Segregation and free association

Posted: Jan 23, 2003 12:00 AM
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the media finds as many ways as possible to tell Americans that King's dream has not yet come true. The Harvard University Civil Rights Project provided the media with ammunition: a report stating that schools were becoming more segregated. The authors portrayed this voluntary association as purposeful resegregation and complained that the education of American youth was being scuttled. "Has Martin Luther King's dream become a nightmare?" the authors ask. Two points must be made here. First, voluntary association, whether in choice of schools or in choice of residential area, is voluntary association, not "resegregation." Second, diversity of skin color does not enhance the educational experience. The report's authors characterize an increased demographic gap in schools as a rollback in integration. They say that mechanisms like forced busing and desegregation plans are necessary governmental interventions and that any cutbacks in these programs constitute abandonment of integration principles and a return to the racist policies of the past. This assumes, as most liberals do, that people are inherently racist and that governmental intervention is necessary. But this is hardly the case. No longer are there separate water fountains and restaurants for blacks. Today, a presidential administration without a black person would be pilloried as racist. Today, a Senate majority leader who makes laudatory remarks about segregation is forced to resign his post. Today, even being called racist has the power to ruin a career -- just ask Washington, D.C., mayoral aide David Howard, who was forced to resign after uttering the non-racial word "niggardly." But if people are not racist, then why are whites and minorities going to different schools? Minorities tend to live within defined districts -- by choice. While more affluent members of minority communities move into suburban neighborhoods with less of a minority presence, poorer minorities remain in racially homogenous areas. They are not relegated to ghettos or run-down neighborhoods by force, as were Jews in Europe or blacks in pre-MLK days. They remain in "black neighborhoods" or "Latino neighborhoods" either because the neighborhoods are familiar territory or because of poverty. And if they cannot afford to get out, this is not the fault of the capitalist system -- after all, other poor areas have transformed themselves from run-down to good and clean. If the problem in the black and Latino communities is that predominantly black and Latino schools are worse than predominantly white ones, is that a problem that will be solved by forced busing or a problem that requires deeper change within minority communities? Is forced busing likely to raise the quality of minority education or more likely to bring down the quality of all public schools by forcing bad students into good schools? The second relevant point about "resegregation" is that diversity of skin color alone does not enhance the overall education of students. Having a class with black, Latino, Asian, Jewish and white Christian students certainly looks better in brochures, but it does not substantially improve the students' education. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the 13 states the Harvard study named as states with the highest white exposure to black and Latino students received an average grade of C-minus in terms of their K-12 education programs in 2002. The 20 states named as most segregated states for black students received an average grade of C-plus. Even more striking, the performance gap between white students and minority students in 12 of the states named by the Harvard study as states with highest white exposure to black and Latino students averaged 12.7 percent (information for Delaware was unavailable); in 19 of 20 of the most segregated states, the performance gap was only slightly higher, at 16.4 percent (information for Rhode Island was unavailable). The similarity of these performance gaps suggests that the problem of black and Latino education lies not in the level of school integration but in those communities alone. Even in schools with diverse student bodies, studies show that students of the same race tend to associate with one another and form separate cliques; sociological benefits may exist, but they are minute at best. The vast majority of Americans are not for government-enforced resegregation, which is not so different from the government-enforced segregation fought by Martin Luther King Jr. By the soft bigotry of low expectations, the Harvard Civil Rights Project authors expect government to curtail freedom of association. Impinging on the rights of black and white Americans alike would be directly in conflict with King's conception of a colorblind society.