Does it matter whether schools are desegregated?

The Supreme Court?s decision undermining school diversity and desegregation in the cases Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District and Meredith v Jefferson County raises a series of questions including the general direction of the Court, whether to believe judicial nominees during their questioning by the Senate, as well as matters of strategy. There is also a question that is implicit in all of this: does it matter whether schools are desegregated?

I pose this question in part because of the different ways that terms such as ?integration? and ?segregation? are thrown around. The mainstream usage of these terms seems to run something like this:

Segregation: separate

Integration: the mixing of people of color with whites

Thus, the discussion focuses more on the morality of whether different racial and ethnic groups mix or choose to remain separate, and particularly whether non-whites can be inserted into majority white realities. Countless times, for instance, I have heard commentators discuss segregated housing in terms of people choosing to live among their own, as if the situation is entirely or even mainly voluntary.

Segregation is a system of the forced and enforced separation of people carried out either directly by the government or through non-governmental actors in a racist society, in which there exists, by definition, a racial differential in treatment of one group over another. It is not a voluntary decision, i.e., it is not a matter of some sort of self-determination. Segregation, historically, whether in de jure or de facto terms, was introduced in the USA through force of violence. Those who challenged the color line or ethnic lines generally speaking faced vicious repression. Segregation did not have to be a formal law. In the case of housing segregation, for instance, the documentary record is clear beyond doubt that realtors, mortgage companies and banks conspired to ensure that African Americans could not move into certain neighborhoods and that whites were often not permitted to sell to African Americans. This has also been the case with the denial of the freedom of movement for other peoples of color.

School segregation, then, is not simply or mainly about the restriction of people of color to particular schools. It is the denial of equal opportunity, resources (including funds) and freedom of movement to such students. It is and has been the practice that has denied students of color the ability to fairly enter schools of their choice, including private schools that have restricted who could attend.

Understood in this manner, the Supreme Court decision is not a decision that is mainly about the ability to mix students of different races and ethnic backgrounds. It is a counter-assault on those who have argued that the system of de facto school segregation must be challenged because it tends to result in a racist differential in treatment, resources, etc., for white students vs. students of color. In this sense, the main point should never be whether students of color and whites sit together. While one may believe that this is morally a good, the more critical question is whether the actuality of segregation means that there is a racist differential in treatment.

In large part due to the means through which schools tend to be funded, i.e., property taxes, funding at the local level, there is a near guarantee that where there is housing segregation, there will be school segregation. The tax base in communities of color will nearly always be less than that of white communities. While there are certainly some areas of the USA where there are higher income people of color, and therefore a higher tax base, one does not develop a policy based on social anomalies. One looks at the general tendency.

The Supreme Court?s ruling was a ruling in favor of de facto segregation, a point about which we must be very clear. As such it raises some critical strategic questions. If segregation is a system of forced and enforced separation of peoples connected to a racial differential in treatment, as I have argued, then segregation?as a system?remains an evil that must be confronted. This is not an argument against community control. It is, however, an argument against efforts to prop up racist oppression in the name of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution, or in the name of local rights.

A discussion of strategy has already begun in the aftermath of the Supreme Court?s decision. Into this discussion I would suggest inserting a few possibilities, which I will delineate here:

A constitutional amendment on free and equal education for all students funded by the Federal government: Borrowing from Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., there is a need for a Constitutional amendment that guarantees that all students have a right to free and equal public education. Education should not be funded at the local level, relying on property taxes and the discretion of local officials, but should be a national right.

Housing segregation must be tackled: Housing segregation has always been an enforced reality in the USA. Particularly since World War II and the suburbanization of the USA, housing segregation jumped in scale and scope. The restrictions on loans, the choice of housing development sites, and myriad of other vehicles enforced housing segregation. Thus, the demand for housing desegregation has never been about ?forcing people to live together? but rather ensuring the right of any person to live where they wish under the same terms as other people living in that same area. If one links housing segregation and school segregation, it therefore becomes critical that there are both economic development plans for economically depressed neighborhoods along with the right of individuals to move to those neighborhoods, counties, etc., to which they wish to move.

The Supreme Court?s decision, then, must be understood in terms of a continuing right-wing assault, all done in the name of individual rights. This assault, in various ways, undermines the public domain and the right of the public domain to construct means and methods to address the legacy and continuing reality of racist discrimination. After all, if one believes, as does the Supreme Court majority, that racist discrimination and segregation are things of the past, why tamper with Nirvana?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and can be reached at [email protected]

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