Interring a Dream

The U.S. Supreme Court's April 15 decision in a school desegregation case called Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education was just a single line long and entirely devoid of explanation. A federal trial judge had recently ended more than a third of a century of judicial supervision over the North Carolina public schools, which dated back to the Jim Crow era. Black parents had appealed, complaining that the school board was still encouraging segregation, but the high court refused to hear their argument.

Petition denied: Without fanfare, the case was over. What's more important, the ruling ended an era when -- at least in law, and at least concerning education -- racial justice meant integration.

To court watchers, the decision was entirely predictable. In several cases decided over the past decade, the Supreme Court justices have signaled that they want no part of desegregation. Their strategy is reminiscent of Vermont Sen. George Aiken's suggestion for how to get the United States out of Vietnam: Declare victory and leave. The justices have repeatedly absolved school districts of further desegregation obligations, even where blacks and whites still attend mostly one-race schools.

But in the annals of desegregation, Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a very special significance. It returns to the scene of the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the first time the justices said that black and white schoolchildren could be bused for purposes of integration. As with every desegregation case since the landmark 1954 judgment in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling in Swann was unanimous, but insiders later reported that the Court had been badly split. Five justices had been ready to embrace a uniform national standard -- holding that all children have a constitutional right to an integrated education, whether or not their school district was once officially segregated -- but they backed off in favor of preserving unanimity.

Although no one suspected it at the time, the Swann decision was the high-water mark for school integration in the courts, and it was the last occasion when the justices would speak on the subject with a single voice. In a 1974 Detroit lawsuit, a 5-to-4 majority effectively closed the legal channels to meaningful integration, insisting against reality that the suburbs were not complicit in maintaining segregation and thus couldn't be called on to help end it. Demography became destiny, and as whites departed the cities there was no one with whom black students could integrate, with or without busing.

In the nation as in the courthouse, integration fell out of favor with all but a handful of old-fashioned liberals (myself, I confess, among them). The idea of equal educational opportunity was reconfigured to mean control of the schools by racially defined communities or fairer access to resources. More recently, as the idea of community itself has fallen out of favor in this market-driven age, greater choice in schooling, whether through vouchers or charter academies, has been touted as the best hope for minorities. Equal opportunity itself has long since ceased to be the driving aspiration, replaced by a focus on excellence or "standards."

The advocates themselves bear part of the blame for the demise of integration, for they turned a moral imperative into a statistical task. After Swann, desegregation was equated with busing, and racial ratios became the yardstick of equality. Knowing nothing more about a community than the racial makeup of its census tracts, desegregation planners took it upon themselves to draw school-attendance zones that often required schoolchildren to spend hours each day riding on buses.

There was no constituency for such a policy. The ever-opportunistic Richard Nixon played on popular resentment, making opposition to "forced busing" a winning campaign issue in 1972, and so did school board candidates from Boston to San Francisco. The Supreme Court wasn't the Warren Court anymore, and soon enough it followed suit.

Like the War on Poverty, school integration didn't fail -- it was never given a chance. Some school districts treated desegregation not as an end in itself but as a starting point for real educational change, and there exciting things happened. Families were drawn to "magnet" schools with emphases as varied as ballet and bilingualism. Integration occurred even when families weren't compelled to put their children on buses, for good schools were something that parents of all races wanted for their offspring. When Buffalo, N.Y., not a famously enlightened place, offered a Montessori program in an inner-city elementary school, whites queued up for admission. Though some of these initiatives survive today, they don't command much support, or even attention, anymore.

Two years from now, at the half-century anniversary of Brown, there will doubtless be an outpouring of fine words about how the American judiciary made racial justice in education a national priority. But this latest Supreme Court ruling gives such sentiments the look and feel of an obituary.

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