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A Cultural Political Economy of School Desegregation in Seattle

by Michael J. Dumas - 2011

Background/Context: School desegregation has been variably conceptualized as a remedy for racial injustice, a means toward urban (economic) revitalization, an opportunity to celebrate human diversity, and an attempt to more equally distribute educational resources. At the center of the debate over the years is the extent to which school desegregation is a matter of class or race, of redistribution or recognition. A cultural political economy of school desegregation begins with a rejection of the popular notion that desegregation is simply, or even primarily, about race. It also eschews the idea that what is needed is a “corrective” interjection of social class and economic justice. In proposing neither a racial nor an economic solution, cultural political economy sheds doubt on the very proposition of a “racial” or “economic” analysis, politics, or remedy and helps us more powerfully explain how the cultural and material force of race and class breathes as one through the historical-political trajectory of school desegregation.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article is based on findings from a larger historical-ethnographic research project intended to explicate the cultural-ideological and structural context(s) within which Seattle’s Black leaders, educators, and activists made sense of the relationship between school desegregation and the lives and liberation of Black people in the post-civil-rights era. Here, the author uses cultural political economy as an analytical framework to elucidate the relationship(s) between cultural productions such as the construction of rights, justice, and racial progress, and political-economic formations such as the (ab)use of the state and market by certain classes—in this case, middle-class and affluent White Seattleites—to preserve their own privilege through the implementation of social and educational policies that serve to reproduce material inequities.

Setting: The study setting is Seattle, Washington.

Population/Participants: Black leaders, educators, and activists who participated in the school desegregation struggle in the city of Seattle from the mid-1970s through 2007.

Research Design: This study employed semistructured ethnographic interviews, content analysis, and historical/archival analysis.

Conclusion/Recommendations: The trajectory of school desegregation politics in Seattle, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, reveals a long and systematic political effort to delegitimize and dismantle justice-oriented redistribution of educational resources along racial lines. Cultural political economy provides an analytical framework that contributes to our theoretical understanding of the interimbrication of culture and political economy in education politics and policy-making. The author argues that understanding the interimbrication of class and race in the politics of school desegregation allows us to more clearly theorize how school desegregation policies are undermined in ways that reproduce material and cultural relations of power. Ultimately, critical researchers, educators, and youth and community activists must develop political strategies to shift the very relations of power highlighted in the Seattle case.

Historian Quintard Taylor, characterizing the experience of Black people in Seattle from the citys early days through the civil rights era, wrote:

As a self-proclaimed politically progressive city, Seattle celebrated its image as a multicultural, multiracial democracy where opportunity was open to all. The reality for the entire century between 1870 and 1970 was vastly different for most of black Seattle . . . the forces arrayed against black aspirations were supported sometimes consciously, and often unwittingly, by the vast majority of Seattleites who chose to ignore the plight of the impoverished, the uneducated, the economically disadvantagedparticularly if they were of a different color. (1994, p. 239)

Taylor concluded that in the 21st century, real social change in Seattle must be founded on economic justice rather than the illusion of inclusion that has been the citys primary race relations paradigm. However, as Taylors own analysis suggests, it is precisely the liberal-progressive discursive framing of race that has undermined efforts to extend opportunities to marginalized communities of color and has served as political cover for social policies that continue to further advantage middle- and upper-income White Seattleites at the expense of other residents.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the so-called racial tiebreaker case, serves as evidence of broader national support for this illusive (and elusive) approach to racial and economic equality in the area of education. In mandating color-blind school-assignment policies, the court effectively chose not to see severe racial disparities in access to the best educational facilities and resources. Or, once seen, the court chose to forget or deny the historical links among White resistance, state inaction, racist cultural-ideological formations, and the economic marginalization of urban (and more recently, inner-ring suburban) communities. Without this kind of contextualization, we fail to adequately (or honestly) document or theorize the trajectory of school desegregation.

This article is based on findings from a larger historical-ethnographic research project (Dumas, 2007) intended to explicate the cultural-ideological and structural context(s) within which Seattles Black leaders, educators, and activists made sense of the relationship between school desegregation and the lives and liberation of Black people in the post-civil-rights era. Here, I use cultural political economy as an analytical framework to elucidate the relationship(s) between cultural productions such as the construction of rights, justice, and racial progress, and political-economic formations such as the (ab)use of the state and market by certain classesin this case, middle-class and affluent White Seattleitesto preserve their own privilege through the implementation of  social and educational policies that serve to reproduce material inequities.

I begin with an overview of cultural political economy as a theoretical lens, moving beyond a simple explanation of cultural and political-economic dimensions to argue for analyses that understand culture and political economy as so inextricably interrelated that we must learn to speak of them almost in the same breath. I then offer a critical historical analysis of the school desegregation struggle in Seattle informed by this theorizing of cultural political economy. In my telling of this story, I foreground shifts in Black politics and discourse as social actors in Seattle made meaning of, and responded to, the complex interplay of cultural and political-economic processes. What I hope to highlight is the intransigence of anti-Black, antipoor economic policies and ideological formations and how they work in tandem to reproduce specific relations of power. It becomes clear that Parents Involved is not so much the tragic, sudden end of Brown as it is the easily predictable result of a long and systematic effort to delegitimize and dismantle justice-oriented redistribution of educational resources along racial lines.  


Cultural political economy marks a convergence in which the critical Marxist tradition in political economy takes a cultural turn. Here, I conceptualize the term broadly to also include work in cultural studies, history, anthropology, education, and related fields that foreground the complex interactions of the economy, ideology, the state, identities, and everyday politics and cultural practices. For political economists, Jessop and Sum (2001) explained, this new approach

can be said to involve a critical, self-reflexive approach to the definition and methods of political economy and to the inevitable contextuality and historicity of its claims to knowledge. It rejects any universalistic, positivist account of reality, denies the subject-object duality, allows for the co-constitution of subjects and objects, and eschews reductionist approaches to the discipline. (p. 94)


However, the authors made clear, in taking the cultural turn, political economy should continue to emphasize the materiality of social relations and the constraints involved in processes that also operate behind the backs of the relevant agents (p. 94). A central theme in this work is the need to explore subjectivity without abandoning a critical gaze on the forces that in many ways govern and direct this human agency and inform our interpretations of our selves, our actions, and our relations with others.  

