Monday, April 17, 2006

Beyond the Segregation/Integration Paradigm

Guest Blogger

Heather Gerken

At first glance, Saturday's New York Time article on Nebraska's decision to divide Omaha's public school into "three racially identifiable" districts looks like a familiar and ugly story. The city's school district absorbed a number of predominantly white schools into the system, with the aim to distribute public school funding more equitably among whites and racial minorities. The mostly white suburban districts "rebelled," says the New York Times, and the legislature "drew up a measure to blunt the district's expansion." The legislature ultimately decided to divide the school system into three racially identifiable districts – one predominantly white, one predominantly black, and one predominantly Latino. Thirty of the 31 lawmakers who voted the districting plan into place were "conservative lawmakers from affluent white suburbs and ranching counties with a visceral dislike of the Omaha school bureaucrats."

What made the story unusual is that the 31st lawmaker to support the plan – and its author – was Ernie Chambers, the only African-American in Nebraska's legislature and a man famous for his devotion to the traditional causes of the civil rights movement. He proposed the plan because he wanted to "allow black educators to control schools in black neighborhoods." The basic question behind the story is whether Senator Chambers knows what he's doing.

Rather than attempting to answer that question – an assessment that would require a good deal more knowledge than I possess about local Omaha politics and sound educational policies more generally — I want to underscore how impoverished a vocabulary we have for discussing it. Such discussions generally turn on the terms "segregation" and "integration. The Times headline, for instance, is "Law to Segregate Omaha Schools Divides Nebraska" – and who wants to be on the wrong side of that fight? And even Jack's typically thoughtful post on the subject could be enriched by moving beyond those terms.

Some critical distinctions get lost when we cast this issue as a debate about integration v. segregation. The first is that these districts may be different from the racial enclaves of Jim Crow. The text of the story suggests that they are predominantly white and black and Latino, but not entirely segregated. We tend to assume that integration ideally means a statistical mirror – if blacks are 25% of the population, they should be 25% of the district – and often term institutions "integrated" even when they contain only a token number of minorities. Yet when racial minorities constitute statistical majorities in a district, we often call those districts as "segregated" and condemn them as such (forget the Times' headline – just think about the Supreme Court's Shaw jurisprudence). Even – or perhaps especially – in a world where significant racial disparities persist, we ought to think carefully before we affix the dreaded label "segregation" to school districts where racial minorities enjoy enough votes to control their own destinies.

Jack's post says that our public education system should not be thought of as a system of "racial spoils." In doing so, he puts his finger on precisely what seems bothersome about Nebraska's plan. And yet one wonders what, precisely, makes this a "racial spoils" system. Jack is not worried that racial minorities rather than whites will exercise political control over two of the three districts (although anyone who has read the Supreme Court's decision in Croson, where it insinuated that an affirmative action plan enacted by a majority-black city council was little more than a system of racial spoils, knows that such a worry can animate similar language). Jack is plainly concerned about the fact that these districts were intentionally designed to give racial minorities control over some subpart of the school system, something that seems inconsistent with our broader normative commitment regarding the role race ought to play in public education.

And yet in at least one part of our democratic system – voting rights – we often deliberately draw districts to ensure that racial minorities have a chance to control outcomes in some part of the system. It may be that the black legislator who proposed the Omaha plan was elected in just such a district. Jack himself notes the parallel, but he reminds us that the Supreme Court has allowed the deliberate creation of majority-minority districts for the sole purpose of creating integrated legislatures. And Jack – like the majority of the commentators quoted in the Times article – sees no possibility of integration here.

Here again, I think terminology can get in the way. If we imagine members of Omaha's black and Latino communities as being represented by the decisions made in their districts – by the successes and failures of a school system where they played a decisive role in shaping its policies – we might see integration, albeit of an unusual sort. If we took a bird's eye view of the entire Nebraska school system, we would see a kaleidoscope, with majority-white and majority-black and majority-Latino communities being "represented" by the school systems they created rather than the legislators they elected. Arguably, representation by institutions of this sort could constitute a richer vision of representation than one where a community elects a single person to speak on its behalf.

The point of this post, then, is not to disagree with Jack's analysis. He has intelligently canvassed the costs associated with Nebraska's plan, and his worries about potential dangers (like funding inequities or the danger that truly homogenous racial enclaves will develop in the long run) are especially well taken. The point is simply that we do not have a sufficiently capacious language, constitutional or otherwise, to describe the benefits that might be associated with Nebraska's plan. We need a language that moves beyond the segregation/integration paradigm, one that recognizes that minority-dominated institutions might be importantly different from homogenous minority enclaves. Without such a vocabulary, any discussion of Nebraska's plan seems likely to be one-sided at best.


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