Let's Talk about the Future of Diversity
May 10, 2007
As appeared in the New York Amsterdam News
By Theodore M. Shaw and Lee C. Bollinger
NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Columbia
University Team up with Schomburg Center for a Conversation on the State of
On May 17, we will honor the fifty-third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, when the
Supreme Court, pressed by Thurgood Marshall, shook the pillars of segregation
in announcing its new and resounding principle that “separate is inherently
unequal.” This May is once again a month of reckoning; and as much as we would
like to celebrate this shared past, we must also remain vigilant as the Court
gets ready to issue opinions in two public school cases that threaten to chip
away at Brown’s legacy of racial
justice and diversity. If successful, both cases -- Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1
and Crystal Meredith v. Jefferson County
Board of Education -- will ban local districts from implementing voluntary
desegregation programs that seek to maintain racial balance in our schools
while counteracting the worst resegregation crisis we have faced since the
early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
The stakes could not be higher; and with Samuel Alito’s recent
replacement of Sandra Day O’Connor – who authored the majority opinions in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) affirming the
importance of diversity as a compelling justification for affirmative action –
the outcome could not be more uncertain.
The numbers are disturbing. According
to the 2000 census, only 14% of white students attend multiracial schools (schools
with at least three races each representing 10% or more of the total student
population), while nearly 40% of both black and Latino students attend
intensely segregated schools in with a 90-100% minority student population. These
figures are inextricably linked to economic segregation. Nationally, almost 50%
of all black and Latino students attend schools in which three-quarters or more
students are poor, compared to only 5% of white students; and in schools of
extreme poverty, 80% of the students are black and Latino.
No one benefits from such radical resegregation. The isolation of white
students prevents them from learning with and from those with different
backgrounds – making it more difficult for them to understand those who are
different from themselves or to learn how to thrive in racially diverse
settings as adults. Conversely, minority students in segregated schools encounter
weaker academic offerings and are too often cut off from integrated networks
that improve access to jobs and college admission. Not surprisingly, the
nation’s high dropout rate crisis is concentrated in segregated high schools in
The K-12 voluntary integration programs before the Court attempt to
remedy this situation. Adopted by local, democratically-elected school boards,
these initiatives represent a milestone in the nation’s long and arduous quest
to make real Brown’s core equal
Yet at oral argument in December, detractors urged the Court to apply the
“strict scrutiny” test it had outline in the affirmative action cases we
argued, because, they maintained, it is unfair for school officials to consider
race when assigning students within a district – even if it is done to achieve
the very goals of integration that Brown envisioned.
This is a perverse reading of the Court’s jurisprudence. Worse, it
threatens to unravel everything for which Brown
stands. While the Court in Brown was
emphatic in outlawing the use of race for segregative purposes, it never
suggested that race-conscious integrative student assignments violated the
Equal Protection Clause. To do so would have undermined its efforts to heal the
Jim Crow America that Plessy had
legitimized decades before.
Since then, courts have been clear that local school districts have every
freedom to implement integration programs that go beyond the Constitutional
floor that Brown established in 1954.
The only thing they may not do is slide back toward segregation.
Today, in many school districts across the country – including those
before the current Court – voluntary integration programs have become the last
best hope for overcoming just that: intense residential segregation and
concentrated poverty. It is not too much to say that they represent all that is
left of Brown.
Yet these cases are not the only challenges we face in education today.
In fact, as soon as the ink dried on the Court’s opinions upholding affirmative
action as a constitutional matter, its opponents scrambled to undo it.
Unfortunately, they appear to be succeeding.
Just last November, a majority of voters in Michigan joined California
and Washington as the third state to pass a ballot measure to dismantle all
public affirmative action programs. Doing so assures that their great public
universities will become less diverse. As a result, they will also become less
attractive options for potential students who recognize that living and
studying with classmates from a diverse range of backgrounds is essential
training for an increasingly global world – one that rewards those with the
instinct to reach out instead of clinging to the comforts of what seems natural
It is also vital for establishing a cohesive, truly national society –
one in which rising generations learn to overcome the biases they absorb as
children while also appreciating the unique talents their colleagues bring to
any equation. Only education can get us there. As Thurgood Marshall knew so
well: “The law can open doors and knock down walls, but it cannot build
bridges. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is
different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same.”
All of this is under siege now. At the elementary and secondary school
levels, resegregation is making it exceedingly difficult for minority students
to access the resources that inspire rising generations to apply to and then
attend college. At the same time, the elimination of affirmative action
programs at our public universities is keeping admissions officials from
lifting these same students up in order to offset the structural inequalities
they had to face in getting there.
What will, and what should
happen next to diversity programs in our country? We hope you will join former mayor David
Dinkins and us to explore that question this coming May 24 when we bring
together a host of lively group of legal experts at the Schomburg Center
to discuss the future of affirmative action in American education. The program is co-sponsored by the NAACP Legal
Defense Fund and Columbia
University in partnership
with the Schomburg.
In these times, it is easy for ordinary people to wonder if they can make
a tangible difference in the long struggle for justice. Yet as uncertain as the
future feels at this moment, the history of this month reminds us that good
things happen when ordinary citizens – like Oliver Brown and the other parents
of Topeka, Kansas,
who contacted their local NAACP chapter all those years ago – come together to
listen, talk, and work together for an America of true equal opportunity. We
still believe in that America,
and hope you will join us at the Schomburg on May 24 to discuss how to make the
promise of Brown real for all our students
at every level of education in our country.
Lee C. Bollinger is the president
of Columbia University
in the City of New York and a former president
of the University
of Michigan. Theodore M.
Shaw is the Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund, Inc. Together they helped achieve victory in the twin Supreme
Court cases upholding affirmative action at Michigan in 2003