Posted by: bridget | 30 June 2007

S. Ct. Rules on Seattle Desegregation Case

The Supreme Court ruled that Seattle and Kentucky public schools cannot use race as a tie-breaking factor in placing students in districts. Seattle, which had never been segregated by state law, placed students in districts according to the student’s selection of school. The first tie-breaker is to students who have a sibling in the chosen school; the second is to students who would help put the chosen school within 10 percentage points of the district’s overall racial demographics; and the last tie-breaker is the student’s geographic proximity to the chosen school.

Predicatably, the Court determined that this scheme violates the Equal Protection Clause. Seattle was never segregated by the government, so there is no compelling state interest in undoing prior harm. (As a logical matter, it is not the job of the government to reverse or ameliorate conditions that it was never responsible for in the first place.) The Court declined to overrule Grutter, but merely limited its holding to higher education. From an originalist perspective, this is nonsense: there is nothing within the Constitution (or the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically) which states that universities are exempt from its requirements.

The Court did not look favourably upon the fact that the school districts only looked to race as a factor in diversity. The Grutter system (arguably, although not in fact) used other factors to examine “diversity,” of which race was but one, and, of course, race should not be applied in a mechanical fashion or as an overriding factor.

C.J. Roberts did not address two factors in his decision: the social reasons for self-segregated housing and the harm brought to students, beyond the stigma of competing in a race-based system. Often, members of a minority group will feel more comfortable in neighbourhoods made up predominately of their race. This self-segregation is not the result of discrimination (i.e. forcing blacks out of nice areas), but is often the result of comfort – much in the way that many top female high schoolers will seek out Wellesley or Smith for college.

Often, parents will want their children to go to school with their neighbours, whether it be for the convenience of car-pooling, knowing that their children will have friends in their classes, or increasing their ties to the community – in fact, using the children to create a community within the neighbourhood. A system whose aim is to dissolve the connection between a neighbourhood and the schools will only undermine these goals.

One of the children denied entrance to the school of his choice suffers from ADHD and dyslexia. His teachers suggested a small, hands-on school that would best meet his needs. As a plaintiff, he is entirely sympathetic: his educational needs are considered secondary to the vague notion of “diversity.” Ideally, the purpose of public education is to ensure that there is an educated populace; the racial classification system not only ignores this purpose, it undermines it in the name of diversity. There is also something very silly about sending elementary-school children ten miles away from home when there is a perfectly good school just around the corner.

Part II, coming later.


  1. Thanks for the analysis. I was wondering what your take on this was. Of course, many on the Left have been predictable as spinning this as those extremist, racist, blah blah, radical right judges making racist decisions. Looks like there is no basis in fact for that view.

  2. Our local schools avoid this by using “free school lunch” as the factor. Since 90% of those on free school lunch are black or Hispanic, it basically works the same.

  3. […] Nile Virus Link to Article adhd S. Ct. Rules on Seattle Desegregation Case » Posted at Helvidius, a […]

  4. […] a well reasoned analysis of the Seattle Desegragation case. Posted in […]

  5. Neil,

    You’re welcome. I started blogging a few days ago and got busy. Obviously, still busy – I haven’t really touched on the meat of Roberts’ analysis.

    This was part of our Con Law final. I arrived at the same result as the Court did, for pretty much the same reasons. ;) Seattle has never been segregated, is not part of the South, and is not making up for historical problems. More importantly, it is the job of the government to change governmentally-created problems. It is not the job of the gov’t to change what people do on their own, especially when it’s not in anyone’s best interests.

  6. Total Transformation,

    Not a bad way to do it. My big issue with the Seattle case (again, haven’t gotten this far yet!) is that race is the only factor and is not necessarily even relevant to diversity. If the schools in the black neighbourhoods are underperforming, that’s a problem worth fixing. If racially-identifiable housing patterns also indicate socio-economic status (which is often NOT the case in very diverse areas, as wealthy blacks enjoy being able to live with other blacks, instead of being the only ones on the street), that is a problem worth fixing.

    Your district at least allows for socio-economic diversity, which adds another dimension to the learning experience. A really poor white kid might have grown up in an entirely different manner than a wealthy black kid, so there’s no reason to assume that the latter individual brings a more “diverse” set of experiences to a wealthy, white school.

  7. “I arrived at the same result as the Court did, for pretty much the same reasons.”

    I’m not surprised, but that is a great sign!

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