Stuart Hall (1996a) echoed these same concerns in his critique of cultural studies scholarship that romanticizes the discursive in ways that fail to take into account how the hegemonic ideologies embedded within discourses serve to maintain specific material relations. Following Antonio Gramsci, Hall rejected deterministic understandings of economic structuration, in which ideology corresponds predictably with class membership, in favor of a view that imagines a dynamic terrain of ideological struggle. However, he argued that the problem of the class structuring of ideology remains, such that we must reject the idea that elements of a discourse appear spontaneously . . . without material constraints of any kind other than that provided by the discursive operations themselves (1996b, p. 41). For Hall, discourse is not merely a field of textual play, but a site of ideological struggle for powerand not simply for power to produce and advance certain representations and cultural formations, but also for power to reproduce (or transform) certain political-economic conditions.

In what she termed perspectival dualism, political philosopher Nancy Fraser advanced the idea that we need to [treat] every practice as simultaneously economic and cultural, albeit not necessarily in equal proportions (Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. 63). Many problems that, on the surface, might be regarded as economic, or redistributive in nature, can also be framed as problems of cultural recognition. Correspondingly, those social problems that are most easily cast as cultural are accompanied by, and often precipitated or exacerbated by, inequitable economic arrangements.

As will become clear throughout this article, school desegregation in Seattle has been variably conceptualized as a remedy for racial injustice, a means toward urban (economic) revitalization, an opportunity to celebrate human diversity, and an attempt to more equally distribute educational resources. At the center of the debate over the years is the extent to which onethat is, recognition or redistributionmust follow from or accompany the other. And, I would argue, following Fraser, that part of the problem is in pursuing and even gaining recognition (in say, the guise of multicultural curricula), and confusing that with redistribution (e.g., equal access to college preparatory courses). More, a shift toward an ostensibly race-neutral redistributive politicsthat is, eschewing racial balance in schools in favor of fiscal equitynaïvely assumes that the politics of racial misrecognition disappear in the valuation of newly resegregated schools. That is, a predominantly Black school, even with the same budget as a White school, is still, in the end, a Black school. A Black school is culturally imagined as a less desirable1 school, which prompts parents (of all racial/ethnic groups) with economic resources to withdraw their children, thus leaving a school that is also overwhelmingly poor. Because schools with high numbers of poor children serve the most politically disenfranchised communities, they often have the least experienced teachers and high turnover in administrative and instructional staff and are among the last to receive improvements to their physical plants (Fine et al., 2004). Thus, as Fraser argued, there is no redistribution without recognition, just as there is no recognition without redistribution.

However, Lisa Duggan (2004) argued, Fraser erred in too neatly aligning redistribution with the economic, and recognition with questions of identity. This led Fraser to characterize racial politics as hybrid formsthat is, as struggles for economic justice and cultural valuation. Queer politics, in contrast, is regarded as not related to class, and thus only a politics of recognition. Duggan pointed out that class politics are also inherently about recognition, in the sense that laborers and poor people are often misrecognized (which then justifies maldistribution). Queer politics (in their radical form), in turn, also engage redistributive justice, in that they challenge the exploitation of womens labor in hegemonic family relations, and the patriarchal basis of disparate wages for men and women (and, of course, the denial of a host of economic benefits for those not in traditional state-recognized marriages).  Duggan contended that Fraser, in her effort to analytically resolve the political economyculture dichotomy in leftist politics, may have reinforced the division between the two, thus not fully opening up a new space for us to imagine a transformative politics without a hierarchical ordering of whichculture or political economyshould take precedence, or which is more dependent on the other.

Duggan (2004) argued that what we need is historical/political analysis that resists the dominant distinctions of capitalist liberalismthose between class and political economy versus status or identity and culture (marked as they are by the master rhetoric of public vs. private) (p. 84).  In this article, I am inspired by Duggan to advance a cultural political economy based on the idea that the economic and cultural are so interimbricated that, in political practice, it no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to attempt to disentangle them as much as gain a clearer understanding of their entanglement. Or, as I noted earlier, we must find ways to speak of culture and political economy in the same critical analytical breath. This does not in any way negate Frasers theoretical explication of the politics of redistribution and recognition. Her disaggregation of these themes is analytically useful; it is simply not sufficient, nor does it fully capture the reality that all politics are hybrid, dynamically and simultaneously cultural-political-economic in form and function.

A cultural political economy of school desegregation begins with a rejection of the popular notion that desegregation is simply, or even primarily, about race. It also eschews the idea that what is needed is a corrective interjection of social class and economic justice. This analysis seeks to propose neither a racial nor an economic solution. Rather, a cultural political economy sheds doubt on the very proposition of a racial or economic analysis, politics, or remedy. Of course, a number of critical scholars have made the point that race is always classed, and class is always raced (Cohen, 1999; hooks, 2000; Leonardo & Hunter, 2007; McLaren, 1995). What I attempt to do through cultural political economy is extend that analysis by employing a framework that helps us more powerfully explain how the cultural and material force of race and class breathes as one through the historical-political trajectory of school desegregation.


Dorothy Hollingsworth was ready to vote. The day has come when everybody wants to desegregate, but nobody wants to move [on a plan] (Angelos, 1977). In the 15 years since the Seattle School District had implemented the so-called Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) in 1963, the vast majority of those who had participated in the program were Black. Even as late as 1975, when the district served 62,884 students, only 1,476 were in the VTP. Of these, 1,109 were Black and 349 White (18 were otherwise classified; Rice, 1977). To place this in perspective, this means that about 1 in 10 of the districts 10,568 Black students volunteered; they were joined in their efforts by less than 1% of the districts 44,773 White students.  Although Black civil rights leaders had initially praised the voluntary program and had urged members of the Black community to enroll their children in schools across town, they gradually came to believe that only a mandatory policy would effectively integrate the citys schools.

When Hollingsworth, an accomplished social worker, was first elected to the Seattle School Board in 1975, the position of most Black leaders was clear. They were pushing for desegregation, Hollingsworth, now 86, recalls. And when I announced I was going to run for the board, the community said to meor some of themnow Dorothy, this is what we expect: desegregation. And whatever it takes for us to help you, were there to do it.

