So, I hinted on the Weblog that I might do some posts on affirmative action here and, well, that's what I'm about to do. The issue is a hot topic now as the Supreme Court just heard cases on this subject. Dahlia Lithwick tells the story in Slate. There are plenty of other sources for comment as well.
I'm a firm believer in affirmative action and I think it is underutilized in today's America. I work in civil rights, fair housing specifically, and I know from my daily work that people of color, women, and people with disabilities do not have the same opportunities that their more privileged counterparts enjoy.
The Supreme Court case is about school desegregation. Unlike other forms of desegregation, racially mixed schools have been a high priority for government and community leaders ever since Brown 52 years ago. However, the history of school desegregation since Brown has largely been one of slow movement to integrate, followed by a serious Supreme Court setback against integration, followed by re-segregation to a point where predominantly minority schools are worse today than they were in 1954.
When Brown was decided, many southern school districts were the first targets of desegregation. However, segregated schools could be found throughout the nation. The primary difference being that southern states and cities had laws encouraging segregation while northern and midwestern states and cities simply had enforced housing patterns that created segregated school districts. The southern districts delayed integration as long as possible. Some never integrated until the 1980s. The northern districts took a long time too.
In Detroit, there was a case that made its way to the Supreme Court. Milliken v. Bradley dealt a huge blow to integration efforts. The narrow 5-4 decision declared that "[w]ith no showing of significant violation by the 53 outlying school districts and no evidence of any interdistrict violation or effect," there could be no interjurisdictional remedy. This was a short-sighted ruling for a number of reasons. For one, it did not account for the "passive" resistance to integration of suburban communities (and their corresponding school districts). Also, it did not account for the fact that no real integration effort could be attained solely within the City of Detroit. Finally, it provided near-sovereignty to schools districts in a way that had never previously been given to local governments. The result was prototypical pattern of segregation that persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s -- an urban/suburban dichotomy.
After Milliken, desegregation efforts were limited at best. For instance, Chicago Public Schools has a white population of less than 10% of its students. Whites have largely abandoned the public school system for private schools. Thus, even though CPS works toward desegregation, its best case scenario would be to have white students make up 8% of each school.
The pattern of segregation has changed a bit since the 1980s. Now, many suburban communities and school districts face the same dilemmas that Chicago faces. They have very small white populations. Worse, yet, they have very limited fiscal resources due to disinvestment from the business community. Meanwhile, their small populations make them ineligible for direct federal funding.
As a result, the current segregation in schools is worse than it ever has been. Meanwhile middle class minorities have had some success moving out of predominantly minority communities.
Thus, those minority school districts are also poor school districts.
The Louisville case is especially important here. Louisville has a metropolitan government. This should make Milliken's ban on interjurisdictional remedies irrelevant. But, in both cases, there needs to be some acceptance that because people have unequal opportunity due to their race, there necessarily needs to be corrective measures in place to provide equal opportunity to minorities and other protected persons.