Obama, Education Policy, and the Allure of a Post Race America America
by Andrea Kayne Kaufman - November 25, 2008
While the idea of a Post Race America is alluring and certainly desirable, as a school law attorney and professor in graduate education, the use of this language concerns me. This is because the notion of a Post Race America has also been used by many to undermine education law enacted to overcome the vestiges of years of institutional racial discrimination. Many opponents of desegregation and affirmative action, for example, have used some articulation of a Post Race America to support their arguments against important measures to ensure equality in public education. Slavery and segregation no longer matter they say and we who are fighting for racial equality are actually perpetuating racial discrimination by continuing to live in a world that has long past.
Election night was thrilling for so many of us in Chicago and around the world. It was especially thrilling for African American children everywhere who saw and felt the possibility that one day they too could be president. Many who were interviewed at Grant Park and on news networks talked about how Obamas historic election indicated that we have finally entered a Post Race America.
While the idea of a Post Race America is alluring and certainly desirable, as a school law attorney and professor in graduate education, the use of this language concerns me. This is because the notion of a Post Race America has also been used by many to undermine education law enacted to overcome the vestiges of years of institutional racial discrimination. Many opponents of desegregation and affirmative action, for example, have used some articulation of a Post Race America to support their arguments against important measures to ensure equality in public education. Slavery and segregation no longer matter they say, and we who are fighting for racial equality are actually perpetuating racial discrimination by continuing to live in a world that has long passed.
Most recently, some of the justices on the Supreme Court used this notion of a Post Race America in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) to hold that efforts at integration in public schools were unconstitutional. In Parents, the Supreme Court considered whether the Seattle, Washington and Jefferson County, Kentucky voluntary plans to integrate their public schools by using racial classifications as tie breakers violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
While the plurality decision found the integration plans unconstitutional, the justices waged a fierce debate about whether race was still relevant in public education -- in other words, whether we have achieved a Post Race America. In a separate part of the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito asserted that, allowing racial balancing as a compelling end in itself would effectively assure that race will always be relevant in American life (p. 2759). Justice Kennedy, who voted with the plurality but felt very uncomfortable about conceding a Post Race America, expressed concern with his colleagues who as he described it seemed to ignore the history of racism in our country and the compelling need for greater diversity and equality in public education:
Our nation from the inception has sought to preserve and expand the promise of liberty and equality on which it was founded. Today we enjoy a society that is remarkable in its openness and opportunity. Yet our tradition is to go beyond present achievements, however significant, and to recognize and confront the flaws and injustices that remain. This is especially true when we seek assurance that opportunity is not denied on account of race. The enduring hope is that race should not matter; the reality is that too often it does. This by way of preface to my respectful submission that parts of the opinion by The Chief Justice imply an all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account. The plurality opinion is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race. The pluralitys postulate that the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race is not sufficient to decide these cases. Fifty years of experience since Brown v. Board of Education should teach us that the problem before us defies so easy a solution .(pp. 2791-92)
For Justice Kennedy, race is still compelling and for the dissenting Justices, Breyer, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter, thinking about race in public schools is essential. Speaking for his colleagues, Justice Breyer insists that the history of race discrimination in public education, the current inequities based on race in public education, and the need for a more pluralistic tolerant society must be taken into account when assessing the compelling nature of race in public schools. Justice Breyer does not believe that we have achieved the goals set out in Brown v. Board of Education over 50 years ago. African American students in cities around the country still attend schools that are extremely segregated, disproportionately failing, and persistently under funded. Additionally, many poor African American students do not receive the preschool education and other school readiness support they need in their first years of life to be successful in kindergarten and beyond. Moreover, Justice Breyer acknowledged the chronic inequities based on race that remain in college matriculation, employment, housing, and public assistance. Justice Breyer is concerned about this segregation and inequity. For him, race must be addressed realistically and directly so that finally we can achieve that Post Race America.
[So that we can] help our children learn to work and play together with children of different racial backgrounds. It is an interest in teaching children to engage in the kind of cooperation among Americans of all races that is necessary to make a land of three hundred million people one Nation. (p. 2823)
President-elect Obama said something similar on Tuesday night: In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. While there is no doubt that his election transcends race and brings us closer to that goal of being one nation, let us also acknowledge that the inequities in education still exist and still divide us. For we will only live in a Post Race America when every child can not only dream about being president but is also given the educational opportunities to get there.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 127 S. Ct. 2738 (2007).