She acknowledged that although the formal Black leadership had anointed her as the voice of the Black community on the board, there were divisions within the community. Some activists and parents believed that busing Black children to White schools presented a high level of social and cultural risks and dubious educational benefits. On the street, doubts persisted. Parents would stop me and ask, Do you think that by our children going over there, theyll learn any more? Hollingsworth says she would reply, No, but when the kid from the Central Area or the South End [where nearly all Black residents lived at the time] is on the bus, they may see something going through town that may motivate them or inspire them, so it may be an opportunity.

Hollingsworth insisted that the aim of school desegregation was not to improve the academic achievement of Black children, but to increase their access to educational resources and people who were different from them. We didnt think they were going to do better because they were with White people. We didnt think that! But it was widening the opportunity.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on December 14, 1977, Hollingsworth got her own opportunity to fulfill her pledge to the Black leadership and the community, adding her aye vote in support of a new citywide mandatory school desegregation policy, what would become known as The Seattle Plan for the Elimination of Racial Imbalance (Siqueland, 1981). After the motion passed, Hollingsworth and others congratulated the board, various organizations, and the community for their patience and support of the new plan, which made Seattle the first major city to desegregate schools without a court order. It can work, it is exciting, Hollingsworth told the 150 or so people in the auditorium after the vote. I am sure we are committed as a board in order to try to provide the resources. Addressing the parents in the room, she added, To some of you I said I know that you are mad. Go to it; but we [the board] are able to understand the problems, and I hope you will recognize the considerations that each of us had to make for all the school children in this District (Seattle School Board, 1977).

However, it was board president Dan Olson who gave voice to the reason that it was necessary to implement a citywide desegregation plan in the first place, and what would remain the very real problem at the root of the political and economic challenges ahead. I would like to address these comments to the City officials, to the federal officials, and to real estate people, said Olson, who had won his seat over an antibusing candidate and whose son was one of the very few White students in the voluntary busing program (Siqueland, 1981):

Now that the School District has acted within its power to rectify a situation that has been created by segregated housing patterns we look now to the city government to do those kinds of things that can help alleviate this situation. We look to the federal government to do those kinds of things that can help alleviate segregated housing patterns and we look thirdly to the real estate industry and to all of us who buy and sell houses as individuals to do those things that will alleviate segregation in housing patterns. We certainly can make the whole situation a lot better if we all take actions in this regard. (Seattle School Board, 1977)

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of racially restrictive housing covenants in 1926. When new jobs in the growing manufacturing sector brought a sharp increase in Seattles Black population in the 1930s, a significant number of the citys White homeowners began to include such covenants in their property deeds (Davis, 2005). A common phrase found in many deeds of homes on Seattles Queen Anne Hill read, No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property (Gregory, 2007). In the Wedgewood neighborhood, one such covenant instructed that no persons of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building or any lot but graciously allowed that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant (Gregory).

The court officially declared racial covenants unenforceable in 1948; however, it would be another 20 years before Seattle passed an open housing law declaring such discriminatory clauses illegal. This came 3 months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as community and civic leaders intensified their calls for stronger civil rights measures, and street activists threatened another long, hot summer of social protest. Even with this new law, the damage had already been done: Confined largely to the Central District and unable to secure loans for home improvement because of redlining, Black folks found themselves in overcrowded living conditions in some of the oldest and most rapidly deteriorating housing stock in the city. Although some took advantage of limited opportunities to move out of the Central Areain most cases, to the neighboring South Endracial housing discrimination continued in the city through other, more subtle (and not so subtle) means (Davis, 2005).


It is often saidsometimes boastfullythat Seattle implemented a citywide busing program without a court order (Siqueland, 1981). But it also must be said that Seattle did not implement its plan willingly. Since 1963, when the district implemented its Voluntary Racial Transfer program, the boards position had generally been that the district could not and should not impose desegregation and that in time, voluntary measures would achieve the broader goal of integrated learning. This position had been consistently supported by a broad range of municipal and business leaders and by the editorial pages of the most prominent city newspapers (Pieroth, 1979). In early 1977, several groups, including the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union, formally threatened the school board with a federal lawsuit should the board not adopt a forceful plan to end racial segregation in the citys schools. These proponents of desegregation believed that voluntary measures would never fully integrate the schools, and certainly would not do so with all deliberate speed, as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 19761977 academic year, for example, of the 2,175 students who transferred schools for desegregation purposes, 1,528over 70%were Black, whereas 621 (less than 30%) were White, and 26 (7%) were classified as Asian. Twice as many schools were classified as racially isolated in 1977 than in 1967 (Siqueland, 1981).

In the years since the Brown decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had expressed some dissatisfaction with local implementation of school desegregation and sought to outline conditions under which a school districts policies, or lack of policies, might be declared illegal. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), the court ruled that school districts cannot operate separate school systems for White and Black students, even if Black students are given freedom to transfer to White schools. Districts were hereafter ordered to operate unitary school systems. Although this ruling did not have a direct impact on Seattle schools, it perhaps sent a symbolic message that the court would not tolerate creative attempts to sidestep integration. Three years later, in the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the court declared racially neutral student assignment as unconstitutional if it relied on existing patterns of residential segregation. Swann reinforced the idea that race should be used to desegregate schools if it had been used historically to segregate neighborhoods. It was in Swann that the justices approved busing as a means to achieve that end.

In 1973, the court issued a decision in Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1, the first case related to desegregation outside the South. Here, the justices ruled that school districts could be held liable for policies that resulted in segregated schools and found that if part of a school district was intentionally segregated, the whole district could be ruled in violation of the law. This is perhaps the ruling that created the most consternation among Whites in Seattle because the likely plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the school board had identified several examples of persistent, intentional school segregation throughout the city (Hanawalt & Williams, 1981; Siqueland, 1981).

