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"Socioeconomic School Integration - A Response,"

by Theodore M. Shaw November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

I join Gary Orfield’s observations in response to Richard D. Kahlenburg’s article on socioeconomic school integration. I write to articulate an analysis that may be implicit in Orfield’s observations and that is absent or ignored in Kahlenburg’s. Both articles failed to confront the core of the school integration issue, whether it is defined by race or by class: white racism directed at people of African decent.

This contention flies in the face of the prevailing contemporary liberal racial paradigm, which properly eschews the exclusively black-white analysis that has dominated race relations throughout most of American history, and it stands in direct conflict with the undeniable progress achieved within the United States over the last 50 years. Most Americans undoubtedly would subscribe to the central principle of Brown v. Board of Education - that government-sponsored racial segregation and discrimination violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause and is otherwise morally reprehensible. Non-discrimination principles are irrevocably imbedded in America’s normative values in a manner that transcends the originally hypocritical Jeffersonian egalitarian vision. Americans genuinely abhor racial discrimination. Yet they cannot let go of the demon of racism, especially against black people. Thus, the paradox of race in America at the dawn of the twenty-first century is segregated integration: the edifice of formal American apartheid has been dismantled, and black Americans have achieved a level of integration their parents could only dream about, yet racial segregation remains an intractable and seemingly permanent characteristic of American life.

As a nation, we honor Brown v. Board of Education more in principle than in practice. The days of court-ordered school desegregation appear to be coming to a close. In the end, it seems that enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education was a process by which school boards that practiced racial segregation were required to achieve a degree of desegregation for a period of time, during which a judicial snapshot would reveal a picture of integration that justified judicial absolution. Once these school districts are declared unitary, the judicial fiction goes, the causal links between past segregation and discriminatory practices and the post-unitary status segregation attributed to residential segregation has been broken. Segregated demographic patterns reflecting new population growth in heavily white suburbs are deemed to be wholly unrelated to pre-unitary status conditions.

The truth about school desegregation in the United States hinges on these two facts: 1) school desegregation, even when successfully accomplished, has been limited in scope and duration by the refusal of the majority of white parents with school-age children to enroll them in public schools with significant black populations; and 2) many, if not most, white parents of school-aged children have a level of tolerance for black enrollment in their children’s schools beyond which they are unwilling to go, regardless of the economic class of those black students.

Race continues to mean something within the United States. Its meaning is distinct from, even if connected to, the significance of class. Because of a national weariness with issues of race and a misplaced vision of a civil rights struggle with a goal of color-blindness instead of racial justice, even many liberals and progressives are advocating abandonment of race- conscious policies and practices. They are wrong because class-based policies, while worthy of consideration on their own merits, are not guaranteed to reach those impacted by racial discrimination. The majority of the intended beneficiaries of such policies in this country continue to be white, and color-blind, class-conscious policies are not designed to reach black and brown people. And they are wrong because abandonment of race-conscious policies and practices is unjustified given the historical and continuing significance of race. There is no other issue on the American agenda that we propose to address by not talking about it. While Americans’ compulsive denial of historical and current realities of race is so strongly entrenched that the path of least resistance (in Kathlenburg’s case, class) is attractive, the abandonment of race conscious policies is a stunning and unwarranted surrender. We must continue to talk about the significance of race as long as race continues to be significant, and race will not become insignificant simply because we refuse to talk about it.

Socioeconomic school integration is a worthy goal, but it is not a substitute for racial desegregation. Kahlenburg’s ten reasons supporting socioeconomic school integration are undisputable; everyone wants good schools and all they bring for their children. For many white parents, good schools are those that are not too black. If we are abandoning the effort to desegregate America’s public schools and if we are comfortable in doing so, let’s be honest about it. If we are not, let’s say what we do and do what we say.

Nothing in our national experience demonstrates that public school racial integration will be accomplished serendipitously.

Notes:

Theodore M. Shaw (tshaw@naacpldf.org), a PRRAC Board member, is Associate Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

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