The Persistence of Racial Myopia on Education

PF 3By Jason L. Riley

Obsessing over desegregation formulas has been going on for decades, with little to show for producing better-educated students. Maybe inner-city charter schools are onto something.

BN-OB464_riley0_G_20160517173928La’Shieka White wants her 9-year-old son Edmund to continue next year at Gateway Science Academy, a public charter school in St. Louis that he has attended since kindergarten. But that may not be possible because Edmund is black, and the St. Louis school system operates under policies that mandate racial discrimination. Yes, in 2016.

The White family’s dilemma, as I wrote for the Journal recently, is the outgrowth of well-intentioned federal school-desegregation orders going back more than a half-century. Hundreds of them remain on the books in states nationwide, though enforcement is selective and in Edmund’s case counterproductive, given that the school he is barred from attending next year is predominantly white. In the name of desegregating, St. Louis is resegregating.

                          Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jason Riley on how 1960s-era school desegregation mandates hurt minority communities.

Earlier this year, Ms. White, along with her husband and three children, moved from an apartment in St. Louis to a house in suburban Maryland Heights in St. Louis County. Under a transfer program set up by school officials to boost racial integration, only black students living in the city can transfer to county schools, and only nonblack students living in the county can transfer to city schools. If Edmund were any race other than black, he could continue next year at Gateway.

Ms. White has filed a lawsuit alleging that the transfer program’s race-based restrictions violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The school officials who run the transfer program have yet to respond in court, but they did issue a statement saying their hands are tied. “[W]e are governed by the Federal court decision and the related Settlement Agreement which was established to address long standing school segregation issues,” read the statement.

A public swimming pool is deemed desegregated if it is open to people of all races, not based on what percentages of blacks and whites use it. But courts have measured school desegregation differently over the decades. The Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954 declared the nation’s system of legal segregation unconstitutional and authorized lower courts to issue decrees mandating that children be admitted to public schools “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.”

However, the lower courts went beyond ensuring equal opportunity and began pushing for racially balanced results. The Supreme Court finally blessed these efforts in a 1968 decision, Green v. New Kent County, and the legal distinction between desegregation and integration essentially went away. The justices invalidated the school desegregation plan in New Kent County, Va., due to insufficient statistical racial balance in the student body. The fact that the schools were open to students of any race didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough to end a segregation policy, said the court. School boards had an “affirmative duty” to actively integrate. Inside of 15 years, the Supreme Court had gone from banning the use of race in Brown to mandating it in Green.

The Green decision is less well-known than Brown but as significant in some ways. It ushered in an era of unprecedented desegregation orders that emphasized racial balance as a primary education goal. Numerical targets and timetables were introduced. School districts were required to diversify teaching staff and made hiring decisions based on race and ethnicity rather than on competence. Compulsory busing was implemented though it polled poorly among the group it was supposed to benefit most—black parents. Mixing and matching black and white children became an obsession. After issuing a busing order in 1980, one Los Angeles judge said his goal was to “make the most efficient use of increasingly scarce white students as possible,” since minority children made up most of the city’s school system.

The St. Louis transfer program also stems from a post-Green ruling. In 1972, black parents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging segregation in the St. Louis schools. In 1980 a federal court of appeals ruled that the city and county were maintaining segregated schools. Three years later, the schools reached a settlement that resulted in the race-conscious transfer program that may keep Edmund White from attending Gateway next year. If only the city were as focused on school quality. For most of the past 15 years, St. Louis public schools have lacked full accreditation from the state.

Quality black schools have existed in the U.S. since the days before Brown and continue to exist today. At the time of that historic decision, the notion that separate schools inherently were unequal was undermined by the fact that an all-black high school in segregated Washington, D.C., produced test scores higher than most of the city’s all-white schools. Today, charter schools full of black and brown students from the worst inner-city ghettos in the country regularly outperform white students from the poshest suburbs. What if education bureaucrats focused on replicating these successful school models instead of on finding white classmates for blacks?

Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).

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