By the fall of 1977, the Seattle School Board had to admit that they stood a good chance of losing in court, should they not act. Losing could prove costly, not only in legal fees but also in the loss of local control in determining desegregation policy and in the damaged reputation of the city, as was the case in Boston just a few years prior, when international media carried the horrific images of White parents threatening the lives of Black children who had arrived on buses to integrate schools in White neighborhoods. Seattles civic and business leaders feared that any desegregation plan could prompt a precipitous decline in the citys economic situation, largely due to the ripple effects of White flight. However, a plan imposed by a court-appointed administrator was even more risky because local leaders would have less influence in its implementation, and an outside administrator might be less sympathetic to their political and economic interests (Siqueland, 1981).

A group called Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CiVIC) led citywide opposition to the new Seattle Plan.  Although the group was predominantly White, Al Winston, one of the CiVIC boards directors, was Black and sought to organize opposition to mandatory desegregation within the Black community. In August 1978, as the school district prepared to begin the massive busing program, Winston met with members of the education task force of the pro-desegregation group, Black Clergy United for Action (BCUA). He presented the ministers with copies of Initiative 350, the antibusing measure that CiVIC had worked to place on the statewide fall ballot, and argued that Black people should support the initiative so that our children are not pawned off to a losing situation (Angelos, 1978, p. A9).

Now thats something we cant support, replied Fred Stephens, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thats mandatory segregation (Angelos, 1978, p. A9). To Winstons suggestion that voluntary measures should be given a chance to work, Stephens countered that most White residents would not voluntarily bus their children to schools in the Central Area. Theyre prejudiced and theyre racists, he explained.

Winston failed to win the BCUA members to his cause. We havent chosen you to speak for us, chided Otis Moore of Prince of Peace Baptist Church (Angelos, 1978, p. A9).  

However, Initiative 350 did win at the ballot box in November by a 2-to-1 margin. The Seattle School District (along with two other districts) filed suit against the state. The final ruling against Initiative 350 came in June 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the initiative unconstitutional because it targeted race as the only reason that schools could not bus students, while allowing the districts to bus students for other reasons. During that 4th year of the Seattle Plan, about a quarter of the 46,000 students in the district participated in the busing program (Katz & Angelos, 1982).


Even with the defeat of Initiative 350 in the courts, it was clear that a significant number of White parents were unhappy with the mandatory busing program even though a much smaller percentage and number of White children were bused as compared with Black children. Ellen Roe, the school board member who cast the lone nay vote against the Seattle Plan, had warned her colleagues that forcing desegregation might lead to White flight from the public schools, which would also reduce the likelihood that Whites would continue to support the local school levies so crucial for supplementing the declining level of financial support for education from the state government (Kohn, 1996; Seattle School Board, 1977). In truth, White enrollment in the Seattle Public Schools had declined precipitously since the beginning of busing.2 In 1970, White students accounted for 80% of the districts enrollment; by 1980, that number had declined to only 56%. By 1985, that number would slip below 50% and, by 2005, nearly a decade after the end of mandatory busing, would hover around 41% (Kohn; Seattle Public Schools, 2005). In 1970, only 13% of Seattles children attended private schools; by 1980, that share was 20% and had risen to 23% by 1984, 5 years into the Seattle Plan. By 2004, more than half of Seattles White school-age children attended private schools (Bhatt, 2004).

Some analysts caution that other factors besides opposition to busing contributed to this flight from urban schools. Suburban areas offered options for families looking for affordable housing and more room. New freeway construction allowed for easier commuting into the city. Following their workforce and tax breaks, corporations increasingly shifted operations from urban centers to less expensive outlying locations. Rising crime in urban centers and the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America are also cited as factors making cities less desirable to the middle class. In fact, some cities without massive school desegregationChicago, Kansas City, and Baltimorealso experienced White flight during this period (Kohn, 1996).  

Even so, survey research suggests that the increasing likelihood of having to sit next to children of color did influence White flight, either from public schools to private schools, or from the city altogether. For example, education policy analyst Laura Kohn (1996) described a 1990 survey of Seattle parents that found that about 50% of those who had transferred from public schools to private schools did so in part because their child was bused to a school not of their choosing. The same percentage indicated that they left public schools to have more control over the school their child would attend.  A slightly larger percentage stated that they were unhappy with the support offered to their child or were concerned that their child would not receive an academic education. Although one might argue that these issues have nothing to do with race, as Kohn stated, these phrases might reflect concerns by white parents that students of color in their childrens classrooms would harm academic quality (p. 49). Thus, Black bodies were ascribed a negative worth in the analysis of many White parents.

School officials and even desegregation proponents realized that White parents would not send their children to schools in the Central Area or South End without some enticement. Most often, these lures came in the form of special academic magnet programs, which offered opportunities for advanced learning in specific areas of study. From 1968 to 1972, for example, Garfield High School had a fine arts magnet program created to attract White students to the Central Area school, which by the late 1960s was predominantly Black. In the mid-1970s, Advanced Placement (AP) courses were added, and soon, Garfield became the receiving high school for the Accelerated Progress Program (APP), an exclusive K8 academic track serving only 1% of the districts students. The vast majority of students in AP and APP were (and still are) White. This served to create what one weekly Seattle newspaper would call a tale of two schools in which the education you get depends on your color (Holly-Gottlieb, 2000).

We must critically reflect on the cultural political-economic significance of creating special educational programs to appeal to White students. In fact, the reality is even more problematicthe district not only intended these programs for White students, but they placed them in Black schools, thereby sending three ideologically loaded messages: first, that Black studentsabsent the presence of Whitesdo not deserve, or are not culturally or genetically fit for, specialized and advanced learning; second, that it is morally acceptable and necessary to compensate White students for the burden of going to school with Black people; and third, that racially integrated education need not mean that White students actually interact with Black students as intellectual peers. None of these messages escaped the attention of Black educators, students, parents, and community members.

Magnet programs also involved an economic bargain with middle-class White residents. In a majority-White city in which education improvements are funded largely by school levies, the district needed to ensure that White parents would still claim the public schools as their own. During the debate over desegregation in the mid-1970s, two school levies failed, a reflection, at least in part, of White voter anger over the impending policy shift. As the Seattle Plan went into effect, it was important for the district to maintain the numbers of White students and improve the customer satisfaction of White parents. Although surely many White parents saw the value of having their children receive a multicultural education, they worried that the quality of education might suffer in racially, and therefore also economically, diverse schools. Magnet programs not only provided the quality of educational programs that Whites demanded; they effectively guaranteed that, at least in the classroom, White students would interact mainly with those whom they might expect to be their peers at a private schoolbut at public expense! I do not mean to suggest that most White parents consciously sought racially segregated classrooms for their children. Rather, I am suggesting that they were complicit with, and benefited from, a system in which the school district feared the loss of capital that middle-class Whites provided. The collective political-economic power of Seattles White population created the context in which everyday district policies and practices served to maintain largely segregated elite academic tracks, even as the district aimed to comply with federal desegregation law and their own multicultural education objectives.


