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|Posted July 2, 2007|
Can a Law Change A Society?
|A New Day On the steps of the Supreme Court after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.|
By JEFFREY ROSEN
SINCE 1954, liberal and conservative justices have disagreed about the central meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. Was the purpose of Brown to achieve a colorblind society or an integrated one? Last week, in its 5-to-4 decision declaring that public schools in Louisville and Seattle cant take explicit account of race to achieve integration, the Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of colorblindness. Despite some important qualifications by Justice Anthony Kennedy, at least four conservative justices made clear that they believe that nearly all racial classifications are unconstitutional.
|What Brown v. Board of Education began, Lyndon Johnson had to carry out.|
The lawyers who won the Supreme Court case predicted that it would have as dramatic an effect on American society as the original Brown case did. These are the most important decisions on the use of race since Brown v. Board of Education, Sharon Browne, the principal lawyer for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, declared in a press release. With these decisions, an estimated 1,000 school districts around the country that are sending the wrong message about race to kids will have to stop.
But some legal scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, and of the affirmative action debate, question this assessment. They doubt that this case will transform society as dramatically as Brown did. And some of them question whether even Brown was as singularly influential in transforming society as many have claimed during the last half-century.
The conventional wisdom about Brown holds that it was more responsible than anything else for the integration of schools. Brown really did transform society by stopping de jure segregation, and without Brown, schools would look very different, says David J. Armor, a conservative scholar at George Mason University.
But some liberal scholars have challenged that heroic assessment. In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael J. Klarman argues that it was a political commitment to integration in the 1960s, not the Brown decision in the 1950s, that led to meaningful integration.
Brown didnt transform society very much, and to the extent that it did it was indirect, says Mr. Klarman, who is a law professor at the University of Virginia. Brown brought out the worst in White Supremacy, and Northerners were appalled by the police dogs they saw on television, and that advanced the civil rights movement. He argues that meaningful desegregation didnt occur until the Johnson administrations Justice Department became committed to enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare threatened to cut off financing to school districts that refused to integrate.
Professor Klarman said he believed that just as the court couldnt bring about integration on its own in 1954, so it wont be able to mandate colorblindness on its own today. Just as Brown produced massive resistance in the South and therefore had little impact on desegregation for a decade, this decision is going to be similarly inconsequential, he says. This affects only the tiny percentage of school districts that use race to assign students, and even in those districts, like Louisville and Seattle, it wont be consequential because there are so many opportunities for committed school boards to circumvent it.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy invited school districts to explore narrowly tailored ways of pursuing their compelling interest in avoiding racial isolation. Some critics of government-sponsored affirmative action believe that this may allow school districts to pursue racial diversity by indirect means.
School districts are going to continue to do indirectly what they tried to do directly, says Peter H. Schuck of Yale Law School. They will feel the same pressures to reduce racial isolation, and they will look for proxies for race.
|Public schools may seek ways around the ruling on integration.|
Some scholars who support affirmative action also agree that public schools will use proxies for race like neighborhoods, socioeconomic status, or single-parent households to achieve their goals. I think what youll see is schools avoiding talking in racial terms, and talking in more vague terms about a diversity of backgrounds, says David A. Strauss of the University of Chicago. There will be another layer of bureaucracy, but I wouldnt expect a large-scale retreat from what public schools have tried.
After Texas and California banned affirmative action in the 1990s, officials in both states guaranteed admission at the top public universities to a certain percentage of the class at every public high school, regardless of the schools quality. Because of segregated housing patterns, this somewhat reduced the fall in the numbers of enrolled African-American and Hispanic students.
If you judge by what happened in California, youll see some drop in minority enrollment but not as huge a change as some people expected, says John Yoo, a former Bush Justice Department official who teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley. School administrators and bureaucrats are so heavily invested in the idea of diversity that they will try an amazing array of policies to get around the ban of the use of race.
Although it will be harder for public schools to resort to similar race-neutral alternatives, many legal scholars believe they will try. Its tougher in a public school setting, where generally applicants arent competing against each other on an individual basis, but thats clearly what Justice Kennedy is inviting, says Samuel Issacharoff, a law professor at New York University who supports affirmative action. To enforce its vision of colorblindness, Professor Klarman suggests, the Supreme Court would need to be backed by the president and Congress. But so far, that political commitment to colorblindness has not materialized.
Its not enough for the court to announce this; to really make it stick, the president would have to cut off funding for school districts that circumvent the decision, just like the 1960s, Professor Klarman says. If you start threatening to throw school board members in jail, that might have an effect, but the strongest evidence that theres not that kind of political support for colorblindness is that the military and Fortune 500 companies have said we need affirmative action to survive.
More broadly, the effects of last weeks decision may be limited by the fact that American society is divided on just how colorblind or integrated society should be. When Brown was decided, 54 percent of the country supported the result. Today, the public appears similarly divided about the appropriate balance between colorblindness and diversity, and there are backlashes in both directions.
Ted Warren/Associated Press
|Real Life High school students in Seattle, at the center of the justices' decision.|
After a Texas court banned affirmative action in 1996, the Texas Legislature tried to preserve racial diversity in the states public universities with race-neutral alternatives, but after the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action at the University of Michigan law school in 2003, the voters of Michigan passed an initiative banning it.
I think that there will be a King Canute quality to the decision, Professor Strauss said, referring to the Anglo-Saxon king who ordered the seas waves to stop.
In the end, the Supreme Court throughout its history has rarely precipitated social transformation on its own; instead it has been most effective when it acts in conjunction with the president, Congress and ultimately a majority of the country.
Brown pushed the country in a direction it was already going, and in the same sense, the large forces today are going to continue to operate regardless of what the Supreme Court just decided, Professor Klarman said. Were headed toward an ambiguous place where were committed both to colorblindness and to diversity in public life. We might have a black president, but well still have a society with very segregated neighborhoods and public schools. I dont think the court decision will make much difference either way.
Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is the author of The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, July 1, 2007.
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