June 29, 2007

Reading, Writing, & Social Engineering

Color Blind Bind
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, in which they ruled that using skin color to determine school placement for students was unconstitutional, a few items of importance have surfaced that are well worth mentioning.

In last night’s “debate” of Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton said of the Meredith ruling: “You can look at this decision today, which turned the clock back on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, that was resting on the fact that children are better off if they are part of a diverse, integrated society.” Senator Clinton didn’t offer any scientific evidence to back this assertion on diversity, however; moreover, she has jumped aboard the bandwagon which says that the Meredith ruling is opposite that of the Brown ruling. But is it?

On last night’s episode of Nightline, even Mattie Jones, a black grandmother in Louisville, has suggested that the social experiment of forced diversity based upon skin color has backfired. “We don’t have to sit next to a white person—our kids don’t—to be educated,” she said. Her final quote pertained to the state of her neighborhood following the busing requirement that bolstered diversity: “I used to sit on my porch to hear the laughter and the chatter; all we hear now is the noise of the buses.”

I imagine that a few people are calling Mattie Jones a “sell-out” or similar, possibly viler, names. Some are probably sitting at their computer saying, “What? James Phillimore, how dare you not take the position of the minority Justices! You’re racist! You’re bigoted! You’re narrow-minded and ignorant! You’re fascist!” Such utterances might be emotionally gratifying, but they’re nonetheless lacking merit.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown ruling was supposed to overturn the absurd “separate but equal” doctrine that was put forth in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown we find: “Racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional, 347 U.S. 483, 497, and all provisions of federal, state or local law requiring or permitting such discrimination must yield to this principle.”

So, we find ourselves with a few questions that need to be asked: Why are those who claim to be opposed to using skin color to make determinations—in this case school populations—the same ones who are now opposed to the Meredith ruling, which says that using skin color to make determinations is unconstitutional? If we’re supposed to be a colorblind society, why are we supposed to simultaneously support the idea of using skin color to determine which child goes to which school? If anything, a person should either support both the Brown decision and the Meredith decision or oppose both. It’s contradictory to support one and oppose the other.

NPR’s Juan Williams might have explained it best in a recent interview with Renee Montagne. He said:

Brown said that, in fact, separating children on the basis of their skin color—their race—was unconstitutional, a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal treatment. So yesterday what you had was the majority saying that, according to the Brown decision, you shouldn’t judge children on the basis of their race and you shouldn’t assign them to schools on the basis of their race. The minority said that, wait a second—Brown was intended to remedy the damage done by legal segregation in this country and you’re now turning it on its head by suggesting that you can’t take those steps because of the need to have a colorblind Constitution.

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union states:

The impact of the Court’s decision will be particularly striking in Louisville. In response to the city’s history of racial segregation, a judicial order that was in place 25 years authorized school officials to take race into account when making student assignments. After the judicial order expired, city officials continued that policy in modified form in the hope of avoiding the resegregation that plagues so many cities. Louisville’s effort has now been derailed by the Supreme Court.

This paragraph from their press release is interesting on two points: (1) the ACLU has concluded that it’s “segregation” if a student goes to school in their own neighborhood; and (2) they openly support taking skin color into account for student assignments, even though such a move violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, the ACLU is apparently taking the position that upholding the Constitution is now a form of “derailment.”

Perhaps this is where the controversy is found. One view is that it’s an either-or situation: Using skin color to make decisions is going to be either constitutional or unconstitutional; it can’t go both ways.

The other viewpoint, in this case the one espoused by the minority Justices and folks who are decrying the Meredith ruling, is that we can use skin color to promote diversity in an effort to remedy the past injustice of segregation (real segregation—not the ACLU’s version of it), but that we must ban it in all other situations.

The second viewpoint is basically saying that double standards are acceptable as long as we get what we want, in this case the possibility of a grand social engineering experiment.

The Benefits of Diversity
It might be disturbing to those who are lamenting the Meredith ruling, but evidence exists that actually calls into question the social value of diversity based on ethnicity.

Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, has authored Bowling Alone, in which he says that diversity in communities might in reality cause people “to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” Furthermore, as City Journal’s John Leo points out, Putnam even suggests that the data “may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.” (His emphasis.)

Unfortunately, Putnam’s book has a dark side-note: he wasn’t happy with what he discovered and hesitated to release the results until he could find evidence that suggested something else.

Leo continued: “Last October, [Putnam] told the Financial Times that ‘he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.’ He said it ‘would have been irresponsible to publish without that,’ a quote that should raise eyebrows.”

I have to agree with Leo. The idea that a scholar might hesitate on releasing research data simply because he didn’t like what the data showed is disturbing to say the least. While it’s not as serious as the Michael Bellesiles incident from several years ago, it still makes one wonder if the world of academia is making a significant shift from objectivity to subjectivity.

Putnam’s desires aren’t the issue here; the rulings in Plessy, Brown, and Meredith are. As such, we need to ask ourselves if we’re for or against using skin color as the determining factor for public school populations. If we’re going to say that using skin color as a determining factor is a bad thing, as the Supreme Court rightly did in Brown, we should consistently defend that position by denouncing the Plessy decision and supporting the Meredith decision.

If people are opposed to the Meredith decision but claim to support the Brown decision, we need to seriously question their view on using skin color as a determining factor for schools and their opinion of the Fourteenth Amendment in general. To suggest that skin color should be used in an effort to experiment with forced diversity to “remedy” the past injustice of segregation is contradictory to the Brown ruling. Like it or not, opposition to the Meredith ruling is opposition to a colorblind society.

ABC News
City Journal
Cornell University Law School