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Where does this hallway lead? Lawyers, educators scramble

Lawyers and educators are scrambling this July as they consider the United States Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and its companion case arising out of Louisville, Jefferson County, Ky. In the resulting opinion, the High Court rejected school assignment plans in these two major public school systems, which used race as a classification in assigning students to particular schools.

What?

Folks of a certain age are no doubt scratching their heads. Doesn’t this fly in the face of Brown v. Board of Education, a United States Supreme Court decision issued in 1954? The Brown decision overruled the Court’s prior decision in Plessey v. Ferguson, a 1896 case; Brown articulated the premise that separate but equal schools could not be made equal — that the separateness was the pernicious aspect of the nation’s public education system.

Brown v. Board of Education was argued for six days in the U. S. Supreme Court — a court that normally schedules about an hour of argument per case. In the end, the Court stated in a unanimous decision that “separate but equal” had no place in American education — and by implication, “separate but equal” had no place in America, period. The opinion required each school district in the nation to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” — a phrase the meaning of which was argued in the South right down into the decade of the 1970s.

So now the Supreme Court — the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Dewey’s running mate in 1948 — being denied the vice-presidency and emerging five years later as U. S. Supreme Court chief justice, a position affording him greater impact on the future of this nation than his term as vice president ever would have) — has determined that race is not, in and of itself, a characteristic that merits utilization in determining which student should attend which school in Seattle and Louisville.

So why have children been bussed miles and miles over the last 50 years if race and achieving racial balance is not an integral part of education in this country? The Equal Protection clause prevents states from according deferential treatment of American children on the basis of their color or race. This clause, as applied by the Warren court, created the mandate for desegregation in public schools in America. This clause, as applied by the Roberts court, has mandated that race cannot be relied on as an arbiter of diversity in America’s public schools unless there is no other method available than individual racial classification to elicit and achieve the school district’s articulated policy.

The Seattle decision is worthy of consideration, but of greatest interest is what it says to us: Chief Justice Roberts is indirectly saying what we in Mississippi have known long before President Clinton articulated it in the mass media: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Race does not divide us; the economy does. Social stratification is largely based on economic stratification.

Chief Justice Roberts is saying something else that we in Mississippi have not known. When desegregation decrees under which school districts have operated have been dissolved by the court which implemented them, action taken after the dissolution of the decrees appears not to fall into the category of “remedying effects of past intentional discrimination.” Thus, these actions are no longer compelling governmental interests which demand strict scrutiny by the courts.

Virtually all Mississippi public schools began operating under desegregation decrees in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While many school districts continue to operate under their desegregation decree, others have affirmatively sought dissolution of the decrees. When a desegregation decree is dissolved by the appropriate court, the High Court is indicating that the district has remedied effects of past intentional discrimination. Thus, the responsibility of strict scrutiny does not devolve on a court considering subsequent actions of the district.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, et al, is a decision that will have to be read and studied by individuals wiser than me in order for the true effect of the decision to filter out to our judicial system. But it is clear that we have walked through a door into another hallway of social justice. I wonder where the hallway leads.

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