After Brown: What Would Martin Luther King Say?
Harvard Law School
October 1, 2008
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-41
Lewis & Clark Law Review, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2008
The occasion of the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day Speech at Lewis and Clark Law School, following on the heels of the Supreme Court's rejection of two voluntary racial school integration plans, warrants revisiting the conception of equality that called for school integration, the prospects for equal opportunity without education, and remaining arguments for integration. "Integration" here means more than terminating legally-enforced segregation, and more than sheer mixing of people with different races and identities in the same setting. As Dr. King described it, integration involves the creation of a community of relationships among people who view one another as valuable, who take pride in one another's contributions, and who know that commonalities and synergies outweigh any extra efforts that bridging differences may require. Before the disillusionment accompanying the apparent failure of judicially-mandated school integration, integration was inseparable from access to opportunity as a goal of civil rights reformers from the 19th century through the middle of the 20th. W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. separately emphasized that racially separate instruction by teachers who believe in their students' capacities would be better than racially-mixed instruction by teachers who disparaged African-American children - but integration would be still better. Opposition to court-ordered desegregation remedies and judicial retreat occurred just as approval of racial mixing and even integration succeeded as cultural and political ideals. Current educational wisdom identifies strategies for equal educational opportunity apart from integration. These include curricular and academic supports that demand high standards, prepare minority students to achieve in a sometimes hostile world, and craft for each student the social identity of an achiever who is a member of a community of learners. Focused school reforms aligning the curriculum with standards, more "time-on-task" with longer school days, initiatives to recruit and support effective teachers, and shifts in school finance guided by standards of adequate education and comparable opportunities can mitigate the disparities still associated with racially distinct school communities. But as even the good arguments for socioeconomic integration reveal, failure to pursue racial integration - including efforts to create truly inclusive communities of mutual respect - can recreate racial segregation through tracking, special education assignments, and students' own divisions in lunch tables and cliques. Racial integration informed by the demographic changes making this a multicultural and multi-racial society remains a distinctive goal apart from other efforts to ensure equal educational opportunities. Justice Kennedy's separate opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 along with the four dissenters create a fragile majority that would permit school systems and housing developers to local schools with the aim of encouraging racial integration, to develop programs designed to attract racially diverse groups of students, and to hold meetings and recruitment efforts to attract diverse groups of students and teachers. Contrary to the Court's majority opinion, pretending to have achieved color-blind as well as open opportunity - when we have not - disables individuals and communities from understanding what is going on and from becoming equipped to deal with it. In addition to the strategies for integration left open, families and students can choose integrated schools by their residential choices and by making their own lives look like the high-concept ads celebrating integration.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 50
Date posted: October 2, 2008