Desegregation Dilemmas Continue

Officials in Shelby County, Tenn., complain they’ll have to spend millions to satisfy a federal judge’s “arbitrary” desegregation order. It’ll mean busing minority students up to an hour away and replacing hundreds of white teachers with black ones, they say.

In Huntsville, Ala., under a similar court order, students can transfer from a school where they’re in the racial majority, but not the other way around.

And in the Tucson, Ariz., Unified School District, students could move from one school to another only if the change improved “the ethnic balance of the receiving school and (did) not further imbalance the ethnic makeup of the home school.”

But wait: Hasn’t the U.S. Supreme Court consistently moved away from using race as a factor in deciding where kids should go to school?

Didn’t the high court recently put an exclamation point on that trend, ruling that two districts’ heavy reliance on race in student assignment policies violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection?

Yes, and yes. But there are still hundreds of districts across the country, from the Northeast to the Southwest, that operate under federal court desegregation orders — some more than four decades old.

These districts are in a unique and sharply debated position with respect to the Supreme Court’s rulings. They exist in what critics consider a historical Twilight Zone, where federal judges can make seemingly contradictory decisions.

“So which ruling do I violate?” asks a perplexed Bobby Webb, superintendent of schools in Shelby County, where Memphis is located. “The judge’s ruling now, or the earlier rulings that we can’t discriminate against people on the basis of the color of their skin?”

Front-page court battles over integration are mostly a thing of the past. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, there are at least 253 school districts still under federal court supervision in racial inequality cases — and those are just the ones in which Justice intervened.

Many of the more infamous names — Boston, Little Rock, Charlotte, N.C. — are gone from the list, having satisfied judges with their desegregation efforts and being granted what’s called “unitary status.” In the last two years alone, at least 75 districts have won such status.

Of those that remain, most are in the South. Georgia leads with 61, followed by Mississippi with 51, Alabama with 50 and Louisiana with 30. But long-standing cases are still pending in places like Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana and Illinois.

The question of these districts came up this past year as the Supreme Court heard arguments involving voluntary diversity plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.

In June, the court ruled that student assignment policies in those two districts relied too heavily on individual students’ races and, so, were unconstitutional. But in those two districts there were no orders to remedy past state-sponsored segregation.

On the other hand, districts operating under integration orders may set policies that explicitly consider race. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledged the “anomaly” of demanding that such districts work diligently toward racial integration, but once it’s achieved mandating that race be ignored.

“What’s constitutionally required one day gets constitutionally prohibited the next day,” she said. “That’s very odd.”

Others have expressed confusion and frustration.

In Memphis, the school board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a joint motion to end 44 years of court oversight. The Department of Justice joined in, writing that on the whole, the district had “complied in good faith with its obligations” under the desegregation orders.

U.S. District Judge Bernice Bouie Donald disagreed strongly.

The old court orders require districts to dismantle “all vestiges” of government-sponsored segregation. A district must show compliance in six areas: student body composition, faculty, staff, facilities, extracurricular activities and transportation — the so-called “Green factors,” from a landmark Virginia case with a plaintiff by that name.

While Donald agreed that Shelby County had achieved integration in school staffing, transportation and facilities, she ruled the district was still woefully deficient when it came to student and faculty assignment.

Of the district’s 46 schools, she noted, only 17 had a racial makeup that was reflective, within 10 percentage points, of the 32 percent black student population. And when the new Southwind High School opened its doors this fall, it was around 95 percent black.

After making considerable progress, she wrote in late July, “the County has seemingly drifted from any serious focus on desegregation.”