I saw a little article in a newspaper a few weeks ago about a summer program for children from war-torn areas. The idea is to bring them together in a peaceful vacation spot here in the United States, where they can learn about the humanity of those they have been raised to fear or kill. This project of building bridges rather than walls actually costs $4,000 per child. It’s a worthwhile effort, I think–anything to give children the kind of resilience and hope that might render them ambassadors of reconciliation in the ever more uncertain future.
At the same time, I wonder if teaching children to speak across all kinds of boundaries isn’t one of the main objectives of a public school system. Public education has always existed to teach children how to become citizens, particularly in a nation as diverse as ours. Increasingly, it must also aim to educate them to operate in a diasporic and polycultural global marketplace. Yet even as we reach out to the young victims of conflicts beyond our shores, the notion of diversity as a necessary coping skill has not, of late, been well received here at home. Indeed, two school integration cases to be heard by the Supreme Court next term, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, challenge diversity as any kind of compelling state interest. Although they have been treated by much of the media as just another set of affirmative action cases, in fact they are positioned to undo that cornerstone of the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education. The plaintiffs argue that “racial balancing” is a constitutional violation of equal protection. To be precise, they claim that it’s not only against the law to consider race for the purpose of segregating schools but also unconstitutional to consider race toward the end of integrating schools.
It is well to remember that the Brown decision was not merely about schools. It struck down the Jim Crow principle of “separate but equal.” It stands for the notion that separation is inherently unequal, and that integration is a social good, a desired policy goal. Yet “integration” is not a word one hears very much these days. It is disparaged as “the diversity rationale” and “multiculturalism,” and its devaluation has allowed the re-emergence of what I think of as the “segregation rationale.” I do not have space here to reiterate the disgraceful and immoral rates of segregation that still exist in housing and schools, now rationalized as a mere matter of “choice”; or the horrendous disparity in health and longevity statistics, attributed to inherent mysteries; or the high school dropout rate of young minorities, dismissed as laziness; or the dismal disparities in employment rates, shrugged away as a collective failure of “individual responsibility”; or, of course, the appalling rates of minority incarceration.