December 18, 2006

Spirit of the Holidays

Part of my relationship with my mother requires that I hear a large amount of information that I hardly care about. I receive all sorts of news – good and bad – about people that I do not know, cannot remember, or never will meet. Maybe this is part of every son’s relationship with his mother.

So, a few months ago, when my mom began our conversation with “D, I just heard the worst story,” I immediately settled into my feign-interest mode. My mom then went on to tell me about an employee of the florist she works with as part of her event planning business who had been having terrible headaches and had repeatedly been put off by doctors claiming they were too busy to see him or perform the necessary tests. She told me that had any one of us – the relatively privileged and well-connected – had a similar malady, we would have had no trouble getting an appointment and diagnosis from the doctor, but because this person was poor and black and had no health insurance, he kept running into obstacles that were potentially threatening his life.

The man has since been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He can no longer work. He certainly cannot afford his medical care. His family who depended on him is now taking care of him, making sacrifices in every way imaginable.

I have rarely seen my mom so passionate and compassionate about something. She was obviously upset that this man was suffering and angry that he was not being properly taken care of. And I know what happens when my mom gets angry.

Over the next couple of months, my mom did something amazing. Heroic even.

Rather than simply allowing this man to continue unaided, she, along with the two florists the man had worked for, took it upon herself to make a difference in his life. She acted on her compassion. She decided that she would not wait for someone to help this man – why wait, she concluded, when she could help him herself?

This holiday season, my mom, along with the two florists, has led a campaign to gather money for this man and his family – to be used for Christmas presents or food or health care. Their effort raised over $1,500, an amount that was matched by Target. Thanks to these efforts - efforts that were not required and that were undertaken without knowing how they would turn out - this man and his family will have the opportunity for a relatively pleasant Christmas during this most difficult of times for them.

She reported that the man was in tears as he thanked her. “I didn’t know there were people who would just give like this,” he sobbed. There were tears in my mom’s eyes as she relayed the story to me.

What my mom did is inspiring. It means far more than any of the gifts she and my dad got for me or my wife or my daughter. It captures the spirit of charity that should be at the heart of this season, during which we have the opportunity to reach out and help those not as fortunate as ourselves. And perhaps most inspiring, it shows what happens when people act. It is so easy to simply criticize and ponder the ills of the world. It is far more difficult to act. But it is only when people act out of compassion for others or passion for making a difference that things change.

Thank you, Mom, for living this lesson this holiday season.

December 11, 2006

Leaving Brown Behind - Part II

[NOTE: This is a follow up to last week's column]

During the Supreme Court hearing on the voluntary school integration cases heard last Monday, I was struck by a question posed by Justice Antonin Scalia. For the past week, I have grappled with the question and its implication, struggling to figure out how I might have answered it.

Frank Mellen, the attorney representing the Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools, was attempting to make a distinction between the use of race confronted in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the use of race by the JCPS plan aimed at maintaining a racial balance in schools of between 15 and 50 percent African American students. Brown was different, Mr. Mellen argued, because there existed two entirely distinct school systems, one white and one black. “That stigmatized the black children. It sent the message that the white race was dominant and superior and that the black race was inferior.”

At the word “stigmatized,” Justice Scalia piped up. He wondered whether the assumption underlying the JCPS plan was not itself stigmatizing. The JCPS plan, Justice Scalia said, was “based on the notion that a school that is predominantly black or overwhelmingly black cannot be as good as a school that is predominantly white or overwhelmingly white.” The potentially stigmatizing message sent by that assumption, Justice Scalia asserts, is similar to the message in Brown – that the white race is superior and the black race is inferior.

What Justice Scalia’s question exposes is that the JCPS plan to provide a quality education to all of its students is based upon the assumption that quality educational may not be available for students in a mostly-minority school. That assumption, Justice Scalia suggests and I agree, is potentially stigmatizing.

But the assumption Justice Scalia is so concerned about is not really an assumption at all, but a statistically-verified fact. Students in the typical mostly-minority schools do not receive the same quality educational opportunities as students in mostly-white schools or racially-balanced schools. This is measured in terms of teacher experience, teacher qualification, access to honors courses, diversity of curriculum, and many other ways.

