Now we have nine judges—the U.S. Supreme Court—assigned the task of deciding whether and how the nation’s schools may (or may not) recognize the race of the children at the schoolhouse door. In essence, the argument is between those who would allow the schools to be color-conscious (in the interest of integrating the children), and those who would require the schools to be colorblind (in the interest of making race a forbidden consideration by government-financed schools under any and all circumstances, regardless of the intent of the schools).
The case for colorblindness is interesting in at least two respects.
First, its advocates place zero value on integrated education. To them, schooling is entirely an exercise of the intellect—it has nothing to do with developing citizenship traits or social attitudes or interpersonal skills or values.
For social conservatives, this is a position contrary to their expressed posture that America has gone to hell in a handbasket as a result of permissiveness and secularism, and that what needs restoration is character, responsibility, and what amounts to the social glue that holds communities together.
With research findings and history removed from the table—in other words, with schools removed from the real world—a colorblind policy is only a reach away.
In effect, the advocates of colorblindness are saying society may be diverse, and children will become adults in this diverse society, but schools should not prepare them for it—and indeed we would prefer that schools did not: Leave that to parents (and to chance).
Moreover, by defining integrated education as valueless, the advocates of colorblindness reject out of hand all the research on the outcomes of integrated education, the quantity of which is not incidental, as well as the anecdotal stories of countless teachers and principals who work in diverse schools and will tell you at the drop of a question what diversity does for the climate of their schools and the social attitudes of their students. The argument simply does not address what happens as a result of effective integrated education—it glides smugly over it.
But the fact is a colorblind school policy would separate children into enclaves largely on the basis of race, culture, and income, which in turn would nurture attitudes on all sides more separatist than unified, and cross-race perceptions more distrustful than trustful. Such a policy thus would help destabilize the very society conservatives contend, quite correctly, needs rebuilding and cementing as much as or more than the levees of New Orleans.
Second, the advocates of colorblindness are ahistorical—they erase history.
Clearly, a colorblind approach to social policy, including school policy, would be quite appropriate for a society with no history of invidious discrimination and no current vestiges of it.
But the history of the United States is exactly the opposite. No informed person would argue that racial discrimination never existed here or that all subtle remnants of discrimination have been redacted from our contemporary practices. Precisely for this reason—if we wish to work toward a colorblind society—we need to shape social policy so that it is directed at old discrimination patterns and the current end products of them, so as to eradicate from our collective attitudes and dispositions the worst of the past. It is akin to an alcoholic’s entering a 12-step program: You first have to admit to the problem, then commit to curing it, then take the steps one day at a time to change course and thereby eventually change character.
Erasing history is a monumental flaw in the colorblind advocates’ argument. Would they likewise argue that Jewish Americans (and Jews worldwide) need not address anti-Semitism any longer on the grounds that Jews have generally been accepted and the Holocaust need not be recalled for reasons of current application? Would they argue that American women need not lobby for gender fairness in policy and practice on the grounds that women are now equal and their historical discrimination, including denial of the vote, is merely ancient history?
To erase history is to deny reality. It is to opt, consciously and deliberately, to live in a fantasyland that does not exist and never did, with the knowledge, by the way, that the result will be to perpetuate discrimination, not end it.
In brief, with research findings and history removed from the table—in other words, with schools removed from the real world—a colorblind policy is only a reach away.
But we must hope that the nine justices, or most of them, are more practical.
Before them, unfortunately, is no brief from Horace Mann, the 19th-century educator from Massachusetts who saw schools as the great equalizer of society. Mann would have reminded them that there is more to school than “a mere capacity to read, write, and cipher” (point: be mindful of the benefits of integrated education); and that each generation has a duty to educate “a generation of wise and virtuous citizens ... who shall, in turn, be fathers and mothers to a generation more enlightened and better than themselves” (point: remember our history and what we seek as a people to improve upon a generation at a time).
He would say, in a phrase, while taking care of the law, also take good care of the common school. It has a purpose.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as To See or Not to See