From the Michael Richards rant to the sea of impoverished black faces left displaced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one thing has been constant: Many Americans have been shocked — not just reflexively out of sadness or disgust, but from a sense of disbelief that vestiges of our racist past continue to persist. After all, the logic seems to say, given 40 years of civil-rights laws, mainstream society is now colorblind … right?
It is against this somewhat confusing backdrop, that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments recently about the constitutionality of two school desegregation plans: one in Seattle, Wash. and another in Jefferson County, Ky. The Seattle plan seeks a racial balance only in public high schools; when a school has too many applicants, "tiebreakers" decide who gets in. One tiebreaker considers students' race to try to achieve diversity. Jefferson County's plan ensures that each public school's enrollment is at least 15 percent African-American, but no more than 50 percent. The hope is to diversify what would otherwise be heavily minority and heavily white schools in the district.
Advocates of the plans, such as the American Educational Research Association, point to decades of research which indicates that racially segregated schools tend to have much fewer educational resources and ultimately perpetuate the negative effects of past racist policies. They also suggest that racial diversity in education leads to important benefits for students of all racial backgrounds.
Critics, like St. Petersburg Times' columnist, Robyn E. Blumner, concede that diversity may be a "laudable goal," but not laudable enough to "overcome the strong constitutional dictate" that "society should be colorblind." “Besides,” says Blumner, "while blacks and whites still tend to live in separate neighborhoods, it's more a matter of economics and personal preference than any legal apartheid. Over the last 50 years, sufficient redress has occurred."
Many would say a generation that considers race irrelevant demonstrates the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that his children "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." But some experts worry that decades devoted to creating a colorblind society may have created a new problem: a generation that ignores disparities that still exist.
"People think this sort of colorblindness is a kind of progress, but I see it as more pernicious than that," says Tyrone Foreman, an associate professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and co-author of the recent study, Racial Apathy and Colorblindness in Post-Katrina America. Racial apathy, the report suggests, "is a form of prejudice that serves functions similar to those of the overt prejudice of the past in that it supports and sustains the racial status quo in society."
"Susan," a white Midwesterner who agreed to be interviewed for the study, calls herself racially "open" and says she does not think about or notice race. She did, however, confess, "I must think about it some because I wouldn't want my kids to marry, you know, a black person." When pressed about whether there were other situations in which she thinks about race, she said "You know, I just never really think...You know unless I see a big black guy coming at me with a tire iron or something. Then I might be afraid."
Another white respondent, "Bill," says, "I hate all this racial stuff .... I don't pay attention to it. I don't care about it." Bill did, however, mention that he had worked hard to keep his kids away from "the inner city," and had moved to a town where the large local public high school has, "maybe a dozen black kids total." But otherwise, says Bill, he doesn't think much about racial issues.
Janet Croft, another white respondent, claims to be colorblind, but adds "One thing that does enrage me, whether it be blacks or Hispanic or whatever, that because of slavery a hundred years ago, I owe you. No I don't. That's crap.... " For Croft, the issue is not whether she is presently advantaged by past racism, or whether others are unfairly disadvantaged by it. The fact that she never participated in slavery absolves her of any obligation to acknowledge, much less help remedy, any of its lingering effects.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld Seattle's desegregation plan, Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, emphasized that "it carries no racial stigma and says nothing at all about the individual's aptitude. The program does use race as a criterion, but only to endure that the population of each public school roughly reflects the city's racial composition."
Regardless, a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, it seems federal policies aimed at integrating public education may possibly hit a major roadblock. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the deciding vote in upholding affirmative action in higher education, has been replaced by Justice Samuel L. Alito, who wrote on a 1985 job application that he was "particularly proud" of his contributions in cases which argued that "racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed."
Meanwhile, according to Forman's study, young people "are increasingly becoming comfortable with racial and ethnic inequality." In 2003, 27 percent were "never concerned" about racial disparities, compared with 13 percent in 1976. "It makes us feel racist if we acknowledge race, so we try not to, and we end up being color-mute," says Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas-Austin.
More than 40 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr., remarked in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." The Supreme Court is scheduled to render its decision on the school desegregation cases this summer. Let's hope the Court doesn't prove him right.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.