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The Perils Of Ignoring Race

June 30, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

Pardon me if I get a little testy about court rulings that deal with race, integration and public education.

As we debate the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling, understand that there's never been the political will to execute meaningful, comprehensive changes to correct racial inequities in schools.

Fifty-three years after a landmark Supreme Court decision ordered school desegregation, rapid re-segregation is taking place in public schools - even as America grows increasingly diverse. The achievement gap, really more of a preparation gap, between white students and their black and Latino peers has widened.

Eleven years after the 1996 Sheff v. O'Neill landmark verdict ordered Connecticut to desegregate Hartford's poverty-addled schools, the city's student population is actually more segregated. Plaintiffs once again had to return to the courts to order the state to act with more urgency - or, if you will, "all deliberate speed."

The May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education decision helped trigger the civil rights movement. A new generation of advocates pushed for rights for women, the disabled, gays and lesbians.

Sheff also was an offshoot of Brown. It argued successfully that the concentration of poor in Hartford was unconstitutional because it created inferior schools. That there was even a Sheff verdict, 42 years after Brown, was a reminder that the Supreme Court's "all deliberate speed" edict in Brown was openly defied.

The Brown decision was supposed to right a terrible wrong - government-sanctioned segregation. The schools were separate, but certainly not equal. The ruling never fully lived up to expectations.

"There seems to be resistance to affirmative action only when it applies to actions on behalf of underprivileged populations," said Eugene Leach of West Hartford, a parent-plaintiff in Sheff and a Trinity College history professor.

Leach notes that court rulings are not just legal exercises, "they influence public opinion as well."

This week's high court decision tells America that it values ethnic diversity - sort of - but wants to limit the use of race in promoting it. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John Roberts opined.

But no school - or business or municipality, for that matter - can pretend that it wants to achieve diverse ranks without making race and ethnicity a prominent consideration. It's like saying you want to add more fiber to your diet, then ignoring bran muffins.

Hartford tried to play the language game when, in response to Sheff, it opened magnet schools. The city encourages "suburban" students to apply.

But the suburban students it's getting are mostly blacks and Latinos. What Hartford really wants are more white students. With a school population that is 95 percent non-white, that's understandable. So, just say it.

Under the Supreme Court ruling, if Hartford gave stronger consideration to a white student applying for a slot in its mostly black and Latino schools, that would be wrong. Educators in Louisville and Seattle would also be wrong, the court said, to factor in a student's race when developing their diversity plans. Instead, the suggestion is that "income" and home addresses could be used as proxies for dealing with remedies to racial inequities.

Fine. As long as we understand that side-stepping race has gotten us to this muddled point.

And what's not open to interpretation is that public schools are segregating as our country grows more diverse.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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