In the publishing industry, it’s customary to pre-write the obituaries of famous people who, due to either age or ill-health, are expected to die soon. Then, when death occurs, the obituary is ready to go.
Unfortunately, an obituary pre-write is needed for the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court took aim at a major structure of Jim Crow racism and outlawed separate- but-equal schools for blacks and whites.
Over the years, the Court has so chipped away at Brown that it is a mere shell of a decision, honored in speeches every Martin Luther King Jr. holiday but ignored in practice 365 days of the year.
By summer, the Court is expected to issue a ruling that will get rid of even the shell. Brown will die.
The decision involves voluntary integration plans in Seattle and Louisville that have been challenged because race is one of several factors used to maintain diversity as students are assigned to schools. Few expect the court to uphold the Louisville and Seattle efforts.
“The only question was how far the court would go in ruling such plans unconstitutional,” the New York Times noted after the Dec. 4 oral arguments.
The significance of the cases goes beyond schools. As Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, has noted, opponents of voluntary integration make an argument that “if followed to its logical end, would make it illegal and unconstitutional in this country to do anything voluntarily and consciously about racial inequality.”
Shaw was one of several commentators at a November gathering in Washington to discuss the Supreme Court cases. At the meeting, Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, articulated the prevailing conservative view that those who promote race-conscious integration policies are no different than the segregationists of old because both make determinations based on skin color. What’s more, conservatives argue, race-conscious policies are no longer necessary because the United States is becoming a multiracial, multiethnic society.
But, as Shaw responded, “This country has always been a multiracial, multiethnic society. The problem in this country has never been mere race consciousness. It has been white supremacy.”
There is “no symmetry, moral or legal,” Shaw continued, between the race-consciousness of those struggling against institutions of white supremacy and the race-conscious discrimination of those who believe in the superiority of white people. The first is used to include, integrate, and promote equality for all, while the second is used to exclude, segregate, and subordinate those deemed inferior.
The seriousness of the Supreme Court’s likely U-turn on school integration is particularly apparent in the Louisville case. The school system had been under a federal court desegregation order from 1975 to 2000 — in other words, the courts mandated a race-conscious desegregation plan. When that court order expired, the district voluntarily adopted a plan to prevent resegregation. That plan is now under attack.
One of the most galling aspects of the attack is that conservatives are using the historically specific demands of Brown and the civil rights movement — that no one should be denied equal opportunity on the basis of the color of their skin — to argue against the substance of Brown and to bolster white supremacist policies that lock African Americans into segregated, inferior schools.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg most articulately picked up on the Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to the oral arguments. “What’s constitutionally required one day gets constitutionally prohibited the next day,” she noted. “That’s very odd.”
Meanwhile, every year U.S. schools are increasingly segregated.
Given the Court’s hostility to race-conscious efforts to promote equality, the debate will of necessity have to focus on new ways to struggle against segregated schools. Merely decrying the Court’s direction is insufficient.
There are no easy answers, but clearly the debate must evolve. Public education plays a central role in our society. Just because the Court may declare voluntary integration policies illegal does not mean teachers and schools can give up the fight against white supremacy and racial inequality.