Paul Greenberg

Today, half a century later, two other school districts - one in Seattle and another in Louisville, Ky. - have now come before the U.S. Supreme Court echoing what was the Little Rock School District's chief argument in 1958. Only this time it is white students who must be discriminated against in order to preserve the "educational quality" and stability of these school districts.

Because, it is argued, if white students are allowed into the schools of their choice, and which they would have every right to attend if they weren't the wrong color, then these school districts would soon be re-segregated and the quality of education lowered unacceptably.

It is still assumed that, by some mysterious process of osmosis, educational quality emanates from the presence of white children in the classroom. And if they were removed from the largely black schools they've been assigned to, their black classmates would suffer unjustly, even unconstitutionally.

Whether this argument is called racism or classism or just realism, it still places the interest and desires of the school district, the group, the "community," above the rights of individual students. Just as Little Rock's appeal did in 1958. The only difference is that this time the kids being discriminated against on account of their race are white.

There was a time, back in the '50s and '60s, when a legally enforced system of racial segregation had to be broken up. Back then, this numbers game played with black and white chips may have been relevant. It showed, by the numbers, whether Jim Crow education was really being ended.

But half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, the game grows less and less relevant-or useful.

Just imagine if all the futile effort and expense put into this endless litigation had been invested in improving education for all. That is, invested in innovations like vouchers, charter schools, individual tracking of students, merit pay for teachers, basic accountability. Š Would many of us care about the color of the child next to ours in school if both were getting a first-rate education?

While listening to the attorneys and justices arguing this case - what a useful innovation C-SPAN is! - what struck me was how little had changed since 1968. But this time it was the "liberal" justices of the court like Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who were arguing in favor of racial discrimination in order to achieve some loftier goal, like educational quality and community stability.

Once again a curious reversal has taken place, and things have come full circle.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.