Race, Gender, and the Politics of Segregation

In the last three months, the Supreme Court fired off a trio of rulings that women's rights advocates say have wounded women's equality. But it saved a final bullet in for the last day of the 2006-2007 term.

In a 5-4 decision, the court on Thursday struck down a pair of voluntary plans to integrate public schools in Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky. On their face, the cases are about race, but women's rights advocates say the court's decision will also have a profound impact on girls and women.

"The decision negatively affects all students, including girls who continue to be subject to both race- and sex-based stereotypes in school and in other academic and social arenas," officials at the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

Diverse environments encourage students to think beyond stereotypes of all kinds and recognize individuals as unique and complex, the group's Co-President Marcia Greenberger wrote. That is especially beneficial for female students, who suffer from negative stereotypes about their abilities in such male-dominated fields as math and science.

Integrated schools also offer students of all races and genders a higher quality education than racially isolated schools, added Jennifer Brown, vice president and legal director of Legal Momentum, a women's rights legal advocacy group in New York. That is key for women and girls, especially those of color, because they are more likely than their male peers to grow up to be poor. Integrated education, in other words, helps lift them out of poverty. But Thursday's ruling sets back efforts to promote equality of education, advocates said.

The decision comes on the heels of three others that have dealt blows to women's rights, revealing the impact of the 2006 retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor, the legendary centrist who often provided the pivotal vote in cases involving women's rights. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito won confirmation to her seat in January 2006.

In April, the newly conservative court upheld a federal law banning a specific kind of abortion procedure even though it lacked an exception to protect the health of the woman -- a decision that overturned a precedent laid out more than three decades ago in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. In May, the court restricted women's ability to seek legal remedies for gender-based pay discrimination. And in June, the court ruled that businesses to not have to pay the federal minimum wage or overtime pay to home-care workers, the vast majority of whom are low-income women of color.

Then came yesterday's decision, in which the court reversed federal appellate court rulings and struck down two school districts that used race-conscious student assignment policies designed to integrate public elementary and high schools in Louisville and Seattle. The policies prevented some children from attending their first-choice schools, prompting parents to file suit on the grounds that the policies violate the Constitution's equal protection clause.

Writing for the plurality of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that racial integration can only be brought about through race-neutral means. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored his own opinion, siding with the Roberts plurality but allowing other means, such as the selection of school locations and the establishment of magnet schools, to achieve racial integration.

Still, the decision endangers similar policies around the country, leaving supporters of voluntary racial integration plans fearing a return to the kind of school segregation that was barred in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 ruling that declared that separate public schools for black and white students were inherently unequal.

That would be bad not only for minorities, but also for women and girls, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, whose members joined civil rights groups to demonstrate on the steps of the Supreme Court on Dec. 4, the day oral arguments were heard.

Racial segregation is in fact inextricably linked to gender segregation -- a little known facet of U.S. history, according to the National Women's Law Center.

In the wake of the Brown, states turned to gender segregation to mitigate the effects of racial integration, according the center, which filed an amicus brief on the subject last year. Some 20 other groups also signed on to the brief.

Three years after the landmark decision, Tennessee enacted a law allowing school districts to segregate by gender, and Mississippi followed suit in 1964. Meanwhile, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas passed laws allowing school boards to consider gender in school assignments, which resulted in greater levels of gender segregation in public schools. School boards in other states circumvented the legislative process and segregated public schools by sex on their own accord, single-handedly turning co-ed public schools into single-sex institutions.

The motivation behind the turn to sex segregation was to prevent miscegenation, which opponents of integration feared would occur more frequently in integrated schools, the authors of the amicus brief argue. Gender-segregated schools were created to protect white women from black men, who were perceived as oversexed, and keep white men away from black women, who were perceived as sexually loose, the authors state.

The brief cites an old southern saying that sums up the fears of the day: "The key to the schoolroom door is the key to the bedroom door."

Sex-segregated schools played up stereotypes about gender as well as race, denying women of all races equal educational opportunities, the authors argue. Instead of preparing them for intellectually robust lives in the public sphere, schools for girls -- long considered men's intellectual inferiors -- emphasized domestic arts such as sewing, cooking, and housekeeping. Race also determined the curricula, according to the brief: White girls were groomed to be wives and mothers, while black girls were cultivated to be domestic servants.

Federal courts eventually barred states from using sex segregation to block full racial integration, but stereotypes about women's abilities persisted, and are exacerbated in non-integrated schools, the authors argue.

Those problems will only worsen in the wake of Thursday's decision, because local governments are now hamstrung in their efforts to desegregate public schools, advocates said. According to Brown, "segregation of the races promotes all manner of stereotypes -- stereotypes based on sex as well as race."