Friday, July 20, 2007

Guest Blogger: The Beginning of the End for Conservative Race Theory

By Christopher Newfield, Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

One of the truisms of our time is that conservatives rule American politics because they have won the battle of ideas. Although The Supreme Court's new rejection of the use of race in diversity programs in the Louisville and Seattle school districts (No. 05-908) seems like redundant confirmation, the real story of the case is Justice Breyer's astonishing 77-page dissent.

Breyer dismantles every moving part of the conservative case, one piece at a time. The case will not be remembered for its plurality opinion but for Breyer' dissent, which reassembles a democratic theory of racial integration.

In the Seattle decision, Chief Justice John Roberts bases the plurality opinion on the standard, three-part conservative argument. First, racial classification is always and intrinsically bad, not just when it is used to subordinate or stigmatize a group. Second, with very rare exceptions, racial classification can only be used to reverse an institution's own prior, state-sanctioned segregation: voluntary improvements are not allowed. Third, racial diversity is almost always a cover for numerical quotas that try to make institutions conform to the racial mixtures that prevail in society at large. Diversity's secret goal is what the Chief Justice calls "racial balancing," and it is unconstitutional.

As is equally standard in such contexts, racial consciousness is presented as a central threat to individual rights and personal choice. Finally, the icing on the conservative cake is that the color-blind scheme turns out to be, in this view, the only effective form of anti-racism: to cite Roberts' media tag-line, fully pre-tested by conservative think tanks: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." The real causes and effects that shape American society are replaced by a series of scholastic equations, in which race blindness equals race legality equals race justice, and the package is held together by a tone of superior moral rectitude toward the race conscious authorities who impair the freedom to choose.

Breyer systematically rejects each of these claims. First, his lengthy examination of precedent shows that the Court has repeatedly endorsed racial classification when it includes rather than excludes. The whole point of applying "strict scrutiny" standards to racial classifications is precisely to "take relevant differences" between "fundamentally different situations . . . into account." The Roberts plurality, Breyer writes, is in fact breaking with Court precedent in order to make strict scrutiny "fatal in fact" to all racial classification across the board. The power of Breyer's opinion comes from his relentless evisceration of the taboo against race-consciousness based on the Court's own decisions. The conclusion is that the cornerstone of conservative race theory has no basis in the Court's own opinions on race.

Second, Breyer shows that court-sanctioned de jure discrimination ("segregation by state action") is not the only kind that can be addressed with race-conscious programs: de facto discrimination, like the educational effects of housing segregation, is also a legitimate target. The stakes here are whether schools, with public support, have the right to seek to increase racial mixing in communities where larger housing and income patterns make that mixing unlikely. Conservatives have said no, race-conscious remedies can be used only in cases of extreme previous racism, which is like saying that pesticide bans should apply only to former toxic waste sites and not to the landscape at large. Breyer's argument is a fundamental rejection of the conservative restriction.

Third, Breyer argues that the goal of diversity practices is to keep racial integration from moving full speed into reverse. The gains of the period between 1968 and 1980 have been almost entirely lost, as nicely articulated by Breyer's description of the empirical evidence of resegregation. Does the desire of white parents to send their children to whatever school they want always trump the goal of keeping residentially segregated racial groups in communication with each other? Breyer argues that the state has a compelling interest in the use of education to create the powers of understanding that underwrite a multi-racial democracy. He also argues that the districts have bent over backwards to protect individual choice, thus rejecting the Right's assertion that choice and racial diversity are contradictory.

The effect of Breyer's opinion is to hold conservative race theory to account. It has dominated the courts during the same period in which school segregation has increased, when administrators and teachers have had to jump through new legal hoops every year, when educational disparity - like the economic kind - has increased all over the country. Advocates of color-blindness has made all of this worse, attacking nearly all programs of racial inclusion as assaults on liberty, painting as dire threats the integrationist remedies that thirty years ago were considered the least society could do.

Color-blindness has also allowed many white parents to dodge the question of whether they are willing to fix the multi-racial schools their children are assigned to rather than fighting endlessly to keep them from going there in the first place. Conservatives have used racial resentment to blind whites to the general benefit of high-quality public provisions for all students, including the benefit to themselves of Latinos and African Americans receiving equally good educations.

Breyer's opinion, though on the losing side, may eventually help refocus the outrage of whites, who have sought to use the courts for the benefit of their own children regardless of the effects on the children of others, refocus them on how the success of their society depends on the equal distribution of quality in education.

4 comments:

knicksgrl0917 said...
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Rotary said...

Interesting but what is racial integration the ideas and movements for true intregation have reversed where we have to be aware of our neighbours the 'bleeding hearts' and goverments have gone too far, it is the once majority that is now the minority, not in numbers but in freedom of movement and speech, we need a reassessment of racial systems to be equal for all.

camsex said...

Good Job! :)

Perde said...

usefull article.