By the mid-1980s, a growing number of Black leaders, educators, and activists began to critique busing as a policy and, more broadly, school desegregation as a political goal. Most cited persistent and increasing Black underachievement as the primary reason for opposing busing and proposed that improving neighborhood schools, hiring more Black teachers, and providing Black mentors for Black children would be more effective than the current desegregation policy. These ideas echo those articulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Black Power activists and others influenced by Black Nationalist thought (Blair, 2005).

In 1984, Michael Prestonone of three Black members of the Seattle School Boardpublicly parted ways on the issue of desegregation with many of the civil-rights-era leaders who had supported his election. He sponsored a proposal that dramatically changed the racial balance formula that the district used to determine if a school was adequately integrated. Under the guidelines used before Prestons measure, the non-White racial balance of a school could not deviate more than 15 percentage points from the districts overall racial demographic. At the time, White students constituted about 51% of the students in the district, which meant that a school was deemed unlawfully segregated if the percentage of non-White students exceeded about 64%. Howeverand this was an element of the formula that Preston described as a double standardan all-White school could be regarded as racially balanced.

Under Prestons new plus-or-minus-20 rule, schools could be regarded as racially balanced if they were within 20% of the districts average. This more lenient policy meant that fewer students would need to be bused. For Preston, this offered much-needed relief for Black parents, while also offering some relief for the White parents the district was so desperately attempting to woo. Were talking about parents in the Central Area, the southeast area, minority parents, Black parents, who will no longer have to get up at 6 oclock in the morning and have their children bused, Preston stated in defense of his proposal. I think it opens up the system to people who might otherwise make a different choice, a choice of choosing the Seattle Public Schools (Ervin, 1984, p. 16). This last statement was directed primarily at White parents; if fewer of their children were needed to desegregate schools to the south, they might be more likely to choose to support the citys schools. As he had said more directly just a few weeks prior, This is in no way an attempt to do away with the Seattle Plan . . . but it should send a message to the public, especially to the white kids [italics added] who opt out of the system now, that they wouldnt have to move around as much (Racial Balance, 1984, p. A5). For most Black youth, this choice simply wasnt available; not only could their parents not afford private schools, but the district had not built adequate classroom space in the south end of the city, so far more young people were bused to the North End simply in search of a seat, let alone racial balance. Still, in Prestons thinking, more choices for White parents translated into greater educational opportunities for Black children because Whites made it possible to have enough capital to provide the resources needed by poorer communities of color.

For TJ Vassar, another Black school board member, Prestons approach represented a dangerous step backward in the struggle for civil rights. I remember why we began the struggle for desegregation, and thats why Im not going to back away from it (Racial Balance, 1984, p. A5). Vassar  stated, We shouldnt give the appearance . . . that we are backing away from desegregation, particularly when we have a school system that works and works well (p. A5).

Whether the system was working well seemed to depend greatly on how one defined the purpose of the system. For an informal group of Black educators who took a critical look at busing in 1985, the policy was a failure because it failed to produce an improvement in Black academic performance (Tang, 1985). In response to their calls for a renewed examination of possible negative effects of busing, board member Michael Preston requested data from the district comparing student achievement before and after busing. This data showed that although all students showed improvement in that time frame, Black students failed to improve at the rate of other racial/ethnic groups.

Preston concluded that although busing had improved racial tolerance in the city, it had accomplished little for the education of Black folks. The findings confirmed what he had argued in 1984:

Desegregation has had more of a positive effect on the quality of life in Seattle as whole than on the educational process per se, if you look at it from a strictly academic standpoint. . . . Desegregation has opened up the city and made it safe for all people to be in any part of the city any time of night. . . . People began to see that people are just people. (Ervin, 1984, p. 16)

School desegregation thus paved the way for Whites to be less fearful about moving into and moving about in Black residential and cultural spaces but did not necessarily improve academic opportunities for Black young people.

Colin Williams, the Black director of the districts integrations services office, echoed Prestons and Hollingsworths argument about the intangible benefits of desegregation:

When the desegregation plan was created, lots of liberals dreamed that it would solve all the problems facing Black children. . . . What todays kids get is the opportunity to be educated with kids of other races, which my generation didnt have. You cant measure the importance of something like that by scores. (Tang, 1985, p. 22)

Williams seems to suggest that Black parents need to look beyond the economic or social mobility benefits of desegregation to uphold the integrationist vision of some of those who struggled against segregation. However, many were increasingly looking to an alternative Black vision, informed by nationalist themes like cultural preservation and closing ranks. This would not be an inherently radical or throwback vision and would incorporate more contemporary neoliberal and neoconservative cultural and political-economic ideas (Apple, 2003, 2006; Apple & Pedroni, 2005).

One example of this ideological shift was the push for creating what would become the African American Academy (AAA). One of several public schools created by the district to improve academic achievement, AAAs mission is to meet the needs of African American and all children, providing them with an academic and African-centered education (AAA Parent Handbook, 1999). The principles of Nguzo Saba, as set forth by Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, are invoked as the catalyst for the rebirth of our ancestral heritage and the renaissance of our rich and regal history. AAA, which would become a K8 school, was regarded by many in the community as the means to reestablish some control over the education of Black children and to provide an example for the rest of the district of how to improve the achievement of Black children. Planners intended to create a council of elders and to emphasize nurturing relationships and discipline. Equally significant, AAA would follow a curriculum informed by Afrocentrism: The emphasis in the curriculum, said Michael Preston, a supporter of AAA on the school board, will be on the unique accomplishments of African Americans. The curriculum will be different (Moody, 1990, p. 27).

