Homework Over Summer Vacation

There’s been so much stuff going on in the past month, both in the world and my own life, that I feel like I fell behind in the news somewhere around the beginning of June. Hence, no posts; I’ve been working on some other things. But There are some things I’d like to address, briefly:

The Thomas-Roberts-Alito Axis

Instead of focusing on how the recent 5-4 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education (which I will henceforth call ‘Meredith v. Board of Ed’) essentially overturned Brown v. Board of Ed, which is what everyone else is doing, let’s see if there’s anything which can be gleaned from this decision that’s useful.

Sometimes you’ll hear a white person say we don’t need affirmative action because “there’s no racism anymore.” For those of you who don’t speak the language, what they’re trying to say is, “I haven’t called anyone ‘nigger’ in years! Get off my back!” Someone once said that the privilege of being white is that you never have to think about it. It’s a story as old as America itself: shit happens to black people and it’s not white people’s problem. And so Roberts quotes Brown in his decision which effectively neuters it.

Not that we should be surprised, but it looks like this is the death knell for affirmative action. We found out when he was confirmed that Samuel Alito played up his expertise in arguing against affirmative action and his connection to Concerned Alumni of Princeton when applying for a government position in the 1980’s, which he received. There is some controversy about what CAP actually stood for, but all agree they were ‘concerned’ about keeping Alito’s alma mater ‘relatively homogeneous.’

Thomas, for his part, lays out the legal argument issue here:

Because this Court has authorized and required race-based remedial measures to address de jure segregation, it is important to define segregation clearly and to distinguish it from racial imbalance. In the context of public schooling, segregation is the deliberate operation of a school system to “carry out a governmental policy to separate pupils in schools solely on the basis of race.”

[R]acial imbalance is not segregation.2 Although presently observed racial imbalance might result from past de jure segregation, racial imbalance can also result from any number of innocent private decisions, including voluntary housing choices. See Swann, supra, at 25-26; Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U. S. 70, 116 (1995) (Thomas, J., concurring). Because racial imbalance is not inevitably linked to unconstitutional segregation, it is not unconstitutional in and of itself.

It occurs to me that at least we’ve moved on from old fashioned conservatism, which talked about racial disparities in theological terms, whereas today’s conservatives appropriate social Darwinism instead. So much for progress. If the government has a legitimate interest in social policy (which you might ascertain my the fact that they’re running a school system) then it ought to have the right to address racial ‘imbalance,’ having promoted it all these years. As long as there are still people alive who remember institutionalized racism, racism is still alive, as simple as that.

Thomas’ lassez-faire attitude towards ‘voluntary housing choices’ like the kind of place you can afford and won’t get run out of town by the neighbors is pretty blithe, but if you’re going to pretend justice is blind you might as well go whole hog.

In drawing this distinction between ‘imbalance’ and ‘segregation,’ Thomas illuminates the point behind this particular decision: the government need only concern itself with the means of policy rather than the ends. Once the school system officially desegregates, the maximal capacity of government to combat racism is fulfilled. The government can’t be racist, but it has no right to try to stop racism in a broader context.

Now, usually you’ll hear me arguing for consideration of the means rather than the ends, but one of the salient ideas behind everything I write about here is that there needs to be a feedback loop with regard to public policy (among other things). The juridical opinion expressed by the right-wing justices isn’t as much an expression of legal philosophy as political philosophy.

It’s that same lassez-faire approach to government employed by the Bush White House. There is a strain of Republicanism, linked to a libertarian streak, which posits that since government can’t do anything as well as the market can, it shouldn’t try to do too much. Even defense, the last province of acceptable state activity for libertarians, is being ceded as we speak to contractors and the rest of the military-industrial complex, which has only become more integrated since 9/11. The results, as they are with most privatization drives, is disastrous, but hey, it’s not our problem anymore.

Was the point of Brown to combat racism, or to reconcile the policies of the Topeka Board of Education with the federal and state constitution? If you ask Scalia, it’s the latter. If you ask almost anyone else, they’d say it was the former. Does the government have the right to enact social policy? If the right wing of the court thinks it does, certainly they see such a role as limited to one half of the feedback loop. The same way the American democratic experiment is somehwat stuck in the amber of 18th-century liberalism, we’ve decided that a generation ago the government did everything it could to end racism and now there is nothing else that can legally be done.

