May 17 is the fifty-third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the iconic case we celebrate for having ended the notion that racially separate education could be considered “equal.” Yet the meaning of that case has always been the subject of dispute. I grew up in a household where we learned that segregation was bad because it was premised on the stigma of inferiority. Segregation licensed the isolation of African-Americans from the benefits of citizenship; it limited access to a full range of public spaces, not just schools. I took it for granted that such provincialism ultimately hobbled both whites and blacks as well as the anxious “in between” groups, such as recent immigrants and Asian-Americans. We cannot be full participants in a democracy if we have built impermeable walls around our various identity groups.
From the beginning, of course, there was an alternative narrative, voiced mostly by apologists for Jim Crow: that freedom of association should allow us to live in ghettos if we choose. The most interesting exposition of this view–interesting because it’s from a refugee from Hitler’s Germany–is probably Hannah Arendt’s controversial 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” “It has been said,” she asserts, “that enforced integration is no better than enforced segregation, and this is perfectly true.”
In reviewing her essay recently, I was struck by how much that language is echoed in attacks on recent efforts to integrate schools. Today, with as many if not more schools segregated along a black-white divide than in the late 1960s, we await the Supreme Court’s ruling in a pair of cases that will decide the future of the integration movement, after a decade of rulings constricting the remedies made available by Brown. In Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Court will rule on whether the voluntary efforts of local school boards to consider racial balance as one of many factors in configuring student bodies is constitutionally permissible.
This past December, when the cases were presented to the Court, some of the Justices made troubling analogies. In questioning attorneys for the Seattle and Louisville school districts, Justice Scalia argued, “It seems to me you’re saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs…. I mean, if we have a lot of crime out there, and the only way to get rid of it is to use warrantless searches, you know, fudge on some of the protections of the Bill of Rights….” It was disturbing–his notion that voluntary school integration is comparable to a warrantless search, an actual violation of the Bill of Rights. On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! radio show, the Heritage Foundation’s Todd Gaziano claimed that the plans “set these very hard quota bans,” powerful buzzwords that invoke histories of discrimination against Jews and Asians. But the policies at stake in these cases could better be described as “soft voluntary integrationism.” As Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has expressed it: “What is being challenged is the right of parents, communities and local school districts to determine whether that seat must be segregated or can represent our country’s vibrant diversity.”
One of the reasons I find Arendt’s essay such intriguing reading at this time is that she self-consciously positions herself as an outsider in offering her opinions. She admits that she has never lived in the South; she admits what she does not know. Yet it is precisely what she did not know that undermines her conclusions; and as I listen to those in today’s debate who argue that efforts to integrate are exactly the same as segregation, I am similarly struck by what is not being considered.