Perspectives: What Parents v. Seattle Means for Colleges and Universities

The recent U.S. Supreme Court
decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District,
though it steers clear of dismantling college and university admissions
policies, has tremendous implications for those of us concerned about diversity
in higher education.
According to the new Supreme Court decision, K-12 schools have no authority to
create racial balance in schools in order to assure that students are educated
in a racially diverse environment.

The Seattle decision cites Brown v.
Board of Education
to argue that the “classification and segregation themselves
denoted inferiority.” But it is not segregation that interests the plurality of
the court, but classification. For the majority of this court, making any
school assignment decision based on race, even if the aim is integrated
education, is wrong.

In K-12 schools, this decision will lead to even
more segregation of White and non-White students. School districts,
particularly in the North, have used voluntary desegregation to make school
boundaries as racially balanced as possible. The end of these programs will
create more schools with students who are homogenous, and expose students to
fewer peers of different backgrounds.

For colleges and
universities, the Parents v. Seattle decision does not mean that
admissions decisions will be changed, but it does mean that the students we
admit will have had less contact with members of other groups, will know less
about other cultures within the United States and will not have known a
full range of individuals from other groups. The college classroom may be the
first time students have a substantial discussion with members of other groups.

This makes colleges and
universities, and what happens in and out of the classroom, even more
important. In areas like Southeast Michigan, where I teach, going to a
college might be the only diverse environment our students have engaged in. And
given the level of residential segregation, it may be the last. It is our
responsibility to help students grapple with these issues productively in the
short time we have with them.

Another implication of the Seattle decision that colleges and
universities must address is the failure to teach students about the issues and
achievements of the civil rights movement in America, and what the goals of that
movement were. Reading the decision, one would think that Brown was
about making colorblind decisions, or avoiding racial classifications
altogether.

If more of our students had
the opportunity to study Brown and the civil rights movement, they would
have a stronger sense of what the case was about — the segregation of
African-American, Hispanic and White students, and the need for ways to address
these injustices within the framework of the Constitution.

This paragraph of the Brown
decision might be a good starting place:

“To separate [students] from
others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates
a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect
their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The quote can be
read several ways. Politicians, leaders, scholars and the public have long
debated what means can be used to address the race-based educational
segregation and its effects on student learning and development. These are the
kinds of questions our students must confront, grapple with and learn about
through discussion and debate — they will not deal with them so fully in any
other arena.

Teaching
African-American history at a college in Japan
this spring has brought home to me the importance of giving our college students
a critical understanding of the civil rights movement. In Japan,
a country which would characterize itself as racially and culturally
homogenous, students are very interested in the American civil rights movement
and the struggles of African-American and other groups to attain equality and
opportunity. They are, in part, looking for a history that will help them
understand what it is to live in a more diverse world than the one they were
raised in.

In America,
the Supreme Court and much of our political life is moving in the opposite
direction. While America
has a long tradition of racial and ethnic diversity, and a history of
commitment to an integrated society, we seem to be hunkering down in our
neighborhoods, surrounded by people like ourselves, with little knowledge of or
interest in our own rich history.

– Dr.
Russ Olwell is a visiting Fulbright lecturer at Kyoritsu Women’s University in Tokyo,
Japan, and is
an associate professor of history at Eastern
Michigan University.


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