News & Election Videos
Election 2008 Democrats | Republicans | General Election: Heads-to-Heads | Latest Polls


Time to Move Beyond Race-Based Plans

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- You could call it the law of unintended consequences.

Last week, in a 5-4 decision, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court struck down voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville and decreed that race can't be used to achieve diversity in K-12 education.

You don't have to agree with the decision, or how the justices arrived at it, to see the silver lining. In fact, you could say that the conservatives on the court did minorities a favor.

For one thing, the decision forces everyone to think about whether such race-based solutions, while essential a few decades ago, have outlived their usefulness. What is needed today are higher standards, stricter accountability, and an end to excuses for why some students don't excel as much as others. Segregation is a legal relic of the past, but what President Bush has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" lives on.

The decision also gives African-Americans and Latinos the opportunity to get off the defensive and begin a frank discussion within their own communities about whether some of these race-based programs have ended up hurting the very people they were intended to help by undermining neighborhood schools, preserving inequitable funding and masking the need for comprehensive education reform. In the mix, we should include school choice vouchers for disadvantaged students in failing schools, many of whom happen to be minorities.

Lastly, the decision opens the door to what is sure to come next: further scrutiny about racial preferences in college and university admissions and whether they also hurt intended beneficiaries by lowering standards, easing up on accountability and covering up the failings of the education system at the K-12 level. As long as decent numbers of African-Americans and Latinos continue to be admitted to college thanks to racial preferences, we may never get around to asking why more of them aren't given the tools to be admitted on the natural.

Yet, even though I'm glad about where the justices arrived, I'm having a tough time understanding how they got there. The court said you can't consider race to achieve diversity in schools. That's like saying that flour can't be used to make pastry. How do you achieve racial diversity without taking account of race? Diversity isn't something that occurs organically, and people who think otherwise probably aren't the sort who value it in the first place.

That's the impression I have of the two newest additions to the court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. In 1983, while working as a junior lawyer in the Reagan White House, Roberts wrote a memo where he criticized as "highly objectionable" efforts by states to promote affirmative action for women and offset what he called "perceived problems of gender discrimination." Alito later angled for a job with the Reagan Justice Department by bragging about his membership in an outfit called Concerned Alumni of Princeton, whose founders and board members opposed affirmative action and argued that the university had lowered its standards to admit women and minorities.

Funny, I've been on the Princeton campus a few times and I never got the sense that the place was being overrun by women and minorities or that white males were something akin to an endangered species.

Nor will I buy the argument that these cases from Louisville and Seattle are the moral equivalent of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Take Crystal Meredith, a white parent who sued in Louisville because her son was twice denied the chance to attend the school nearest his home. Louisville schools had been slow to integrate despite decades of monitoring by the federal courts. School officials insisted that they had to stick to their voluntary desegregation plan for the sake of the greater good. Meredith was not persuaded. Perhaps understandably, as a parent, all she cared about was that her own child was inconvenienced.

Oh brother. You want inconvenience? Try walking a mile in the shoes of those minority kids that the Louisville desegregation plan was designed to empower.

It's time to move beyond these sorts of plans. But let's at least be clear about why we're doing so. And it's not because we have a new generation of civil rights victims. Rather, it's because we have to find new ways to continue to provide opportunities for the old victims.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Sphere: Related Content | Email | Print | AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Sponsored Links
 Ruben Navarrette
Ruben Navarrette
Author Archive