Rethinking Race, Equality, and Liberty: The Unfulfilled Promise of Parents Involved
Posted: 13 Feb 2009 Last revised: 25 Aug 2010
In 2007, an unprecedented event took place. Never before had the United States Supreme Court pitted two civil rights victories against each other to produce a high-profile defeat for advocates of school integration. Yet, this is precisely what happened in Parents Involved in Community Schools. v. Seattle School District when the Justices struck down voluntary desegregation plans in the public schools of Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington. To reach this result, the Court ironically turned to Brown v. Board of Education and Grutter v. Bollinger, both of which had supported integration in education. This article explores how diversity came to play a role in undoing voluntary desegregation. I argue that this seemingly paradoxical result was born of a jurisprudence of fragmentation that has manifested itself doctrinally in at least three ways. First, Brown itself has been appropriated in the service of competing agendas and so has become a decision at war with itself. The decision is invoked to support a principle of strict colorblindness on the one hand and a flexible approach to color-conscious remedies on the other. Second, whatever the interpretation of Brown, the school desegregation cases have proceeded on an entirely different logic than higher education decisions like Grutter. The diversity rationale focuses not on corrective justice but on the cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. The lines of authority in Brown and Grutter have co-existed, unreconciled and disconnected, until they collided in Parents Involved. Third, this pattern is part of a larger problem of compartmentalization in cases involving race and equality. Distinct approaches often seem to inhabit parallel universes so that affirmative action can survive in colleges and universities, even as it is struck down in government contracting. Or, race-conscious remedies can persist in voting rights jurisprudence while they come under siege in school desegregation cases. I conclude that this jurisprudence of fragmentation has left little room for a flexible and dynamic account of race, one that might prepare the Court to deal with new challenges like those presented in Parents Involved.
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