Thursday, January 13, 2011

Segregation Forever

Wake County, North Carolina, has been long renowned as one of racial integration's few enduring success stories. But it's looking like that chapter will come to an end, as a newly elected Tea Party school board is planning to eliminate the district's integration efforts, instead (I'm not kidding) promoting a policy of concentrating poor and underprivileged students in a few schools, isolated from other pupils.

You look at the rhetoric here -- "no to the social engineers", opposition to "forced busing" -- it's literally a mimicry of the first wave of putatively "post-racial" opposition to school integration that we saw in the 1970s. The kindest thing you can say about this board is that it is indifferent to the project of educating underprivileged children (the idea that schools chock-full of concentrated poverty would be better for those kids is so far removed from empirical observation of what makes for effective schools that I'd laugh if I wasn't so angry. It's the sort of claim that would strain the credibility even of a credible speaker, which this school board is not). The least kind thing you could say is that they are taking affirmative steps to dismantle one of America's great civil rights stories.

The other thing I want to point out is what one might call (or I might soon be calling -- I've been kicking this idea around for awhile) "oppression realism". The great legal realist Karl Llewellyn had a famous article, Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decision and the Rules of Cannons About How Statutes are to be Construed, 3 VAND. L. REV. 395 (1950), in which he demonstrated that for any canon of statutory construction, there was an equal and opposite "counter-canon" that could be used to interpret the statute in the precisely opposing way. Hence, judges have exceptionally broad latitude to interpret statutes however they please while still writing opinions that are perfectly "legalistic", in the sense of adhering to well-established legal conventions of how judges ought to behave.

And so it seems, sometimes, with our publicly stated desires for how we want minorities to act in our society. There is no stability to the requests, they are infinitely malleable to account for whatever particular policy outcome folks want to impress on a racialized issue. Out in Tuscon, Arizona, the right-wing is calling folks who support ethnic studies programs "Bull Connors" because they're "segregating". So apparently, what we want is mixing -- all blending together as Americans. Except back in North Carolina, we hear the exact opposite criticism: As one "libertarian" think tanker (lord only knows what libertarianism has to do with this) put it: "We are losing sight of the educational mission of schools to make them into some socially acceptable melting pot." Oh yes, the melting pot -- that longstanding bane of the conservative racial vision. Integration, separation -- which is it? Nobody knows. It's Calvinball.

I have to contrast this move by Wake County to the reaction of the denizens of Walthall County, Mississippi, when they found out that their "school transfer" policy was being struck down as contributing to school resegregation. One White parent, who had always considered the transfer issue to be a simple matter of student happiness, not race, reflected on the upshot of the policy: "But if all that adds up to segregated schools?" he asked, and then paused for a while. "That wouldn't be right, no."

It was a poignant moment for me, when I read that quote. Nobody's perfect, and nobody should be expected to measure out all ends. The measure of man is that, when faced with the consequences of their actions, they are willing to stand for justice. But over in Wake County, they are taking affirmative steps to undo racial justice -- deliberately seeking to turn back the clock decades. It's tremendously sad.

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Superdestroyer said...
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