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Racial Fairness on Trial

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-Affirmative action is on trial at the Supreme Court. Judging by the chilly reception that five of the nine justices gave it during oral arguments this week, the only question left is how far the court will go in overruling racial preferences as a constitutional way to remedy the historical damage done by racial preferences.

I do not use the P-word lightly. I have publicly debated former University of California regent Ward Connerly and others who use the word "preferences" to denounce any effort by government to remedy the historical problems of race by taking race into account.

I have defended affirmative action when employed in the judicious way that past conservative Supreme Courts have allowed it: "narrowly applied" with "strict scrutiny" when there is a "compelling state interest."

But, the Louisville and Seattle public school student assignment plans now before the court offer troubling examples of the overreaching "reverse discrimination" that affirmative action foes rail against. For those with long memories, the case of Joshua McDonald is particularly poignant. Joshua is a white Louisville student who was assigned to a kindergarten that was a 90-minute bus ride away, past a closer school which Jefferson County school officials said already had enough white students that year.

That's painfully ironic. Linda Brown, a black third grader in Topeka, Kansas, was forced to take a long bus ride to school every day past a closer neighborhood school that did not admit blacks. The landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision bears her father's name. Where have we Americans come, we must ask ourselves, when the decision to help black kids like Linda Brown who were turned away from schoolhouses in the name of segregation is used to turn Joshua McDonald away in the name of desegregation?

Worse, as Bill Cosby forcefully told civil rights leaders at the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, what have we gained when the past half-century of desegregation has failed to close the academic achievement gap between blacks and Latinos on one side and whites and Asians on the other?

Some of my fellow African Americans were offended by Cosby's candor but he spoke the truth. Close the grade and test score gap and the affirmative action debate ends. Unfortunately, we too often have seen school desegregation lead to further divisions in which black and Latino students are tracked into lower-performing classes and white and Asian students tracked toward college. That problem is bigger than buses.

Diversity is a virtue, but we need to focus on educating all kids regardless of the racial makeup in classrooms. That's going to take more than marches, pickets and "Save Brown" chants, as we saw outside the Supreme Court building this week. It's going to take a massive effort as focused and relentless as the civil rights revolution that Brown ignited.

Again, history offers important lessons. The 1971 case of Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina upheld the busing of students as an appropriate remedy for the problem of racial imbalance. But its impact was watered down three years later. That's when the Supreme Court barred forced busing across school district lines in the Milliken vs. Bradley decision, which only served to accelerate white flight to the suburbs.

Left with dwindling numbers of white students, urban districts were left to do what they should have done all along: improve their schools to lure the middle-class back. Except the cities mostly improved a few showcase "magnet" schools and left the rest to get by the best they could.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg took that route, it closed the achievement gap in reading and math well enough to be recognized by the Council of the Great City Schools as one of four top urban districts. Alas, it also was sued successfully by white parents whose children had been turned away by the magnets of their choice.

Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg's schools have continued to perform well across racial lines. Yet, in the absence of desegregation plans, enrollment by race has followed the racial patterns of neighborhoods. A similar pattern is expected to follow nationwide if the Supremes overturn Seattle and Louisville's desegregation plans.

Either way, it would not be the end of Brown vs. Board, despite the alarms sounded by some civil rights leaders. Blacks will not be returned to the back of the bus or to the "colored" waiting rooms and water fountains that humiliated my family and me in my youth.

Instead, we could be motivated, as some school districts already have been, to move to the next rational step for our liberation: the integration of low-income, low-achieving students into a higher-achieving future. It will take more than a bus for us to make that trip.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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