The Supreme Court, now led by far-right Bush appointee Chief Justice John Roberts, chose the last day of its 2006-07 term to issue a decision on school integration that denies the basic American principle that all persons are created equal. The ruling turns history on its head.
In a 5-4 decision, the court declared that public school systems cannot try to achieve or keep integration by explicitly taking race into account.
It is ironic that the court’s majority claimed it was upholding the turning-point 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school desegregation, with Roberts contending “Brown” meant students must be admitted on a “nonracial basis.”
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer put the matter clearly. Brown “held out the promise of true racial equality,” he said, and “sought one law, one nation, one people, not simply as a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.”
The Roberts court takes the far right’s concept of “color-blindness” to its absurd extreme. It flies in the face of findings like those of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, which found that while white students were 58 percent of U.S. public school enrollment in 2003, the average white student went to a school that was nearly 80 percent white. African American students, making up 17 percent of enrollment, attended schools typically 53 percent Black. Latino students, at 19 percent, attended schools typically 55 percent Latino.
In an editorial titled “Resegregation Now,” The New York Times pointed out that over one in six Black children now attend schools that are 99-100 percent minority. The Times said the court’s ruling is apt to greatly worsen this situation.
Of course, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Schools whose enrollment is mostly racially oppressed students are most often in economically ravaged neighborhoods and are starved for resources commonly available to other schools in more well off communities. Thus the struggle for equitable and plentiful funding for our public schools is intertwined with the struggle for quality, integrated education for our nation’s children.
Evidence of ongoing racism in other aspects of our society is plain to see, from the federal government’s appalling — and continuing — lack of response to Katrina to the soaring rates of unemployment, underemployment and incarceration endured particularly by young Black men.
Robert L. Carter, a lawyer for the school children in the 1954 Brown case, and now a 90-year-old senior federal judge in Manhattan, criticized the new ruling. He pointed out that at the time of the Brown decision, “All that race was used for at that point in time was to deny equal opportunity to Black people. It’s to stand that argument on its head to use race the way they use it now.”
The school integration decision was only the last in a series of 5-4 rulings this year that demonstrate the Supreme Court’s rapid run to the right.
Its decision to uphold a ban on a rarely used abortion procedure interferes with the rights of physicians and patients to make medical decisions. It also opens the door for the far right to further erode Roe v. Wade’s protection of women’s reproductive rights.
The court also ruled that, in order to file suit against race or gender based pay inequity, workers have only 180 days to discover the problem and file a lawsuit. It tells employers that discrimination is fine if they can cover it up for a few months.
The court eroded the separation of church and state, rejecting taxpayers’ right to sue the federal government for funding religious groups to provide social services. Another ruling limited students’ free speech rights.
With determination and organization, voters can take back the White House from the far right in 2008.
But President Bush’s Supreme Court picks — Chief Justice Roberts, who was 50 when he assumed office in 2005, and Justice Samuel Alito, who took office last year at age 55 — could serve on the court until 2040 or thereabouts.
History shows that courts are influenced by mass public pressure. These reactionary decisions can be overturned. It will require organizing in every community, workplace and campus, to defend democracy, justice and equality.