Spelman College President Beverly Tatum has championed racially diverse relationships for most of her life: as a child growing up in New England, as a young professor teaching about the psychology of racism and as an author writing about cross-racial interaction.
Her perspective as a self-titled “integration baby” led her to predict the June 28 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary integration efforts in two public school districts.
“The current composition of the Supreme Court … increases the possibility that the Court may side with the Department of Education and rule that any use of race as a selection criteria is unconstitutional,” she wrote in her latest book, Can We Talk About Race? which was published in April.
The topic of resegregation has been on many minds following the high court’s decision. The Court voted 5-4 to strike down school integration plans in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle.
While the decision does not affect several hundred public school districts under federal court order to desegregate, it does jeopardize similar programs in hundreds of cities and counties using voluntary integration as a means to diversify their schools.
The court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, asserted that classifying students by race perpetuates the unequal treatment outlawed by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s only Black member, in a concurring opinion. He added that a colorblind Constitution means “such race-based decision making is unconstitutional.”
Yet such a view ignores the important role of integration in society, Tatum argues in her essay, “The Resegregation of Our Schools and the Affirmation of Identity.” Without it, she wrote, much of the progress made during the civil rights era could be lost as interracial contact decreases.
“Such a ruling will undoubtedly lead to the rapid unraveling of voluntary integration plans, with few if any alternatives left to try,” she said.
Tatum pointed out that adults with cross-racial friendships will have children with cross-racial friendships. But the likelihood of having a diverse set of friends, or even a single close interracial friendship, is often tied to one’s attendance at a racially mixed school as a child.
“As school districts move back to neighborhood school policies, the next generation of White students will likely have less school contact with people of color than their predecessors did,” Tatum wrote.
Tatum said the Supreme Court decision does not bode well for people who would encourage a diverse environment for themselves and their children. She pointed to housing patterns that continue to create fairly homogeneous communities across the country — meaning that even cities that are diverse overall are separated on a block-by-block level.
Because many school districts are decided by where people live, segregated neighborhoods will usually translate into segregated classrooms, she said.
“When people leave work or turn off the television, they find themselves in a non-diverse environment,” she said. “In their day-to-day interactions, children have fewer opportunities to interact across racial lines. The choices are getting narrower and narrower.”
The cycle of segregation can be broken at the college level, but with affirmative action programs threatened at institutions of higher education, that opportunity may also be shrinking, Tatum said.
She pointed out that for years, cases have moved through the courts chipping away at such strategies, first at the grade school level and gradually shifting toward higher education. June’s Supreme Court ruling “sets the stage for more challenges of diversity programs at the college and university level,” she said.
Tatum does not hold out much hope that neighborhoods will become more diverse, and said that integration will be the responsibility of committed educators and parents.
“We cannot expect the composition of our neighborhoods to alter the composition of our schools anytime soon,” she wrote. “Therefore, educators must be intentional in working to address the limitations created by racial isolation in our elementary and public schools.”
White children need an integrated school setting to combat stereotypes and encourage their understanding of social justice issues, Tatum said. And Black children need access to the resources and opportunities that often come with a more integrated environment. And teachers of all colors and cultures must be willing to reflect on their own experiences with race and be open minded about others to create a more inclusive atmosphere for students.
Desegregation must be more than a symbol from a forgotten era, Tatum urged.
“Fundamentally it was a struggle for equal access to publicly funded educational resources,” she wrote. “Clearly that struggle continues.”
– Associated Press
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