Let's Talk about the Future of Diversity

NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Columbia University Team up with the Schomburg Center for a Conversation on the State of Affirmative Action

Editor's note:

Published in the New York Amsterdam News.

Theodore M. Shaw and Lee C. Bollinger
May 10, 2007

On May 17, we will honor the fifty-third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court, pressed by Thurgood Marshall, shook the pillars of segregation in announcing its new and resounding principle that “separate is inherently unequal.” This May is once again a month of reckoning; and as much as we would like to celebrate this shared past, we must also remain vigilant as the Court gets ready to issue opinions in two public school cases that threaten to chip away at Brown’s legacy of racial justice and diversity. If successful, both cases -- Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Crystal Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education -- will ban local districts from implementing voluntary desegregation programs that seek to maintain racial balance in our schools while counteracting the worst resegregation crisis we have faced since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

The stakes could not be higher; and with Samuel Alito’s recent replacement of Sandra Day O’Connor – who authored the majority opinions in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) affirming the importance of diversity as a compelling justification for affirmative action – the outcome could not be more uncertain.

The numbers are disturbing. According to the 2000 census, only 14% of white students attend multiracial schools (schools with at least three races each representing 10% or more of the total student population), while nearly 40% of both black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools in with a 90-100% minority student population. These figures are inextricably linked to economic segregation. Nationally, almost 50% of all black and Latino students attend schools in which three-quarters or more students are poor, compared to only 5% of white students; and in schools of extreme poverty, 80% of the students are black and Latino.

No one benefits from such radical resegregation. The isolation of white students prevents them from learning with and from those with different backgrounds – making it more difficult for them to understand those who are different from themselves or to learn how to thrive in racially diverse settings as adults. Conversely, minority students in segregated schools encounter weaker academic offerings and are too often cut off from integrated networks that improve access to jobs and college admission. Not surprisingly, the nation’s high dropout rate crisis is concentrated in segregated high schools in big cities.

The K-12 voluntary integration programs before the Court attempt to remedy this situation. Adopted by local, democratically-elected school boards, these initiatives represent a milestone in the nation’s long and arduous quest to make real Brown’s core equal opportunity principle.

Yet at oral argument in December, detractors urged the Court to apply the “strict scrutiny” test it had outline in the affirmative action cases we argued, because, they maintained, it is unfair for school officials to consider race when assigning students within a district – even if it is done to achieve the very goals of integration that Brown envisioned.

This is a perverse reading of the Court’s jurisprudence. Worse, it threatens to unravel everything for which Brown stands. While the Court in Brown was emphatic in outlawing the use of race for segregative purposes, it never suggested that race-conscious integrative student assignments violated the Equal Protection Clause. To do so would have undermined its efforts to heal the Jim Crow America that Plessy had legitimized decades before.

Since then, courts have been clear that local school districts have every freedom to implement integration programs that go beyond the Constitutional floor that Brown established in 1954. The only thing they may not do is slide back toward segregation.

"In these times, it is easy for ordinary people to wonder if they can make a tangible difference in the long struggle for justice."

Today, in many school districts across the country – including those before the current Court – voluntary integration programs have become the last best hope for overcoming just that: intense residential segregation and concentrated poverty. It is not too much to say that they represent all that is left of Brown.

Yet these cases are not the only challenges we face in education today. In fact, as soon as the ink dried on the Court’s opinions upholding affirmative action as a constitutional matter, its opponents scrambled to undo it. Unfortunately, they appear to be succeeding.

Just last November, a majority of voters in Michigan joined California and Washington as the third state to pass a ballot measure to dismantle all public affirmative action programs. Doing so assures that their great public universities will become less diverse. As a result, they will also become less attractive options for potential students who recognize that living and studying with classmates from a diverse range of backgrounds is essential training for an increasingly global world – one that rewards those with the instinct to reach out instead of clinging to the comforts of what seems natural or familiar.

It is also vital for establishing a cohesive, truly national society – one in which rising generations learn to overcome the biases they absorb as children while also appreciating the unique talents their colleagues bring to any equation. Only education can get us there. As Thurgood Marshall knew so well: “The law can open doors and knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same.”

All of this is under siege now. At the elementary and secondary school levels, resegregation is making it exceedingly difficult for minority students to access the resources that inspire rising generations to apply to and then attend college. At the same time, the elimination of affirmative action programs at our public universities is keeping admissions officials from lifting these same students up in order to offset the structural inequalities they had to face in getting there.

What will, and what should happen next to diversity programs in our country?We hope you will join former mayor David Dinkins and us to explore that question this coming May 24 when we bring together a host of lively group of legal experts at the Schomburg Center to discuss the future of affirmative action in American education. The program is co-sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Columbia University in partnership with the Schomburg.

In these times, it is easy for ordinary people to wonder if they can make a tangible difference in the long struggle for justice. Yet as uncertain as the future feels at this moment, the history of this month reminds us that good things happen when ordinary citizens – like Oliver Brown and the other parents of Topeka, Kansas, who contacted their local NAACP chapter all those years ago – come together to listen, talk, and work together for an America of true equal opportunity. We still believe in that America, and hope you will join us at the Schomburg on May 24 to discuss how to make the promise of Brown real for all our students at every level of education in our country.