Friday, June 29, 2007

Seattle Desegregation?

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 yesterday. In what will be quoted forevermore, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Justice Breyer called the opinion simplistic. Justice Stevens, as the most tenured judge on the Court, stated that the Court is radically changing precedent because the Supreme Court justices in the past would have disagreed with the Seattle decision ("It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision.").

When reading the majority opinion, I was struck by how much enmity Justice Roberts has created between the justices despite his pledge to unite the Court and create more civility. After writing for the majority, Roberts then blazed through Justice Breyer's dissent and dissected it like a law clerk attacking another lawyer's brief--or, to be more colorful, Sherman going through Atlanta. In contrast, Justice Kennedy, as the fifth vote necessary to have a majority, appeared to distance himself from Roberts in various sections in a separate concurrence. Justice Thomas also seemed to go out of his way to be respectful to Justice Breyer, saying that while he has no doubt Breyer's intentions are good, the law must remain as immutable as possible rather than being contingent on a particular judge applying the law.

In short, Roberts stated that there had to be a compelling reason to use race. For law students, this is Con Law 101, i.e. the strict scrutiny test. Kennedy appeared to try to compromise by saying that diversity was a compelling goal, and other methods could be used to create diversity, such as locating new schools in neighborhoods that would naturally draw upon different races (although one wonders how this would be accomplished if some neighborhoods are already segregated--I predict a future opinion echoing O'Connor's disdain for gerrymandering, where she famously called some of the Congressional districts similar to a Rorschach test or a "bug splattered on a windshield.") Breyer essentially stated that the Court is betraying precedent and twisting the intent and spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.

The opinion is most intelligent when differentiating between de jure segregation and de facto segregation. The conservatives seem to say that de facto segregation is permissible. The paragraph that seems to lay the best rationale for the decision is directly below:

"The Court’s emphasis on‘benign racial classifications’ suggests confidence in its ability to distinguish good from harmful governmental uses of racial criteria. History should teach greater humility. . . . ‘[B]enign’ carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only acceptance of the current generation’s conclusion that a politically acceptable burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable.” Metro Broadcasting, 497 U. S., at 609–610 (O’Connor, J., dissenting). See also Adarand, supra, at 226 (“‘[I]t may not always be clear that a so-called preference is in fact benign’” (quoting Bakke, supra, at 298 (opinion of Powell, J.))). Accepting JUSTICE BREYER’s approach would “do no more than move us from ‘separate but equal’ to ‘unequal but benign.’” Metro Broadcasting, supra, at 638 (KENNEDY, J., dissenting)."

One interesting point made in the dissent is that the school plans in question here are voluntarily attempting to desegregate. Breyer indicates that voluntary plans to achieve desegregation should be viewed with a different lens than laws involuntarily ordering segregation, as was the issue in Brown v. Board.

(Ironically, this same month, the U.S. Mint produced one of the most beautiful coins ever made. It is a silver coin depicting the Little Rock Central High School Desegregation. See here.)

My take on the situation is that the conservative justices have no patience for dividing Americans by race. In their minds, they are attempting to prevent America from becoming Yugoslavia 100 years from now. One of Justice Alito's quotes from a different case could summarize the majority's feelings: "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.” The majority opinion forcefully points out that under the Seattle program, if a school was 30% Asian, 30% Hispanic, 10% African-American, and 30% Caucasian, this breakdown would not be sufficiently diverse. Justice Roberts' example implies that this is a different world than 1975.

The liberal justices, on the other hand, believe that in much of America, we are still segregated by race. A cursory glance at any BLS or Census statistics will show lower rates of net worth and home ownership in the African-American community than in any other community. Although not stated in the opinion, the liberal justices seem to imply that the only reason for such modern disparity is the legacy of slavery and unequal access to education. It is not mentioned in the opinion that most of the conservative justices worked or are from large cities that are more integrated than smaller cities in the South. In much of America, it is indeed true that not much has changed since 1975. On the other hand, Justice Thomas's opinion seems to carry more weight because he actually integrated schools, sometimes against the wishes of classmates and parents of other students. An unsung hero, Rev. John Brooks, was instrumental in Thomas's education, and an interview given to BusinessWeek provides the most insight I have seen about Thomas and his background. See here (3/12/07, interview & Rev. John E. Brooks).

While it may seem counterintuitive that Justice Thomas would side with Justice Roberts here, Thomas may believe that his personal experience actually supports the majority's arguments because there was no de jure segregation at the time, and as a result he was able to attend majority-white schools and receive a top-notch education. Thus, Thomas may view Seattle through the prism that he is not dealing with any law forcing segregation, and any rule classifying anyone based on race could very easily turn against him or another race in the future. Jim Crow, after all, was not that long ago.

Perhaps an economic analysis would be helpful in understanding the majority opinion. Schools receive much of their funding from local property taxes. Housing values closely correlate with local school quality, as parents are willing to spend more money to buy into a better school district. See The New Economics of the Middle Class: Why Making Ends Meet Has Gotten Harder, by Elizabeth Warren and Leo Gottlieb:

Failing public schools have an impact on the children trapped in them, but they also impose a terrible burden on the families struggling to escape them. Failing public schools translate directly into higher housing costs for middle class families as they try to escape those schools. Home prices have grown across the board (particularly in larger urban areas), but the brunt of the price increases has fallen on families with children. The home value for the average childless couple increased by 58 percent between 1984 and 2004—an impressive rise in less just twenty years. (Again, these and all other figures are adjusted for inflation.) For married couples with children, however, housing prices shot up 145 percent during this period—nearly three times faster.

The Seattle parents were paying lots of money in mortgage payments and local taxes and were being told that some of their kids would have to go to an inferior quality school as part of a greater good. The students benefiting from the Seattle program would be students who, but for the program, would have to go to poorly funded schools. The students from poorer school districts would probably come from families that did not pay as much money in taxes or who lived in apartments (thereby not paying property taxes). Thus, the Seattle program indirectly charged parents who paid more in taxes more money for an inferior product while gifting parents who paid fewer taxes with a better product. In California, we had a lawsuit that argued that property taxes should go to the state rather than the county and then distributed among school districts in amounts to prevent inequality. I am unclear how Washington or Kentucky, the other state affected by the opinion, distributes its property taxes. The opinion did not discuss anything about vouchers, either. It remains to be seen what impact the opinion will have on voucher advocacy movements.

For now, in a time in America when we have ample resources and the economic "pie" is large, the Seattle decision will not create massive problems in the near term. The question is how we will view the decision if a sustained recession occurs, bringing to light the economic inequality in America that oftentimes can be categorized by race. A middle ground post-Seattle might be to balance schools by income, thereby avoiding any legal review or analysis. Federal courts do not usually get involved in a state's local affairs absent some illegal activity or protected class, and rich/poor is a category that is not illegal nor protected. America spends 400 billion dollars a year on schools, according to Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin Toffler. With that much money, perhaps the "pie" is still big enough to focus on economic rather than judicial solutions to improve school quality.

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