Supreme Court Limits Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Schools

Robert Barnes [PDF Opinion]:

A splintered Supreme Court today threw out school desegregation plans from Seattle and Louisville, but without a majority holding that race can never be considered as school districts try to ensure racially diverse populations.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. authored the most important opinion of his two terms leading the court. He held that both plans, which categorize students on the basis of race and use that in making school assignments, violate the constitution’s promise of equal protection, even if the goal is integration of the schools.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote.
He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who agreed with the four in striking down the desegregation plans, would not go as far as Roberts in ruling out racial considerations.
“Parts of the opinion by the Chief Justice imply an all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account,” Kennedy wrote. “The plurality opinion is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race.”
The court’s four liberals delivered a scathing dissent — twice as long as Roberts’s opinion. It said the plurality’s decision was, in the words of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who read his opposition from the bench, a “cruel distortion” of the court’s landmark decision more than 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education, which demanded an end to segregated schools.

Links & Commentary:

  • David Stout:

    n the hours after the ruling, reaction varied greatly, with some groups denouncing it as virtually inviting a return to the days of segregation, and others asserting that it need not be seen that way, in view of Justice Kennedy’s unwillingness to fully embrace Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion.
    The rationale of the chief justice’s opinion relied in part on the historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools — a factor that the dissenters on the court found to be a cruel irony, and which they objected to in emotional terms.
    Chief Justice Roberts said the officials in Seattle and in Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville, had failed to show that their plans considered race in the context of a larger educational concept, and therefore did not pass muster.
    “In the present cases,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, recalling words from an earlier Supreme Court ruling, “race is not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve ‘exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.’ ”

  • Robert Tomsho: More Schools Likely to Spur
    Diversity via Income.

    By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down voluntary school desegregation efforts in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle. The vote “will encourage districts now using race to shift to income,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank. (See related article.)
    Income-based plans began spreading in the 1990s as race-based policies came under growing pressure in the federal courts. Most seek to limit the percentage of low-income students in any one school by dispersing them beyond their neighborhood schools and assigning higher-income students to schools with a lower-income profile. The programs generally identify low-income students as those qualifying for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill: Supreme Disappointment
  • TJ Mertz: “Sad Day, the End of an Era”
  • Joanne Jacobs
  • Andy Hall notes some local commentary:

    Art Rainwater, superintendent of Madison’s public schools, said none of the district’s school-assignment policies would be directly affected by Thursday’s decision, because the district relies upon criteria other than race — particularly poverty — when drawing school boundaries. And it uses poverty and concentrations of special-education students and students with limited English proficiency when staffing the schools.
    “In general, we don’t do anything based on race in our district,” Rainwater said.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    In a decision with profound implications for the nation’s public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated two voluntary desegregation plans because they used race in some students’ school assignments in an effort to end racial isolation or prevent re-segregation.

  • Wall Street Journal Opinion
  • Cato:

    “Racial integration advocates will be frustrated and discouraged by today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the racial assignment programs of Louisville and Seattle. They shouldn’t be. These were not only the right rulings constitutionally, they were also right educationally and socially. The belief that involuntary, race-based student assignment promotes socially and educationally valuable interaction among white and minority students finds little empirical support.”

Q & A on the decision.