Within the context of a cultural political economy, it is important to note that the formation of AAA converged with a national public and counterpublic discourse on Afrocentrism, sparked in part by the publication of such books as Molefi Asantes The Afrocentric Idea (1998) and work by educator Asa Hilliard and others (Hale-Benson & Hilliard, 1986; Hilliard, 1986). A mass-market paperback version of Malcolm Xs autobiography was also released in 1987. On television, The Cosby Show (19841992) and, even more pointedly, its spin-off, the Black-college-situated sitcom, A Different World (19871993), provided a fictive portrayal of Black people living and learning, achieving educationally, culturally, and economically in their own spaces. And in hip-hop, Public Enemy (1987) sent out the message,

You spend a buck in the 80swhatcha get is a preacher

Forgivin this torture of the system that brought cha

Im on a mission and you got that right

Addin fuel to the firepunch to the fight

Many have forgotten what we came here for

Never knew or had a clueso youre on the floor

Just growin not knowin about your past

now youre lookin pretty stupid while youre shakin your ass

. . . . Im sayin things that they say Im not supposed to

Give you pride that you may not find

If youre blind about your past then Ill point behind

Kings, Queens, warriors, lovers

People proud - sisters and brothers

Their biggest fearsuckers get tears

When we can top their best idea

These nationalist cultural-ideological discourses moved us away from the civil rights emphasis on access to White institutions and suggested that integrationour proximity to Whitenesshad contributed to our own demise as a people.

However, as anthropologist Leith Mullings (2000) has noted, characteristic of the cultural turn in political economy, the Afrocentric turn may have blunted or distracted us from critique of institutions and economic processes that are both fueled by and fuel racial domination. She wrote,

As we are reminded every dayby the hundreds of thousands of homeless, unemployed African Americans, by nearly six in ten African American children growing up in poverty, by every African American imprisoned and executed by the state . . . at the foundation of racism is a system of savagely unequal economic and political relations. (p. 214)

In the case of the African American Academy, this has translated into the challenge of providing education to a student body in which a disproportionately high percentage of students are poor. Even the schools sprawling $19.3 million new building, which many thought would provide a psychological lift for students used to attending crumbling, overcrowded schools, cannot serve as a substitute for economic justice. And without economic justicewhether in integrated or Black-centered schoolsit becomes difficult, if not impossible, to realize educational equity (Anyon, 1997, 2005; Lipman, 2003).        


In 1988, Seattle Schools superintendent William Kendrick proposed a controlled choice plan to replace mandatory busing. Under this new plan, which the school board passed unanimously, students were able to indicate their attendance preferences from a list constructed by the district. The idea was to quell White unrest by offering a greater amount of choice while still complying with desegregation goals. Controlled-choice policies instructed district administrators to give as many students as possible their first choice; however, students making desegregation positive choices were more likely to avoid a mandatory assignment because once a specific school had a certain percentage of its most dominant racial group, the remaining assignments were made using what was called a racial tiebreaker. The effect of the racial tiebreaker was that White students who wished to attend one of the districts more highly regarded schoolsmost, although not all, of which are in predominantly White neighborhoodsfound themselves competing for scarce seats with other White students, whereas students of color who lived in the same neighborhood or who were bused from the south end of the city were able to move higher on the list. A White student who, for example, requested Rainier Beach or Cleveland high schoolsboth of which are primarily Black, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islanderas their first choice undoubtedly would have had no problem getting in. However, for any middle-class parent, these racially devalued, low-performing, high-poverty South End schools would hardly have been considered an option.  

Although 68% of students received their first choice of school (and another 10% their second choice), this new plan failed to appease many White parents in the north end of the city, who wanted an end to busing altogether (Kohn, 1996).  They formed an antibusing group called Save Our Schools (SOS) and threw their support behind the mayoral campaign of Doug Jewett, who ran on an antibusing platform. SOS also placed the antibusing Initiative 34 on the fall 1989 ballot, which mandated an open enrollment policy throughout the district and the end of mandatory busing. It also set aside monies for magnet programs and other voluntary desegregation efforts but ordered that if the school district did not end busing, these funds would be held in escrow until the district did so.

City council member Norm Rice, although open to a shift in desegregation policy, believed that SOS, Jewett, and Initiative 34 helped create a climate in which the discussion of race and education in Seattle took an unfortunately bitter and caustic tone. The former newscaster and bank executive had previously dismissed those who urged him to enter the race to become Seattles first Black mayor. However, as the campaign went on, he found a reason to step forward. [The debate] degenerated into race and got very nasty, he told me as we sat in his office at the University of Washington, where he is now on the faculty of the  public affairs school. I was waiting for some of the candidates to challenge this initiative and say that it was wrong. One candidateDoug  Jewettran with this [antibusing] mantra. The rest stayed away and said, Well, schools dont belong to the city, and therefore, we arent going to say anything. I thought that was a cop-out. Rice explained that he thought other candidates were afraid to address this divisive issue, fearing it might cost them votes.

One of my colleagues who was running for the position came into my office and said, Weve got to do something about this. Weve got to get this off the front pages. We need somebody to galvanize the community and get this moving in the right direction. And I said, That seems like a good idea. And he was kind of thinking out loud and he said, Who could that be? And he said, Well, it couldnt be you, because youre Black.

I got so angry . . . I just seethed. Rice decided to center his campaign on the issue of education. I said, Were going to bring this city together; [the conversation] had gotten too divisive and too shrill. Rice filed his campaign papers on the last possible day and went on to win the election.

However, Initiative 34 also passed. The school board narrowly voted to reject the measure despite the offer of funding for voluntary desegregation measures. Thus, the initiative had little direct effect on policy; indirectly, however, it shifted the discourse on busing in Seattle, making it clear that Whites in Seattle could effectively mobilize opposition should the district not change course. Many White residents would have had to vote for Norm Rice and for Initiative 34, which might seem a paradox. However, Rice was the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, was never strongly identified with the Black civil rights leadership of the city, and had given clear signs that he was not exactly pro-busing. His beliefand I believe this probably appealed to many White voterswas to shift the conversation from race to quality education for all. This resonated, not only because middle-class Whites could see their interests reflected in the call for quality education, but also because for many liberal White Seattleites, attention to race was (and is) regarded as inherently counterproductive. And even though many liberal Whites were still open to race talk, racially redistributive policies were decidedly anathema.


