BY CLIFFORD GINN
A recent report by Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, reveals that, almost 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation is actually increasing. The last decade has witnessed a rollback of almost all the progress made in the two preceding decades. More than 70 percent of the nation’s black students attend predominantly minority schools, and over a third of the nation’s Latino students attend heavily segregated schools. Whites, on average, attend schools where they make up more than 80 percent of the students.
One cannot ascribe this phenomenon to a single cause, or even accurately say which factors play the most significant role, but the primary causes of resegregation appear to be legal, political and demographic. Given the high correlation between racial and income segregation, accelerating suburbanization has magnified the difficulty of integrating urban schools. Increasing maldistribution of wealth (20 percent child poverty, a decrease in real wages for the vast majority of Americans since the 1960s despite dramatic increases in GNP and productivity) has fallen most heavily on minorities, adding to economic segregation. The Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” (adopting policies hostile or indifferent to minorities in order to win more votes in the south), initiated under Richard Nixon, explains a great deal of the footdragging at the federal level. The Supreme Court’s distaste for affirmative action also has not helped matters any, and courts generally have favored eliminating desegregation plans, even sometimes disallowing communities to take voluntary desegregation action. Other causes too numerous to detail here have also played significant roles. However, resegregation does not appear to result from racial intolerance — large majorities of Americans of all races prefer integrated education.
Orfield’s report confirms the Brown Court’s finding that separate cannot mean equal. Clear differences exist between educational opportunities at segregated and desegregated schools, and the fact that some of this comes from the correlation between race and income should not make this finding less disturbing. Substantial evidence supports the argument that integration improves test scores, as well as performance in postgraduate education and the job market. Roughly half of the high schools in the largest cities (most of them segregated minority schools) experience dropout rates of close to 50 percent.
Orfield makes a number of recommendations to remedy the problem, including: expansion of the federal magnet school program; an aggressive commitment to school integration; private and government research on the benefits of school integration; greater community involvement in desegregation; better training for education officials in integration policymaking; funding for busing, counseling and teacher-exchanges; reexamination of housing policies to facilitate integration.
I find all of these suggestions valuable. However, the racial divide in this country runs so deep that we cannot hope to bridge it through mere school integration.
One of the more promising avenues is affirmative action. Conservatives have characterized it as “equality of result,” but this claim hardly bears serious consideration. Affirmative action recognizes the remaining racism in this society, the enormous opportunity gap that racial minorities — especially blacks — face, and the significant role the government has played in creating or exacerbating these problems. The federal government supported slavery for a century, tolerated state and private discrimination for another century, and systematically shut racial minorities out of virtually all the nation’s major opportunities for family wealth aggregation. A few decades of affirmative action for minorities, compared to two centuries of affirmative action for whites, hardly qualifies as “equality of result,” if indeed it can even be considered “equality of opportunity.”
While conservatives argue that affirmative action offends our ideals of colorblindness and meritocracy, it actually serves as a prophylactic rule to advance both principles. Discrimination in hiring is often exceedingly difficult to prove — hiring decisions often rest on small distinctions, and an employer may not even be conscious that he or she is allowing race to color his perceptions. Affirmative action provides a rough assurance that qualified minority individuals will gain employment opportunities in proportion to their representation in the population (meritocracy) and decreases the possibility that race will play a role in hiring decisions (colorblindness). While an affirmative action rule may be somewhat overinclusive in practice, the alternative will prove fatally underinclusive.
Turning specifically to blacks, however, Prof. Ogletree has pointed out that affirmative action does relatively little for blacks in the underclass. Randall Robinson’s The Debt lays out a convincing case for reparations, and one that the nation must carefully consider. Although Congress will not even support study of the issue, many people are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the injustice blacks have suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. To the extent that we consider ourselves citizens of the nation responsible, and accept the benefits of living and working in an economy built largely on the enslavement of blacks and their permanent relegation to the underclass, we have a moral obligation to compensate the victims of our nation’s wickedness.