Washington D.C. — Civil rights leaders predicted the recent Supreme Court decision regarding race in public schools, but they are dismayed by last week's high court decision nonetheless.
On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to limit the voluntary use of race in public school desegregation, in effect undermining the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.
"What the court did today is unfortunate. This is not a good day for our country," says Ted Shaw, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund outside the court last Thursday. "The court … walks away from both the spirit and the substance of Brown and in one fell swoop overturns years of precedent."
However, the ruling is not a complete overturn of desegregation programs, Shaw added.
"The court did not, under any reading, ban all considerations of race in elementary and secondary school education," he said. "This decision today is a mile post, not an end point. This does not mean that we will be done with the issue of racial justice in this country."
The opinion of the Court, rendered by stark conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said the court would allow the use of race when there is a "compelling interest" for racial integration, but the program has to be "narrowly tailored."
The court ruled that the Seattle and Jefferson school districts involved in this case went too far.
"Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin," Roberts stated in his opinion. "The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again – even for very different reasons.
"For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle, or that have removed the vestiges of past segregation, such as Jefferson County, the way to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
Justice Kennedy, who voted with the majority, was less adamant than Roberts.
"The decision today should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds," Kennedy stated in a separate opinion. "Those entrusted with directing our public schools can bring to bear the creativity of experts, parents, administrators, and other concerned citizens to find a way to achieve the compelling interests they face without resorting to widespread governmental allocation of benefits and burdens on the basis of racial classifications."
The leaders of Seattle's schools held a press conference last Thursday morning to discuss the ruling and Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas said, "We are pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the concept of the compelling interest of the state in diverse schools and gratified that the court upheld the overall goal of local school districts taking steps to offer a racially and ethnically diverse student body. Students and families tell us how strongly they value diversity in schools and it is one of the treasures of public education in Seattle."
Manhas went on to say, "We know that there is a significant work to be done to have every school in our city achieve at a constant level of excellence. That is why we have a clear and academic vision, accompanied by realistic milestones that guide us along the way.
The children caught at the intersection of race and poverty are the children who stand to benefit the most from strong public schools and they are the children our entire community most needs to nurture so they have what they need to live up to their promise."
Civil rights leaders say they will fight back by pressing to elect a fair president. The president makes Supreme Court appointments, subject to the confirmation of the U.S. Senate.
But Supreme Court appointments are for life. They only change in the cases of retirements, resignations or deaths.
"We, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 43 members from 23 states, representing 40 million Americans will speak out and mobilize America (to) change the seat that appoints the power that rules the Supreme Court," says CBC Chairman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who also joined the group of rights leaders outside the court. "Shame on the Court, Justice Thomas included," she said of the lone Black on the court, an avowed conservative.
Harvard University law professor, Charles Ogletree, executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, said the court not only diminished the problem of segregation in public education that still exists but has possibly worsened the affects of racial segregation, such as low quality education.
"What it means is that today we are approving, at least in theory, the idea of separate and unequal education," Ogletree says.
For months, tension over the new cases by civil rights leaders has been especially high because they perceive a shrinking window for the voluntary desegregation plans. They were also anxious because swing voter Sandra Day O'Conner has retired from the court. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Roberts are the court's most ardent conservatives. David Souter, Ruth Bater Ginsburg, Breyer and Justice John Paul Stephens are considered liberals. Rights leaders had hoped that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy would emerge as the court's new swing voter. But, he did not. He joined the four conservatives, even while expressing reservations.
Some fear the ruling could send a chilling effect beyond school districts.
"Without the use of race in decision-making, polarized communities, poverty concentration, minimal corporate diversity, limited minority business initiatives and strangled affirmative action plans will become the norm," says Gary Flowers, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum. "Civil rights advocates must now turn our attention to drafting legislation to protect minorities and women. It is only through legislation that Brown's promise will remain."
—The Black Press
Skanner Reporter Monica J. Foster contributed to this story.