In his posthumously published book, Victory in Our Schools (1999), John Stanford described working late one night in 1995 during his first months as the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. Three school board members came to visit him and asked him to find a way to end busing, arguing that it was unfair to send children to schools outside their neighborhood. Although Stanford did not name the board members, it is reasonable to conclude that Michael Preston would have been among them, making the case that it was unfair not only to White children but to Black children as well.

Indeed, when Stanford set out to study the issue, the first person he spoke to (according to his account) was a fourth grader whom he called Jamal. Although Jamal is never racially identified in Stanfords story, such a Black-identified name allows Jamal (if that was his real name) to represent, to stand in as a signifier of, the archetypal Black child. When Stanford asked him how he felt about being bused so far to school, Jamal replied, I hate it . . . I hate getting up that early. Man, I get up at six-thirty! Do you know how early that is? I should be asleep! (Stanford, 1999, p. 182). Stanford went on to say that Jamal rarely ate breakfast at home and often fell asleep during class. Stanford concluded, The decades-old experiment was not producing the results it had been designed to achieve. Children of color were being bused in disproportionate numbers: Because white families fled the district rather than have their children bused, 95 percent of the children on buses were minorities (p. 182). He determined then that it was time to bring busing to an end: The decision to end busing was not a racial issue but an educational one (p. 185). However, the decision was clearly racial and economic, forced by the cultural politics of White middle-class residents, who, as Stanford was well aware, stood ready to make school funding very difficult if he did not meet their demands.

Nearly everyone seems to agree that John Stanford was a dynamic figure, although opinions are mixed on the policies he pursued as the first Black superintendent of Seattle Schools from 1995 until 1998, when he tragically died of leukemia. A former military officer and county executive for Fulton County, Georgia, Stanford had no experience as a school administrator or educator. He came in aiming to decentralize school administration by placing more authority and responsibility with principals, whom he regarded as CEOs.  Community activist Don Alexander, in his discussion with me, remembered asking Stanford how students should be regarded in this corporate analogy. As widgets, Alexander said angrily, mocking Stanfords reply. In so many words, Alexander told Stanford never to say that again. Even so, Stanfords logic reflects the rightist shift toward standardization and economic efficiency (Apple, 2003). I am also doubtful that middle-class White parents would think that Stanford was referring to their children as widgets, given that culturally, it is children of color who are most often constructed as those in need of centralized management oversight to improve productivity (Leonardo, 2009).  

Like Rice, Stanford was not strongly identified with the traditional civil rights leadership. However, Rice suggested to me, the fact that both he and Stanford were Black may have contributed to the freedom they had to shift education policy away from desegregation without suffering critique from established Black leaders. I think the legacy of my administration is that it gave the district Stanford, Rice noted. And I think that having an African American mayor, having an African American superintendentsomehow I think people felt the legacy was being adhered to . . . the torch would not be dropped. As leadersas Black leadersRice argued, the two were able to renew the faith of all city residents in the public schools at a time of great uncertainty and intergroup resentment.  

The Alliance for Education, a private nonprofit business-supported public education fundraising group, was founded about the same time as Stanfords arrival in Seattle in 1995. By 2007, the group had raised over $90 million for Seattle Public Schools from such prominent sources as the Boeing Company, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Washington Mutual Bank. The alliance counted Stanford as an invaluable partner in their effort to serve as a catalyst for change in the public schools. It is beyond the scope of my analysis here to offer a critique of the alliances influence over the direction of public school policy; I simply want to note that they have had, and continue to exercise, influence as a result of the millions of dollars they raise to supplement the inadequate funding the state provides.

One of the major policies supported by the alliance was Stanfords introduction of the weighted-student formula (WSF) of school budget allocation. What makes the WSF so important to the story of school desegregation in Seattle is that it provided the rationale for ending busing and returning to what would inevitably be more racially segregated neighborhood schools. In essence, the WSF changed the school budget formula by acknowledging that some students are more expensive to educate than others. Therefore, rather than allocate monies simply based on the number of students in a building, the WSF takes into account socioeconomic factors that the district had identified as presenting a challenge to academic achievement. Namely, for each student who is deemed low income (based on qualification for free or reduced lunch) or in need of bilingual or special education, the school receives an additional amount of money in addition to base funding. In effect, then, given the high number of Black students who are either low income or in special education, and the high number of new Asian and African immigrants who are both poor and in bilingual education, schools in the South End could expect to receive more funds to address the relatively higher needs of their students.

Over the long term, Stanford (1999) wrote in his book,

we hope to close the achievement gap between minority students and whites. We also hope that ending busing will bring large numbers of middle-class students into our district as they realize that they can attend their neighborhood schools, and that those schools are as strong, as challenging, and as achievement-oriented as their private and suburban counterparts. (p. 191)

And indeed, over the past several years, schools in the North Endshed of their poor-performing (and just simply poor) children of colorhave  succeeded in recruiting and retaining affluent families who are able to supplement the schools budget with their own fundraising prowess.  

This issue came up at a 2004 community forum3 at Rainier Beach High School in the South End. Caprice Hollins, the districts new director of equity and race relations, was responding to questions about inequities between Roosevelt High in the North End and Cleveland High in the South End. The issue with the resourcing, she explained, the allocation of where resourcing is going into programs is definitely something that the district needs to look at. . . . If were talking about closing the achievement gap, we have to think about how our dollars are being spent and where theyre being spent.

But the issue of South End versus North End and what schools have at one end and what schools dont have on another enda lot of the funding that comes into the North End schools comes from the parents. Hollins noted that Washington State was among the lowest in education funding. The North End schools parents make up for that, she told the audience. So schools dont have enough money to get dictionaries or they want another teacher or we need a jungle gym orand their fundraiser looks a lot different than a fundraiser that might occur on the South End.

A vivid example of the disparities is the vast difference between the supplementary funds at Ballard High in the North End and Chief Sealth High in the South End. At Ballard, funds from parents, alumni, and community leaders supported the creation of a Maritime Academy ($35,000), athletic facilities ($93,000), new microscopes and other science supplies ($32,000), a new law class ($5,500) and even new decorative banners for the halls ($2,000). Meanwhile, at Chief Sealth, the principal had to lay off a music teacher, a library aide, and a high-level administrator. He did not even bother to ask the parents group for help because they were having a hard enough time meeting their commitment to raise $5,000 (Vinh, 2004).