So, after a week of wondering what made Justice Scalia wrong, I’ve concluded that he is actually right. Yes, it is stigmatizing to assume that black schools will not be as good as white schools. But, it is also stigmatizing – and far more damaging, in my opinion – to ignore the fact that mostly-minority schools typically are not as good as white schools and then confine black students to those mostly-minority schools.

In an ideal world, plans like that in JCPS would not have to exist to ensure that the most students receive a quality education. But we do not live in an ideal world. In the world we live in, Justice Scalia is likely to vote to strike down the JCPS plan. He will do so knowing that the effect will likely be an increase in the number of minority students attending mostly-minority schools. And he will do so knowing that mostly-minority schools in the United States in 2006 (the real world) do not typically provide equal educational opportunities to their students. In effect, his vote will be to send more minority students to schools providing fewer educational opportunities.

Justice Scalia would probably respond to such a charge that as a Supreme Court justice, it is not his job to consider the consequences of his decisions, but rather to interpret the Constitution. In other words, it is the world that must change, not his interpretation of the Constitution, if this unfortunate result for minority students is to be avoided.

This is precisely what makes Justice Scalia’s interpretation so dangerous. The fictional world for which he interprets law – a colorblind and ideal world – is appealing. It just is not the world in which the effect of this decision will be felt. But though Justice Scalia’s intepretation can wear the clothes of colorblindness and loyalty to the Constitution, it will achieve the exact same real world result as Jim Crow school segregation: separate and unequal schools with minority children being left behind.

December 04, 2006

Leaving Brown Behind - Part I

Today, the public schools of Jefferson County, Kentucky will take the national stage as the Supreme Court grapples with whether JCPS’s student assignment plan, a plan that takes race into consideration, passes constitutional muster. As an outsider who has studied the unsuccessful path to integration in Memphis, I hope that the Court recognizes the wisdom of taking action, as JCPS has, to achieve the goals set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision more than a half century ago.

The Brown decision in 1954 famously put an end to the practice of “separate but equal” schooling. In addition to declaring state-imposed segregation unconstitutional, the Court recognized the importance of education in preparing the next generation of Americans. “Education,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “is the very foundation of good citizenship.” The Court recognized not only the necessity of outlawing legally-sanctioned segregation, but also the value of integrated schools in helping students adjust to the multiracial communities beyond the school’s walls.

Many cities, crippled by white flight from inner city school districts, have long since given up on integrated schools. Memphis is one such city. When Memphis was faced with court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, the community essentially fractured into a black city school system, a white county school system, and a very white private school system. In the three decades since, those divisions have become seemingly permanent. Not only are the students largely separated by race, but, as is the case across the country, schools with the highest concentrations of minority students tend to perform the most poorly.

In Jefferson County, however, the community has embraced the values the Supreme Court identified in Brown. Since 1984, when JCPS began tinkering with its own court-ordered desegregation decree in order to make the schools more attractive to more families, enrollment – but more impressively, white enrollment – stabilized.

When the desegregation decree was lifted in 2000, rather than allowing its schools to resegregate as occurred elsewhere, JCPS enacted the student assignment plan that is the subject of the lawsuit to be heard today. The stated goals of the plan are to provide a competitive and attractive public school system, to maintain community support for JCPS, and to prepare students for life in a democratic and racially diverse society. The courts below found the plan constitutionally acceptable, holding that the JCPS policy of integrated schools is “both important and valid.”

Social science has shown just how important integrated schools can be to communities and, more importantly, to students. Integrated schools have been shown to produce increased levels of tolerance among students of all races. Surveys of Jefferson County students have shown high levels of tolerance – more than 92% of students reported that they were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” working with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In addition, African American students tend to perform better and attain better educational outcomes coming from integrated schools. These benefits are especially pronounced in systems, such as JCPS, where integration is voluntary and begins at an early age. Indeed, the black-white achievement gap is shrinking in Jefferson County even as it persists elsewhere.

Many other cities, including my home town of Memphis, have proven unable to meet the aspirations of Brown. In contrast, Jefferson County keeps trying. With its student assignment plan and its continued commitment to integration, Jefferson County has sought to create a system that is largely integrated and equal, while other cities have regressed to a state of separate and unequal. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to embrace, as it did fifty years ago, the ideals embodied by the JCPS plan. For the sake of Jefferson County and its students, we should all hope it does.