In a 5-4 decision Thursday morning, the Supreme Court struck down race-based school assignment plans in Louisville and Seattle. Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion for the Court is narrow, and is further weakened by a concurring opinion in which Justice Anthony Kennedy blesses some level of color-consciousness to achieve racial diversity in K-12 education.
Yet the ruling is also a victory for those who think race plays too large a role in public life. Using different formulae, the school districts of Louisville and Seattle tried to manipulate the racial makeup of their student populations. Some students were allowed to attend certain schools because of their skin color. Others were denied access to these same schools, also because of their skin color. The Supreme Court ordered them both to stop. It did not use sweeping language, but it sent a clear message that these two cities must rethink their approaches. Racial preferences in other school districts now will find themselves more vulnerable to new lawsuits filed by parents who want their children to be judged by the content of their character.
Over the last 40 years, liberal civil-rights groups have gone from advocating colorblind policies to rejecting them. They may try to describe the new ruling, perversely, as a partial repeal of Brown v. Board of Education. Justice Stephen Breyer says as much in his dissent. Yet the decision resembles Brown in a crucial respect: Starting now in Louisville and Seattle, students won’t be blocked from certain schools simply because they lack the proper melanin content.
We are sure to hear that the Court has just encouraged the “resegregation” of the schools, but that is mostly left-wing bluster. Brown and other legislative and judicial measures — to say nothing of evolving social attitudes — put an end to Jim Crow-style de jure segregation long ago. What we have today is de facto segregation, which is better described as racial imbalance. Such imbalance need not be worrisome. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in Missouri v. Jenkins more than a decade ago, “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.”
Schools are becoming more racially diverse without any government intervention. Today, white students are more likely to go to school with non-white students than at any other time in American history. Much of this is driven by immigration. But it is also fueled by the development of a black middle class. One of the main obstacles to even greater diversity may be the command-and-control nature of public-school assignments: For the most part, students don’t choose their K-12 schools; they accept the schools assigned to them by the government, usually on the basis of where they live. More choice would mean more mobility and, perhaps, more diversity — as well as, more importantly, better schools.
We would have welcomed a broader ruling in these two cases: The Court should have found that racial preferences in education are simply illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet this limited decision nevertheless represents a significant step forward. When combined with successes such as last year’s Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, led by Ward Connerly, it suggests that the nation is headed in the right direction, and that in the future race will matter less in our public life than it now does.