Equity & Diversity

Reporter’s Notebook

September 10, 2003 4 min read
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‘Color Lines’ Meeting Ponders Racial Issues

Optimism about integration and diversity seemed to outweigh grim reports citing the resegregation of schools and the persistent segregation of neighborhoods and churches at a conference here over Labor Day weekend.

The “Color Lines Conference—Segregation and Integration in America’s Present and Future,” held at Harvard University from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, had historical roots. This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Souls of Black Folk, the book in which the scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that “the problem of the 20th century” would be “the problem of the color line.” Next year, the country will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring separate schools for blacks and whites unequal.

Many people said they were heartened by the more than 1,000 scholars, students, and activists who attended the conference, organized by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project. The gathering, held at the Harvard law school, was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations.

Much of the debate and discussion centered around how to navigate America’s racial-justice climate to determine how to protect civil rights and recognize continuing inequalities in the face of the nation’s rapidly changing demographics.

Those attending often complained of what they saw as the increasing threats to civil rights by conservative politicians and policymakers.

In the wake of the June 23 Supreme Court ruling in the University of Michigan law school case, which reaffirmed affirmative action in principle, conference organizers said they hoped to use past landmark civil rights victories to inform and lay the groundwork for the direction of racial- justice efforts today.

Bringing scholars and activists together at the conference was an attempt to bridge the gap between the advocacy and research communities to revitalize the civil rights movement, said Andrew Grant-Thomas, the director of the conference.

“There’s a learning curve on both sides,” Mr. Grant-Thomas said. “How can we identify each other’s needs and better respond to meet them?”

The conference also would help shape the future efforts of the Civil Rights Project, which has focused much of its work on education since its founding in 1996, he noted. The project would expand into other areas, including the criminal-justice system, housing, labor, and health care—all topics discussed during the meeting here.

During a lunchtime panel discussion, Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University in Washington, argued that integration should be considered a process rather than an outcome.

As an outcome, integration is thought of as a “steady march” to a “racial nirvana,” he said. Instead, he urged that integration be viewed through the same lens as democracy. Mr. Wu said the lack of a “terminal point” for integration should be celebrated. “We shouldn’t want [integration] to end,” he said.

Retooling the school choice debate could transform charter schools and vouchers into strategies to desegregate schools, argued William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, and Goodwin Liu, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Targeted vouchers promoting interdistrict choice between suburban and city school districts could make headway in achieving racial and socioeconomic diversity, Mr. Liu said.

He said that charter schools and choice plans limited to school district boundaries are not achieving integration. But a voucher program narrowly tailored to include racial and economic diversity as a goal could help, he argued.

Mr. Taylor and Mr. Liu also proposed a funding set-aside in federal charter school legislation for those schools with student populations that reflect the racial diversity of an urban area.

A preliminary study examining the lives of adults who graduated from six racially mixed high schools across the nation found that the graduates still valued their experiences some two decades later.

Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, also found in the study presented here that members of the class of 1980 who were interviewed and surveyed lamented that they led largely segregated lives today.

The study, which was conducted in conjunction with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that white graduates said that they were more at ease with minorities, while graduates of color said they were less intimidated by white society because of their desegregated high school experience.

Students who attend racially diverse schools today expect to benefit from that experience, said Holly Maluk Plastaras, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Ms. Plastaras’ study of two high schools in the South from 1999 to 2001 also revealed that students had “cross race” friendships. Still, those friendships were rarely visible in larger public settings at the schools, such as the cafeteria or auditorium.

—Karla Scoon Reid

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