The Message of Racial Inferiority

February 09, 1991

The Supreme Court has ruled in an Oklahoma case that a formerly legally segregated school system that has made a "good faith" effort to comply with court orders to desegregate may be freed from the court's control and orders even if some of its schools remain racially segregated. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented on the grounds that the survival of racially identifiable schools in places with a history of state-imposed segregation "perpetuate the message of racial inferiority associated with the segregation. Therefore such schools must be eliminated wherever feasible."

We oppose school segregation whether produced by law or by custom, but we think the time has come to take another approach to its persistence.

As Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in his majority opinion, "From the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination." Once the policies that federal courts ordered -- busing, magnet schools, pairing, etc. -- are employed for enough time to effect a remedy, there is no legal justification for the orders to stay in effect, and no social or educational reason, either. School segregation that survives honest, comprehensive and prolonged efforts to root it out is the result of causes unrelated to school policies.

We are concerned about the stigmatizing message of inferiority that segregation can send, too. But what about the message sent by a policy that seems to say minority students cannot learn unless they have white classmates? That's pretty stigmatizing, too. And, of course, it is wrong.

Wrong, except that most all-black schools are inferior. This has nothing to do with skin color of students and everything to do with the resources available for education. Predominantly black schools in Baltimore City that produce students who do poorly on tests and in life and predominantly white schools in Baltimore County that produce successes are unequal because far more money per pupil is spent in the county.

The Linowes Commission, the Metropolitan Education Coalition and several other groups want to see this sort of discrepancy narrowed. It should be done politically, if possible. If that's not possible, a good case can be made that such discrepancies amount to state-imposed discrimination, which both Justice Marshall and Chief Justice Rehnquist agree is unconstitutional.

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