Nov 1 2007


The media and the Supreme Court on race and public education

The June 2007 Supreme Court decision sharply limiting the use of race in public school admissions was viewed with dismay by many educators, civil rights activists and others who support diversity in our nation’s public schools. As Ted Shaw, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, explained, “In the context of segregated public schools in this country, our experience, almost without exception, is that segregation has always been a prelude to other forms of deprivation, educational and otherwise, for black [people]” (Black Enterprise, 9/07). While segregated public schools mean unequal resources and opportunities, education researchers and social scientists have demonstrated that diverse classrooms lead to positive academic outcomes and students better equipped to thrive in a multicultural society (Black Issues in Higher Education, 8/14/03; Poverty & Race, 9-10/07).

For many in the media, however, the occasion was one to celebrate. Their reaction is not surprising, of course; as has been well documented by FAIR and others (Extra!, 9-10/95, 5-6/98, 1-2/99; Brill’s Content, 10/99; CJR, 9-10/04), numerous media outlets have taken a conservative approach to affirmative action in their reporting and commentary (not to mention in the racial composition of their newsrooms).

Their coverage, though, is problematic not only because it illustrates some journalists’ reactionary views about diversity and education, but also because it is misleading, unfair and inaccurate. Many in the media have unquestioningly parroted and endorsed the assumptions and language of the Supreme Court’s majority, as well as of the petitioners (the Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky parents suing the school districts). Even though the majority opinion is deeply flawed and at times disingenuous, and the petitioners’ cases are necessarily highly biased, their perspectives and representations have been presented as factual and conclusive.

Pundits and reporters have, in turn, ignored aspects of the dissenting case that would temper or undermine such conclusions, in some cases making false statements that inaccurately bolster the petitioners’ case, or relying on stereotypes and glib, questionable presumptions. Perhaps most disturbingly, they have affirmed the attempts of the Court’s majority to cast their decision as in the spirit of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education in particular and the civil rights movement in general, a strategy that, as dissenting justice John Paul Stevens put it, constitutes a “cruel irony.”

‘To stop discrimination’

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., who wrote the majority ruling, added in a concurring opinion, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This near-tautology was offered as a compelling and conclusive assertion in editorials supporting the decision in the New York Post (6/29/07), Las Vegas Review-Journal (6/29/07), Augusta Chronicle (7/1/07) and Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (7/2/07), as well as in columns by Steve Chapman (Chicago Tribune, 7/1/07) and George Will (Washington Post, 7/5/07). The Wall Street Journal (6/29/07) called the declaration a “bedrock principle.”

Repeating Roberts’ words, these outlets endorsed the ideological strategy Roberts and the right in general follow when discussing affirmative action or plans to achieve integration or diversity. As E. Washington Rhodes explained in the African-American newspaper the Philadelphia Tribune (7/3/07), “The chief justice both ignores the continued impact of racial discrimination and the distinction between considering race as a factor to ensure integration rather than to maintain segregation.” In other words, Roberts proposed both that there was no ongoing need for proactive plans to combat segregation—no discrimination that couldn’t be stopped by simply ignoring race—and that the Seattle and Louisville school districts’ plans were equivalent to segregationist policies that showed prejudice toward children of color.

The former assumption is, of course, false; as scholars and policy experts have been reminding us for years (Sociology of Education, 10/94; Yale Law & Policy Review, 11/99; Black Issues in Higher Education, 8/2/01), the result of residential segregation and white flight is, in many areas, highly segregated schools. Many pundits pronounced, though, that we no longer have the need for programs fostering integration. “If there are any school districts in this country still purposely attempting to segregate students by color so as to provide lesser educational opportunities to non-whites,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal (6/29/07) opined, “it would be interesting to see them named.” This statement is simple-minded at best and disingenuous at worst; the integration programs in question were established to combat de facto, not de jure, segregation.

‘We’re desegregated now’

Other pundits ignored reality. “We’re desegregated now,” Tucker Carlson declared (MSNBC, 6/29/07). The Augusta Chronicle (7/1/07) offered a more moderate but also more muddled assertion:

Where there are still vestiges of state-sanctioned segregation, there are still remedies available through desegregation orders. But as those remnants of an ignoble era have crumbled, so has the foundation of those desegregation orders.

Arguing against the Seattle School District’s plan on Fox NewsSunday Roundtable (7/1/07), the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol remarked: “In the Seattle case, incidentally, the schools are totally integrated.” This ignored the fact, detailed in the respondents’ brief, that Seattle’s schools were segregated until the 1960s, when a series of integration plans like the one Kristol opposes were implemented.

Pundits also echoed the second implication of Roberts’ tautological statement—that plans to achieve diversity by fostering inclusion of children of all races are equivalent to segregationist policies that excluded children of color. Tucker Carlson (MSNBC, 6/29/07) summarized the ruling as saying “schools can no longer discriminate on the basis of race.” When scholar Dr. Ron Daniels argued in favor of policies promoting racial diversity on Fox NewsHannity & Colmes (7/3/07), Sean Hannity pronounced, “You support discrimination, that’s the difference between you and me.”

George Will (Washington Post, 7/5/07) cast those who supported plans to foster diversity as racists (as he blatantly misrepresented the rationale for inclusion):

Although progressive people would never stoop to racial stereotyping, they evidently believe that any black or other minority child, however young or from whatever social background, makes a predictable and distinctive—you might say stereotypical—contribution to “diversity.”

Erroneous assertions

The media have at times offered demonstrably false information about the cases at hand—a serious flaw skewing public opinion toward the petitioners’ side. As detailed in briefs both from the petitioner in the Seattle case and the Seattle School District, there are no designated neighborhood schools in the district (nor, in fact, were the petitioners seeking such a plan based on residence, as they explicitly state in their brief).