What the Supreme Court has done for white people is to declare the end of the 20th century’s attempt at Reconstruction. And now the pendulum swings back and racist revanchism will have another ebb tide for a generation.

I have always maintained that affirmative action was a remedy with a limited lifespan, because at heart it is discriminatory. But I didn’t think it would die so soon, largely because there’s so much left to accomplish. I do believe that change is generational, but one generation of affirmative action isn’t really going to cut it.

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that it is. That it’s time to rip the band-aid off and try not to pick at America’s racial scars. If the government does have the broader right to remedy social injustice, but they can’t use race as a factor in helping people, then the next best indicator (some would say a much better indicator) of those who need help is income level, particularly with regard to the poverty line.

The first thought that occurred to me is, does this open up the door to a policy mandating that no school can be assigned more funding per student than any other school? That way, if we have de facto segregation, a.k.a. racial imbalance in schools, the least we could do is try to keep the funding gap down. So I decided to do a little research into the the cases, namely: why are some of Seattle’s high schools in high demand and others in lower demand?

Schools in poorer districts generally do worse than those in richer districts. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but some sample factors might be the maximal educational level achieved by the parents (help with homework, models for academic achievement), and whether or not the kid has to drop out of school to support the family. But there’s a bit more involved here.

Seattle’s school district publishes some of the information you need to know about its high school system. Each of Seattle’s 11 public high schools publishes an annual report with relevant statistics. What I found was very interesting.

It turns out that the best schools—which just so happen to be those which overrepresent white students relative to the district at large, actually spend less per student because they’re larger, and because they’re supported by Bill Gates, as well as parent and alumni associations. I went to a public school like this, one that got money from the state and city through the Board of Ed and the New York State Board of Regents, as well as from a large alumni organization and magnet school funding. There’s not much the government can do about this, because these are private donations. And so the system perpetuates itself; the social capital of a school counts for as much if not more than the financial capital doled out by the Board of Ed., since there’s never enough of it to go around.

The greatest resource when it comes to student achievement are the parents. Seattle tries to compensate by creating smaller schools with more funding for kids who aren’t doing so well, which seems like the right thing to do. Of course, education funding all over the country is at historic lows anyway. The solution to education policy isn’t necessary simple, but it does have a simple first step, which is to vastly increase the national education budget. As privately funded schools demonstrate, things like tutoring and resources for after school programs are the best way to help struggling kids do better.

If factors like how racism informed the “voluntary housing choices” the parents of these children made are not valid considerations, then it must be those other ‘innocent’ choices which are really at issue here. If the issue is that kids aren’t getting into the school of their choice because race is used as a tie-breaking factor between qualified candidates, then a solution which respects this stupid decision is clear.

We need to institute more precise deciding factors to substitute, like household income, level of parental education, single-parent housing, etc.

Nixon, who, by the way, invented affirmative action, was also a proponent of mandatory drug sentencing laws. The Nixon tapes revealed that these Drug War policies were meant to target blacks without making that goal explicit in the legal wording. Well, we need to do the same for educational policies like school admissions. And if these policies end up helping some disadvantaged white kids, all the better.

Not that this post is an endorsement of the decision in any way, but that’s what kind of country we have now. Might as well roll with the punches at this point.

Roadrunner is to Coyote As Castro is to CIA

Greetings, fellow conspiracy theorists. Last week, the CIA disclosed a bunch of documents they called “the Family Jewels,” records of all sorts of illegal activities carried out in the name of the American way. One of the revelations which has been getting a lot of press is the series of plots against Fidel Castro.

Sorry,but that stuff is old news. Maybe it’s just the lefty zines and websites I read, but I knew about this years ago. In the same way, when George Bush mentioned yellowcake and Nigeria during the State of the Union address, I yelled at the TV screen, “That was a forgery, you asshole!” The Nigerian government official cited in the document was no longer in the government at the date of the document, which had been disclosed somewhere by the time Bush had lied in front of a live television audience.

Anyway, in university my friend Melina and I actually did a centrefold (that what we called them in Canada) about the CIA’s plots to kill Castro. So, for your reading pleasure, here’s the piece from the Spring 2000 issue of the Red Herring:


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