Sunday, October 22, 2006

Free at Last? New Racial Segregation Issues Flaring in Alabama School District

The Los Angeles Times reports today that Vestavia Hills, a suburban school district in Birmingham, Alabama, is seeking to end a mandatory school busing program that's been in place since 1970. The district's challenge to a federal court order is part of a broader national trend seeking to overturn legally enforced integration programs:

Those fighting to keep the order in place are particularly disappointed that the issue would be revisited in Birmingham, where so much of the civil rights movement's history was made. In the last 15 years, city leaders have built museums and monuments to commemorate the four schoolgirls who died in the 1963 bombing of a black church, and the demonstrators who were met with attack dogs in a march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the same year.

But the district says its request is a matter of economics, not race — that absorbing the children of Oxmoor Valley is an unfair burden on its budget.

Vestavia Hills' desegregation order was to be in place until 25% of the school system's population was African American. Today, 7% of its students are black, with about a quarter of those coming from Oxmoor Valley. Some vestiges of the old South remain: The Vestavia Hills High School mascot is the Rebel, depicted as a white-haired man in Confederate-era garb; although the practice is now discouraged by the school, some students still display Confederate flags at football games.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision found school segregation to be unconstitutional, and a follow-up ruling in 1968, many school systems were ordered to bus children from other districts to achieve integration.

This fall, the justices will hear appeals from parents in Seattle and in Louisville, Ky., who say it is unconstitutional for officials to consider race when deciding what school a student will attend. Meanwhile, over the last 15 years, courts have lifted desegregation orders in more than 100 school districts from Alabama to California — often after districts showed they were making a good faith effort, successful or not, to achieve racial integration. This year, federal courts have sided 36 times with districts seeking to overturn desegregation orders involving the Justice Department.

Only a few requests to end the orders have been rejected. In June, for example, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision to keep the school district of Little Rock, Ark., under its desegregation order, arguing it did not sufficiently appraise how its academic programs helped black students.
Opponents of the district's move argue that they're reliving the civil rights struggles of the 1960s:

"They are saying to Martin Luther King, 'To hell with your dream: This is 2006 and it's business as usual in Vestavia Hills,' " said the Rev. Jonathan McPherson, who was jailed with King in 1963 and is board chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham chapter....

"It feels like we're back in the '60s again," said Theodore Lawson, a Jefferson County attorney who lives in Oxmoor Valley and opposes lifting the order. "If this is not racism, what is it?"

The problem with these claims is that whatever "segregation" exists in Birmingham is the result of de-facto residential housing patterns, not systematic Jim Crow statutes dividing schools and children by race.

The courts are rejecting few challenges to the desegregation rulings, as noted in the article, as they should, because the country today enjoys tremendous racial heterogeneity -- from all ethnic groups -- and there's little reason to expect precise black-white racial balances in the nation's schools. Neighborhood integration in America took off after the civil rights movement, and today the percentage of African-Americans living in the suburbs is at 36 percent.

Besides, school busing programs have long been one of the most controversial remedies in the civil rights legal regime. There are certainly many majority-minority school disctricts thoughout the country, but correcting the educational difficulties associated with these demographics will not be achieved through busing.

According to Abigail Thernstrom, in her article, "
Have We Overcome?," often the demands for the continuation of such programs -- when unsuccessful -- end up fueling residual demands for reparations-like funding shifts to poorer neighborhoods, attempts to cash in on "white guilt" in extracting more money for smaller class sizes and hefty salary hikes for teachers.

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