Under Seattle’s “Open Choice” plan, the district’s brief explains, “students submitted their choices [of high school] in order of preference and assignments were made on that basis so long as seats were available in a school.” If a school had too many student applications, “tie-breakers” were used to determine admission, with the first being “whether the student had a sibling already assigned to the school,” and the second being either proximity to the school or, in the case of schools with “enrollments deviating more than 10 percentage points from the overall district-wide racial composition,” the student’s race.

However, the Wall Street Journal (6/29/07) erroneously asserted that students were “reassign[ed] . . . from their neighborhood schools to new ones based on racial composition.” Fox News’ Brit Hume (Sunday Roundtable, 7/1/07) and the Portland Press Herald (7/3/07) offered the falsehood that race was the sole factor or tie-breaker by which admission was decided. Fox News and NPR contributor Juan Williams, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition (6/29/07), argued that the justices were not “opposed to integration” but rather “opposed to anything that would have children judged simply on the basis of skin color.” (Williams had published an op-ed in the same day’s New York Times arguing that “Brown’s time has passed,” and that policies based on race should be eliminated.)

Relying on stereotypes

In the case of the Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, Kentucky’s school district), the Board of Education’s plan, as outlined in the respondents’ brief, was based on the mandate that public schools have between 15 percent and 50 percent black students. Residential boundaries are taken into account, so that a student has a neighborhood school, although he or she is able to submit applications to other chosen schools. Assignments were made on “the basis of space and the guidelines”; a student may, indeed, be denied admission to the neighborhood school (as was the plaintiff’s son), but may be offered admission to another in a designated cluster of schools.

This complex process was reduced and misrepresented; both the Portland Press Herald (7/3/07) and the Wall Street Journal (6/29/07) lumped the Jefferson County Public Schools with the Seattle schools and implied that race was the determining factor rather than one of a list of criteria.

At times media relied on stereotypes and bigoted, false generalizations about students of color to defend the Supreme Court’s decision. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman (7/1/07) trivialized the goals of integration, perpetuated racist views of people of color and blamed minority communities for educational problems, declaring:

The real educational problems faced by minority kids today are not lack of white students to sit by but inadequate choice, lack of order, a shortage of good teachers and families who don’t make a priority of learning.

Tampa Tribune editorial writer Joseph H. Brown (7/1/07), himself African-American, also implicitly blamed people of color for any inequities in educational opportunity: “What goes on in students’ homes is more important than what happens in the Supreme Court. Maybe now the groups bent on improving education through litigation can turn their attention there.” It is clear, of course, whose homes are in question.

Hijacking Brown

Perhaps the most offensive and troubling part of the Supreme Court’s decision for many civil rights advocates was Justice Roberts’ attempt to cast his opinion as in the spirit of—indeed as both honoring and furthering—the landmark 1954 Brown decision. Roberts argued:

Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again—even for very different reasons.

Roberts’ invocation of history is based on the false premises that laws mandating discrimination are equivalent to policies seeking integration, and that assigning children to schools in order to achieve diversity is akin to the forced segregation the Brown plaintiffs faced. Many in the media followed suit.

“Far from overturning Brown,” the Denver Post (6/30/07) asserted, “Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion paid homage to it by concluding that the ‘way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’” The Augusta Chronicle (7/1/07) remarked that “it runs counter to the very spirit of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education for schools—absent an affirmative court desegregation order—to send students to certain schools based on race.” Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer declared on WJLA-TV’s Inside Washington (7/1/07) that the decision “reaffirmed Brown” because “Brown said you may not assign a child to a school on the basis of race, and this decision says you may not assign a child to a school on the basis of race.”

Some pundits tried literally to equate the plaintiffs in the Brown decision with those in the cases at hand. Editorial writer A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (7/6/07) remarked that the actions of “officials in Louisville” who “refused to let Crystal Meredith’s son Joshua attend a school close to home because of his skin color” seemed “remarkably similar to the treatment meted out to Linda Brown, the Topeka third-grader who had to ride a bus to a black school even though she could have walked to Sumner Elementary, a white school, just a few blocks away.”

The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (7/2/07) made a similar comparison:

Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 . . . started with a suit by a black father upset that his child had to be bused a long way for school instead of going to the one in the neighborhood, just because of race. One of the cases last week involved a white mother upset that her child had to be bused a long way for school instead of going to the one she wanted, all because of race.

Co-opting King

Disappointingly—but not surprisingly, given the prevalence of this disingenuous conservative strategy (Extra!, 5-6/95)—supporters of the decision tried to claim the mantle of Dr. King as well. Pennsylvania’s Lancaster New Era (7/3/07) chided the opponents of the majority opinion: “With the hostile reaction the court’s ruling has received, one can assume that the left has given up on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that Americans ‘not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”

Chief Justice Roberts was correct, however, when he indicated that he was following historical precedent, albeit not the one he claimed. As Northwestern history professor Nancy MacLean (History News Network, 8/6/07) explained, conservatives have altered their strategy since the 1960s, when they explicitly opposed the Civil Rights Movement and decisions such as Brown:

They seized the civil rights movement’s greatest strength—its moral power—to defeat its goals. They . . . claimed that civil rights measures themselves discriminated. . . . The former segregationists now portrayed themselves as the true advocates of fairness.

This “calculated strategy,” MacLean pointed out, is “avidly promote[d]” by the “Federalist Society, with which Chief Justice Roberts has collaborated and to which the Bush administration looks for judicial nominees.” The media, as the coverage of the recent decision indicates, both adopt this strategy and help facilitate its continuance by validating the premises on which it is based. With such a powerful ally, it is no wonder conservatives are celebrating.