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Published in Print: March 21, 1982, as Commentary: Are We Returning to Plessy v. Ferguson?

Are We Returning to Plessy v. Ferguson?

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As a city superintendent, I am outraged by the implications of the Johnston-Helms amendment. The sweeping anti-busing legislation—approved by the Senate as part of a bill providing funds for the Justice Department this year—not only forbids the Justice Department from bringing desegregation suits that could result in busing and limits the power of federal courts to order busing for such purposes, but allows Justice Department officials to support the removal of court-ordered busing plans already in operation.

Consider the effect of such legislation on Alexandria City Schools, eight miles from the White House. Currently, our school system is 41 percent white, 48 percent black, and 11 percent "other" (a label covering 56 different national origins and 40 different languages). We are a small city, with a total population of about 103,000, and a public-school population for 1981-82 of about 11,000 students.

Our public-school enrollment declined during the 1970's, and certainly one reason was desegregation. Many parents, not knowing what to expect and having heard emotional arguments regarding the danger of mixed student populations gathering on the same campus, decided to enroll their children in private schools or to move to the suburbs.

But in this past school year, Alexandria experienced a stabilization of the student population. Decline in enrollment was less than 1 percent. Alexandria's parents, black and white, have experienced success in the mix that took place with desegregation. To see this success, all one has to do is visit the schools. The homogeneity that characterizes suburban school systems is missing. Children with differing abilities are learning together, and this is a strong statement in support of the mixture of people in American society. Alexandria's students are learning better today than they did when the city maintained a segregated system.

If the House of Representatives follows the Senate and the amendment becomes law, the consequences could be devastating for our school system and for the many schools across the country that would be similarly affected. The effect on the nation as a whole could be equally devastating and would roll back years of progress.

With this amendment, any citizen could register a complaint and, through litigation, undo the desegregation plans not only of Alexandria but of many urban schools. Is this progress? Is this our response to our nation's commitment to narrowing the gap between what we preach as the leading democracy in the world and what we practice? Informed observers of the race issue in public education must be haunted by the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson—the eight-to-one decision that established the principle of "separate-but-equal." Overturned by the Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, it, nonetheless, in my opinion, has made an insidious return to the mainstream of American thought. Even so-called "liberals" are echoing sentiments that would support this statement. Let us not overlook what the consequences might be. Let us also remind ourselves that in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously found that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Despite the turmoil and the anxiety of those involved in desegregation, American public-school education has benefited from the 1954 decision. Overall, urban public school systems have been enriched and children have benefited. This is not to say that mistakes have not been made. Certainly, if one were to redo the plans that desegregated the urban school systems, there would be changes. But this does not at all imply that it was better the way it was. Studies and results prove otherwise.

Such legislation as proposed by the Johnston-Helms amendment poses a most serious question for our times. The small city across the river from our nation's capital, Alexandria, and its schools could be dam-aged severely if this amendment becomes law. It is urgent that we as a society preserve the gains that have been made since the Brown decision. As difficult as busing has been, as mistaken as some plans may have been, to take away from school systems one of the tools that makes desegregation possible would be an egregious error.

Vol. 1, Issue 27, Page 19

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