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Facing Race: Beyond the Supreme Court

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July 3rd, 2007

By Guest Blogger Tammy Johnson

Last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision on school desegregation efforts headlined every major paper, newscast and blog across the country. Even if you only gave passing notice to the news, you got their message. The highest court of the land is divided on the issue of race, and as a result we now have to tiptoe around the problem of desegregation schools. But that was only half the story. The real story is embedded in the reality of naming race as an issue.

Last week the media, as it usually does, threw out a lot of important words and concepts with limited definitions and context. Words like “diversity,” “race-consciousness,” “discrimination,” and “colorblindness” were all key to describing the impact of this decision. What was not said was even more important, as each word is loaded with historic, legal and social baggage that Americans have carried for decades, if not centuries.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” said Chief Justice Roberts, speaking for Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Discrimination is a term that is loosely thrown about by many without really understanding its more discerning legal standard. Legally proving discrimination, of any type, means jumping an ever-rising bar of proving intent. During this same session the Robert’s Court ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear that a woman now has just 180 days to prove that her employer intended to discriminate against her. Although Goodyear dealt with gender discrimination and the Seattle and Louisville cases with race and schools, both raised the bar proof and remedy to absurd heights. This makes Justice Roberts’ matter-of-fact tone around racial discrimination ironic at best, and disastrous at worst.

Washington University Constitutional Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos puts it best when he says, “Chief Justice Roberts is making an awfully doubtful empirical assertion here, without providing any empirical evidence. And the normative premise that school districts must take private discrimination as they find it, with their hands tied from responding to it, seems to me totally unjustifiable.”

Then there is the question of diversity. In her 2007 film A Girl Like Me, 17-year-old Kiri Davis reprises psychologist Kenneth Clark’s doll experiment, where Black children repeatedly choose the “prettier” white dolls to one of their own race. Because it so starkly illustrated the psychological impact of segregation, the study provided a sociological underpinning for the Brown ruling. But post-Brown we have learned a hard lesson. There can be diversity without equity. We know from countless studies that even fully and partially integrated schools experience racial “achievement gaps” and other disparities across race. Diversity as a solution primarily addresses the symptoms of racism––with the goal of minimizing racial tensions and maximizing people’s ability to get along. That’s a good and worthy goal, but not good enough. If we want to ensure equity, and that all children get what they need, then that requires strategies and solutions that consciously deal with race. Who has access to high quality teachers, curriculum, funding and all the particulars needed for schools that are conducive to learning, are difficult questions that must be asked and answered.

And this leads us to the ever-growing insistence on adopting a so-called colorblind approach to our nation’s racial problems, a notion regularly espoused by conservative commentators. This doctrine posits that if you negate race as an issue, then there will be no racism or racial discrimination. It assumes that racism is just a remnant of past wrongs. It’s an individual act of a few bad apples. It’s something that we had better just get over. But here again, fact trumps fiction. Again, countless studies and investigations have exposed that institutional racism is alive and thriving in almost every industry and governmental service you can name, from the redlining of whole communities by insurance agencies, to the tracking of students of color as district policy. The reality –- often ignored by corporate media but exposed regularly in independent magazines such as ColorLines — is that, intentional or not, institutions through their policies, practices and power oftentimes advantage and disadvantage whole groups of people along racial lines.

A good example of this was a major class-size reduction initiative that was implemented in California’s public schools in the early 1990s. The new law provided state money to any school that was ready to reduce its classes in the primary grades. But schools that predominately served students of color didn’t have the additional classroom space needed in order to take advantage of the policy. The unintended effect was to create a mass flight of qualified teachers from urban poor schools to white suburban schools, leaving schools that serve mainly students of color with a glut of emergency-permitted, underqualified teachers. Now, students of color in the high-need schools are now even worse off because issues of racial equity were never sufficiently addressed in an explicit way when developing this new policy.

This is why our final word of the day, “race-consciousness,” is so very important. Only by confronting the issue head on, will we be able to begin to address the centuries of harm done by and to our nation. Being race-conscious is not about assigning blame. It’s about crafting solutions that fit the need: racial equity. It’s about putting the components in place that allows everyone to meet their full potential through a path of their own choosing, instead of a de facto course assigned by history. That is racial justice. A first step toward real justice would be cleaning up the public debate around race and public policy. That requires more probing media investigations that take race seriously, and are willing to tell the stories of communities of color that demand solutions that address the causes and the impact of racism in our society.

Guest blogger Tammy Johnson , the Director of the Race and Public Policy Program (RAPP) of the Applied Research Center (ARC), has many years experience as a community organizer, trainer and writer versed in race and public policy.

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