A fortnight has passed since the Supreme Court put a halt to the involuntary racial integration of public schools in two major cities. Remarkably, the skies have not fallen. Contrary to Justice Stephen Breyer’s long dissenting opinion, those skies won’t topple any time soon.
These were important cases, not to be minimized. One came from Louisville, the other from Seattle. On their own authority, local school boards in both cities had imposed measures to bring about a degree of measured racial integration in some of their elementary and secondary schools. Voting 5-4, the high court ordered them to stop it.
Many of my readers know where I come from — and where I’ve been — on cases of school desegregation. My Louisiana- born grandfather was an officer in the Confederate army. In 1920 I was born in segregated Oklahoma. In the ’30s, I went to college at the lily-white University of Missouri. I was 40 years old before I ever met a black American as a social equal. Suddenly I grew up. Abruptly I came to realize the dreadful, indefensible evils of state-imposed racial segregation.
Against that personal history I write today about the Seattle case. Let me quote from Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion for the majority:
"Seattle School District No. 1 operates 10 regular public high schools. Some schools are more popular than others. If too many students list the same school as their first choice, the district employs a series of ‘tiebreakers’ to determine who will fill the open slots at the oversubscribed school. The first tiebreaker selects for admission students who have a sibling currently enrolled at the chosen school. The next tiebreaker depends upon the racial composition of the particular school and the race of the individual student."
Stick with me for the rest of the paragraph:
"In the district’s public schools approximately 41 percent of enrolled students are white; the remaining 49 percent, comprising all other racial groups, are classified by Seattle for assignment purposes as nonwhite. If an oversubscribed school is not within 10 percentage points of the district’s overall white/nonwhite racial balance, it is what the district calls ‘integration positive,’ and the district employs a tiebreaker that selects for assignment students whose race ‘will serve to bring the school into balance.’"
Et cetera, et cetera. For a small but still substantial number of pupils in both cities, said the chief justice, "race is determinative standing alone. When race comes into play, it is decisive by itself." In 2001-2002, three popular schools in Seattle had too many whites: They were "integration positive," i.e., their numbers thus had to be infused with 216 nonwhites. Et cetera, et cetera.
Out of his personal history, Justice Clarence Thomas contributed an informed concurrence to Roberts’ opinion. Justice Anthony Kennedy added a mushy opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice John Paul Stevens contributed a pointless dissent. It remained for Justice Breyer to unload a 68-page dissenting opinion, accompanied by eight pages of appendix. The other four justices, splitting 2-2, sensibly stayed mum.
Breyer’s impassioned and almost interminable dissent was the day’s most interesting deliverance. He loved it so much he read almost all of it aloud. Ordinarily Breyer ranks one-two-three with Ginsburg and Thomas as the gummiest writers on the court, but on this Thursday morning he was clear, dedicated, and dead wrong.
Breyer completely missed the point of what the chief justice and his four colleagues were seeking. They were trying their inarticulate best to serve a great American ideal. They were urging color-blind equality before the law. Fifty years ago the Brown case made a mighty stride in that direction. Breyer and his well-intentioned mates were going tippy-tippy-toe in exactly the opposite way.
It is said that no one knows sin better than a repentant sinner. White Southerners are still doing their penance. We are not alone. Racial prejudice is easy to come by and hard to cast off. Breyer and his misguided cohort mistakenly believe that our nation’s residual racism will be cured by a little more racism. Such reasoning is drawn straight from the pages of "Alice in Wonderland."
Old-timers will recall the story. The March Hare oiled the Mad Hatter’s watch with butter. Soon the watch was two days wrong.
"I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works," sighed the Mad Hatter.
"But it was the best butter," the March Hare replied.
Was Lewis Carroll’s "Alice" a story for children? Grown-ups should read it more often.