner city prison-like “school” without computers, a library, a debate club or a cadre of parent activists with time and money to donate materials and volunteer resources, then the application of “equal” criteria reproduces and re-enforces segregation.
African-American constitutional scholar and NYU law professor Derrick Bell told Revolution, “It is quite easy to design policies that discriminate without mentioning race, such as standardized SAT and LSAT tests and legacy admission policies.”
Bell added, “Most black and Latino children reside in large, urban districts where the assignment procedures struck down in the Seattle-Louisville case would have little meaning.” But now even the limited relevance of plans like those of Louisville and Seattle are too much! Again, what do both those things—that such plans would not even apply in most cities because there are so few whites and that even those plans are to be struck down—tell you about where things are headed?
Segregated Schools in a Segregated Society
All kinds of factors have created this situation—both the relentless and destructive impact of the capitalist system, and also the conscious work of those who run that system to promote segregation and white supremacy. The beginning steps to integrate school systems that followed the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education hastened the overall trend of post-WW 2 “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs. In the cities, tax bases dried up and slumlords cashed in.
Meanwhile, global expansion of U.S. capitalism-imperialism moved jobs from the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the auto plants of Detroit, and rubber factories of Akron to Asia and Latin America. Exploiting a desperately unemployed inner-city workforce, in the ’80s the dope trade was allowed to explode and even encouraged by the CIA, as crack cocaine flooded the streets. And in line with all this, the system built jails, not schools, and criminalized a whole generation.
And as the workings of the system laid waste to the communities with concentrations of Black people, white supremacist politicians and ideologues, echoed by Bill Cosby, blamed the shocking and cruel conditions in the inner cities on the victims.
Savage Inequalities in Education
Meanwhile, for millions of African Americans and other oppressed people in the U.S., “school” is a rotting shell of a building with metal detectors, non-working restrooms, and “teaching” that prepares a few of them to do nothing but pass a test.
Jonathan Kozol has dedicated his life to studying, writing about, and fighting what he calls “savage inequalities” in U.S. education. Kozol wrote an article in 2005 called “Overcoming Apartheid” (The Nation, 12/19/05) where he characterized the state of school segregation: “Hypersegregated inner-city schools—in which one finds no more than five or ten white children, at the very most, within a student population of as many as 3,000—are the norm, not the exception, in most northern urban areas today.”
Kozol cited statistics showing that schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968. The four states with the most segregated schools are New York, Michigan, Illinois, and California. In New York, far from the “deep South,” only one Black student in seven goes to a non-segregated school.
And this inequality is amplified inside segregated schools. In another article, “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid,” in Harpers magazine (9/05), Kozol wrote, “The present per-pupil spending level in the New York City schools is $11,700, which may be compared with a per-pupil spending level in excess of $22,000 in the well-to-do suburban district of Manhasset, Long Island.” That huge gap—almost twice is spent on suburban students than on those in New York City—is compounded by the vastly greater needs of inner-city students for resources like computers and books.
What Country Are You Living In?…And What Are You Going to Do About It?
In 2007, if you were going to implement a school desegregation plan to overcome inequality, even on the level of the initial attempts at school desegregation, you would need a much more drastic desegregation plan than those that were implemented in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. You would have to have a plan that addressed the profoundly more intense segregation in society, with its division between the suburbs, exurbs, and gentrified urban enclaves on the one hand, and the teeming inner cities devoid of jobs, social services, and schools on the other.
In the face of this, the Supreme Court—speaking for the powers-that-be—has given an answer. Forget it! There isn’t going to be any desegregation.
On one level, this is a vicious declaration that the lives of millions of Black children have little value, that these children are to be penned in and locked down in schools that, as we’ve documented previously, are like prisons. On another level, it’s an admission that this system has no answer for the oppression of Black people. The same conclusion that so many drew in the ’60s, but then in many cases lost their grip on, now asserts itself with even more force: there is no solution for this short of revolution.
In an editorial on the court’s ruling, the Toledo Blade wrote, “Americans who believe in a diverse society, racial tolerance, and equal opportunity may be wondering what country they live in, now that the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have repudiated half a century of social change.” (July 7, 2007)
Well then… “Americans who believe in a diverse society, racial tolerance, and equal opportunity” now need to wake up and take a deep and searching look at the country they live in and the system they live under. And as they do, they need to do everything they can to stop the current direction of things.
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