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EDITORIAL
Back to separate but equal

July 6, 2007 | Page 2

GEORGE BUSH'S right-wing Supreme Court made good on what so many expected of it with a series of rulings that attack school integration, free speech rights, a woman's right to abortion and equal pay.

As a growing number of people turn left on any number of social policies, according to opinion polls, the Supreme Court justices are turning back--toward the 19th century.

The culmination of the Court's session came June 28 with a 5-4 ruling that turned its back on the promise made more than 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education--that racist segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and measures to end it had to be put in place.

The justices invalidated moderate attempts at voluntary integration in public schools in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., on the grounds that using students' race to determine their place in a school--even if the goal is racially integrating schools--violates the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection.

Writing for the five-justice conservative majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that at the "heart of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the government must treat citizens as individuals, not as simply components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class."

That's remarkably close to "separate but equal" doctrine that Brown explicitly struck down--enshrined in the Court's racist 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which made segregation lawful as long as some mythical standard of equality was maintained at the segregated institutions.

Institutionalized racism is appearing ever more clearly in U.S. society, from the prison population to unemployment rates to public schools.

As Jonathon Kozol, author of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, said in an interview last year, "If you took a photograph of a typical classroom I visited, it would be indistinguishable from a photograph of a school in Mississippi in 1935 or 1940. Segregation has returned to public education with a vengeance. The percentage of Black kids who now go to integrated schools has dropped to its lowest level since the death of Dr. King in 1968."

But, Kozol added, "the press tends recklessly to tell the public that integration was a failure. In fact, this is a gross distortion of history. Integration, during the period of its enforcement, roughly from 1965 to 1990--because it took about a decade before Brown was seriously enforced--was a spectacular success...During that period, the so-called achievement gap between Black and Brown children, on the one hand, and white children, on the other, narrowed dramatically."

School integration doesn't just happen. It has to be enforced. Jefferson County in Kentucky, one of the school districts in question in the Court's ruling, is a case in point. After implementing its program, reported the New York Times, "It now has some of the most integrated schools in the nation, keeping Black enrollment in most schools between 15 percent and 50 percent by encouraging, and occasionally obliging, white students to attend schools in Black neighborhoods and Black students to attend schools in white ones."

"I have been so proud of Louisville's very diverse school system," Fran Ellers, a white parent who sends her kids to a school in a Black neighborhood, told the Times. "My son has a group of buddies from all over the county, and they're Black and white, and only one is from our neighborhood. Going back to neighborhood schools would be a big loss."

About 1,000 out of the 15,000 school systems in the U.S. use race in some way to decide where kids go to school. "We are going to see a major increase in racial segregation that will cause our children to be less prepared to live in our diverse society," said Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University's Teachers College.

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THE ATTACK on school integration is part of a decades-long assault on the gains of the civil right movement--with affirmative action programs becoming a favorite object of abuse for the right wing.

The Court's ruling last week replays, in many ways, the charges of "reverse racism" and "preferential treatment" of minorities from the 1978 Bakke case, in which a white man successfully proved he was "discriminated against" for his race when applying to a University of California medical school. The Court's decision in the Bakke case left affirmative action technically intact, but banned so-called "racial quotas."

But the reality is that it's impossible to track and enforce desegregation efforts without counting the number of students who are minorities and measuring whether there has been progress--what the right denounces as "quotas."

Not only did concrete conditions for Blacks improve as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but racial attitudes in U.S. society as a whole changed dramatically.

Despite the rightward shift in official politics--given concrete expression in the Supreme Court under John Roberts, packed with Neanderthal right wingers--social attitudes in general have continued to grow more tolerant.

According to the Pew Research Center's two-decade survey of trends in attitudes, "divides on some once-contentious issues also appear to be closing." Thus, in 1995, 58 percent of people said they favored affirmative action programs designed to help Blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs. By 2007, that percentage had risen to 70 percent.

The Supreme Court's rightward shift will stoke greater anger among people who see the "highest court in the land" siding with the rich, and making excuses for bigotry. The challenge is to channel that anger into concrete struggles that can demand a different agenda.

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