In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court today ruled against Seattle and Kentucky school-choice programs that considered race in the assignment of children to public schools. Associate Professor Mica Pollock, whose research — including the award-winning book Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School and the forthcoming book Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools — focuses on the role of race in educational settings, discusses the decision.
Q. How will the Supreme Court ruling affect schools that want to maintain racial diversity?
A. As Justice Stevens suggested, districts are now going to be waiting in fear to be sued for even voluntary attempts to create or maintain racial diversity in school enrollment. It’s a sad day in America when people fear they will be sued for attempts to create diverse and equitable schools.
This ruling could prompt more complex efforts at diversifying school populations. The danger is that districts will hear this ruling as a mandate to mute any analysis or discussion of race when planning student enrollment or school programs. But districts don’t have to be colormute – they don’t have to stop their conversations about race and opportunity, and about student body diversity. I hope districts refuse colormuteness, and keep talking about how to attract diverse populations to their schools and educational programs.
School-level educators also need to keep talking about racially equal opportunity inside their schools and classrooms. No one in the field of education should take this opinion as a mandate to stop talking about race and opportunity, or the need for diversity. We can’t afford that as a nation.
Q. Are you fearful that this ruling will result in increased school segregation or will districts find a way around the ruling?
A. I’m certain that the ruling will result in increased school segregation, as districts abandon voluntary desegregation plans out of fear. I imagine that people interpreting this opinion in more detail will keep debating how it leaves open the potential to consider race as one of many factors in school admissions; I know people will keep debating how to use various other methods to pursue a racially diverse student body in a school.
Q. Do you see this ruling as part of a trend? Or is it an anomaly?
A. This caps off a legal trend of the past several decades, in which judges and courts have repeatedly limited efforts to diversify schools and to equalize opportunities to learn for students of color. Brown’s original intent was to outlaw race-conscious efforts to deny students of color opportunity. It outlawed race-conscious efforts to create segregated schools. Today, the majority argued that race-conscious efforts to help provide students of color opportunity, or to create diverse schools, are discriminatory. As Justice Stevens argued, the majority distorted the logic of Brown vs. Board.
Q. What are the benefits of having a diverse classroom? Why should this even matter?
A. Diverse classrooms, of course, need to be equitable classrooms. When opportunities are distributed equally and sufficiently within diverse schools and classrooms, they seem to be the nation’s ideal learning environments. Students in such classrooms get exposed to a greater diversity of human experience, and this enhances the learning experience for all.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, who argued that all the nation’s schools are now “equal,” is grossly uninformed. Schools dominated by students of color typically are less well resourced than predominantly white schools. Given the intertwining of race and class in the United States, they also tend to be pockets of student poverty, which depresses student performance. The students of color in today’s segregated schools are equally intelligent to the nation’s white students, but typically they do not have equal opportunities to learn or succeed educationally.