Law & Courts

Colorblind

By Robert Keough — August 11, 1999 7 min read
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Michael McLaughlin, a middle-aged white lawyer from Boston, would seem an unlikely symbol of the civil rights movement. But as the aggrieved father of a 12-year-old girl shut out of a prestigious public high school solely because she is white, McLaughlin is emblematic of a new breed of court plaintiff who has attacked some school-integration efforts as racially discriminatory. Some may question McLaughlin’s motives, but like blacks who went to court in the ‘50s to fight segregation, he’s turned long-standing principles of race and education on their head.

McLaughlin first stepped into Boston’s historically fractious debate over integration in 1995. Filing a lawsuit on behalf of his daughter, Julia, he challenged the use of race as a determining factor in admission to Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest public school and the city’s most selective high school. Julia had been passed over for admission to Boston Latin in favor of minority students, despite her better academic record. In the suit, McLaughlin targeted the school’s policy to set aside 35 percent of its seats for African Americans and Hispanics-a modest affirmative action plan for a city where 85 percent of the students are minorities.

When his daughter was denied admission to an elite Boston school, McLaughlin sued--claiming reverse discrimination.

In 1996, U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity--the very judge who in 1974 imposed busing on the Boston public schools-ruled in McLaughlin’s favor, saying that Boston Latin’s racial quota might not be “narrowly enough tailored to pass constitutional muster” today. The Boston School Committee soon abandoned the set-aside, and Julia enrolled at the school.

But McLaughlin’s fight was not over. The new admission system that the Boston School Committee put into effect the following year applied “flexible” racial guidelines to half the incoming class. This policy blocked the admission of Sarah Wessman, a friend of Julia’s, who was edged out by African American and Hispanic students with lower composite scores. McLaughlin went back to court, representing Wessman at her father’s request. He lost the case at trial but won on appeal last November. “While we appreciate the difficulty of the School Committee’s task and admire the values that it seeks to nourish, noble ends cannot justify the deployment of constitutionally impermissible means,” wrote First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bruce Selya, striking down the set- aside policy.

Boston officials remain committed to finding ways to ensure diversity at the elite exam schools. But this year’s new students at Boston Latin have been chosen strictly according to their grades and test scores, without regard to race. The result: 81 blacks and Hispanics will enter the school this fall as first-year students, roughly half the number admitted in 1996, the last year of the 35 percent set-aside.

McLaughlin’s victory also appears to have set the stage for Boston’s near-total retreat from its historic efforts to balance schools racially. On June 21-exactly 25 years after a federal court ordered the city’s schools to integrate, sparking riots-parents filed a new, McLaughlinesque lawsuit, claiming their children had been denied their choice of kindergarten because they were white. School leaders declined to challenge the suit and agreed to stop using race as a factor when assigning students to schools. Because the district’s enrollment is now predominantly minority, officials acknowledged, scrapping race-based assignments would do little to change the diversity of schools.

Meanwhile, the 50-year-old McLaughlin has become a national figure, the first to bring the legal assault on college affirmative action quotas to student assignment in K-12 public schools. But in Boston, where McLaughlin practices law and lives in the racially mixed neighborhood of Hyde Park, he remains enigmatic and controversial.

Born in the working-class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, the youngest of five siblings, McLaughlin was orphaned at 16. He finished high school living in a rooming house and working at a shoe factory. Then a muscular six-foot, three-inches, he became a crew star at Northeastern University, which he attended on scholarship. He coached at Princeton after he graduated. By the time he entered Boston University Law School in 1979, he was 30 years old and married with two daughters-Julia is his third. Like many of Boston’s Catholics and middle-class families who shun the city’s public education system, he sent his children to Catholic school in the early grades with the idea of enrolling them at Boston Latin, the city’s flagship school, in 7th grade. His first two daughters were admitted; only Julia ran afoul of the set-aside.

On the ideologically riven battlefield of race and rights, McLaughlin professes to be a reluctant warrior. “This is not a crusade against affirmative action per se,” McLaughlin said at the time of his daughter’s case. “It’s a lawsuit that says government cannot discriminate against my child based on her race, period.”

He has largely steered clear of agenda-pushing national anti-affirmative action groups, pursuing his cause at considerable personal expense. He was driven from his law firm, whose partners include a prominent Boston civil rights attorney, when he refused to withdraw as counsel in his daughter’s case even though the litigation was mostly handled by other attorneys retained as co-counsel. (McLaughlin raised eyebrows-and Judge Garrity’s hackles-when he tried to bill his time on the case to the city as part of his daughter’s legal expenses. The judge reduced McLaughlin’s claim for compensation from $209,000 to $75,000.)

Denounced as a self-promoter and publicity seeker, McLaughlin claims he has turned down “thousands” of reverse-discrimination cases. He refuses interviews about his Boston Latin victories, saying they distract him from building his now solo practice, which is principally in banking and construction law. Yet last spring McLaughlin filed suit on behalf of eight white police officers. In the suit, he charged that the Boston police department manipulated its test-based promotion process to advance three African American officers at the expense of white cops with identical exam scores. That has put him back in the newspapers, where he again insists that his only agenda is to defend worthy individuals against the discriminatory effects of what he calls “racial balancing.”

“We’re not trying to get these blacks fired,” McLaughlin told the Boston Herald after filing the new lawsuit. “That’s not the issue. We’re not saying they’re unqualified. What we are saying is you can’t pick them to the exclusion of our people.”

McLaughlin may not consider himself to be an ideological crusader, but his tactics and rhetoric in the Boston Latin cases have been imitated in numerous lawsuits that challenge voluntary school desegregation plans. These legal actions reflect increasing public disenchantment with racial quotas that seem mostly to shuffle around a small number of white students among predominantly black and Hispanic big-city schools. “It’s a classic example of failed social policy,” says Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom, co-author with Abigail Thernstrom of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. “The schools are more segregated, more racially unbalanced than ever because the whites all left, as did the black middle class,” says Thernstrom, who testified in the Wessman case. “Yet we continue to spend in Boston $30 million a year in an attempt to engineer racial balance.”

Although many of these new plaintiffs deploy the same rhetoric that effectively undercut Jim Crow laws a half century ago, critics suggest their motives are quite the opposite. “These attacks in the name of color-blindness appropriate the language of the civil rights movement,” says Theodore Shaw, associate director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “They use it as a Trojan horse that will ultimately reintroduce segregation. Whether they will be successful or not is still up in the air.”

Indeed, how much the courts will force-or even allow-school districts to ignore race in student assignment is not yet clear. No major challenge to school-desegregation plans has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet some observers are clearly anxious that these new cries of discrimination will turn back the clock on years of integration.

“Within a short period of time there will be very few urban desegregation plans in place in the United States,” says Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and co- author of the 1997 book, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. The only racial mixing in schools, he predicts, will be “what occurs by accident. Anything else is going to be challenged by some white parent.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Colorblind

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