District data for 2003 show that the student enrollment at Ballard was nearly 60% White and less than 10% Black, in a district where only 40% of students are White and nearly a quarter are Black. At Chief Sealth, 29% of the students were White, and Black students were about 20%, while Latino students made up 23% of the student body, more than double their representation at any other school in the city, including Ballard. Over half of Sealths students qualified for free or reduced lunch, more than at any other high school except Rainier Beach. At Ballard, only about 22% of students were eligible.  WSF offers political cover for racially and economically segregated schools that, despite the districts attempts to provide supplementary funding, perpetuate an educational caste system in which Black students and other poor children of color are relegated, once again, to schools that are politically marginalized, culturally devalued (in the broader public sphere), and economically fragile. As a response to busing, then, it might be argued that the WSF exchanged integrated and unequal for separate and even more unequal.  

In their 2003 publication, Tradition to Transformation: How Seattle is Reinventing its Public Schools (Cameron, 2003), the Alliance for Education provided a description of Stanfords impact that is particularly revealing, from a critical perspective:

Stanford wooed and won the hearts of Seattle residents, making them believe once again in the future of their public schools. After years of busing, bickering [and] decline . . . here was an outsider, an African-American, a former Army General, talking about how children deserved great schools and promising to lead the way. He would lead, he said, with love. (p. 18)

After noting the persistent political and economic challenges of school reform, the report went on to say,

But one thing seems changed for good. Stanford guided Seattle beyond racial politics that permeated the school system for three decades. He could say what no other superintendent in the history of Seattle could say: I dont have to sit next to a white person to learn. . . . . Race still matters, but the conversation about race, particularly about how to narrow the persistent achievement gap, is fundamentally different today. (p. 19)  


What the alliance report fails to acknowledge is the enduring connection between race and the political-economic dimension of the achievement gap. They are correct that the conversation has shifted such that the discourse on racehow race mattersnow centers on interpersonal awareness and cultural sensitivity training (Dumas, 2009). However, with Black students at the bottom of nearly every indicator of academic achievement and largely removed from affluent North End schools, how do we talk about race only as a matter of cultural understanding and not in terms of economic (mal)distribution?


On Thursday, June 28, 2007, in the case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the districts use of race as a factor in school assignment for the purpose of creating racially balanced learning environments. The 54 ruling was a vindication for those who believe that the United States should be a color-blind society and is widely regarded as a landmark casein some sense, ushering in a post-Brown climate in which school districts face possible legal challenges if they even attempt to be intentional about countering racial (re)segregation. Culturally, the court sent the message that despite the nations history of conscious racial segregation and subjugation, the best way to address the problem of race now is to not address it.  

The so-called racial tiebreaker policy had been used only for assignment to oversubscribed schoolsthat is, schools where more students wish to attend than there are spots availableand gave a preference to students whose enrollment contributed toward bringing a given school closer to the district average of 40% White students and 60% students of color. Because the district now has open enrollment, students may apply to attend any school in the city, although transportation is only provided to those schools in their given cluster. At the high school level, especially, competition is high for admission to such schools as the aforementioned Ballard and Garfield, and Roosevelt, whereas schools like Rainier Beach, Chief Sealth, and Cleveland are not competitive at all and typically have hundreds of empty seats.

A number of White parents formed Parents Involved in Community Schools after their children were denied their first choice of high school. In their 2001 lawsuit, they alleged that the racial tiebreaker policy violates the states antiaffirmative action law, which the voters approved through Initiative 200 in 1998. The Washington State Supreme Court argued that the law disallows the use of race in certain circumstancesthat is, when a less qualified individual of one racial group might be chosen over a more highly qualified person of another. However, because the school districts policy is racially neutralthat is, it does not on the surface seek to benefit one race over anotherthe policy represents a legal use of race. The Ninth District Court of Appeals concurred, ruling in 2005 that the district has a compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial (and ethnic) diversity (quoted in Koons, 2006).

The Supreme Court that took up the racial tiebreaker case in 2007 was an increasingly right-leaning court; the conservative president, George W. Bush, had made two significant appointments to the court over the previous 6 years.  In early questioning of attorneys for the school district, it was clear that the justices were likely to apply the strictest standards with regard to the use of race in school assignment and were skeptical about the states diversity argument for integrated schools.  Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the tiebreaker policy sent a message to students that everybody can get a meal (admission to high school) but not necessarily dessert (access to the most desired schools; quoted in Sherman, 2006). And that was precisely the districts argument: Each student is guaranteed access to one of the public high schools, but he or she is not entitled to enroll at the most prestigious, even if that school is closer to his or her home.

At the center of the White parents argumentand their angerwas that they moved into certain neighborhoods specifically so that they might access these better schools; not allowing their children to enroll at these schools then becomes a sort of violation of property rights, in addition to racial discrimination. Three of the five oversubscribed schools are located in the North End, in neighborhoods that historically have not been open to most people of color. Garfield, although in the center of what has historically been the Black community (largely as a result of racist federal and local policy), basically operates as two schools, with higher tracks primarily for Whites and certain Asian groups, and lower tracks for students of color. In addition, the surrounding neighborhood is quickly gentrifying (Pate, 2000) as Whites with younger children move in, and Black folks move or are removed to working-class inner-ring suburbs to the south, where few schools enjoy the status of those (oversubscribed schools) available in the city. Thus, historical class and race privilege translate into middle-class White presumptions of rights to what are increasingly market-determined educational opportunities.

In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court, 553 social scientists articulated their support for Seattles racial tiebreaker policy. They did not so much address the constitutionality of the policy as make the case that (1) integrated schools are better for the development of a democratic society; and (2) racially isolated schoolsat least for students of colorfacilitate harmful educational and social outcomes (Brief of 553 Social Scientists, 2006). The trajectory of school desegregation policy suggests that, as much as one might agree with these arguments, we have entered a historical moment in which it is difficult to find broad-based public support for the ideological principles of racial harmony and the common good behind the arguments. To be sure, a majority of people in the United States might voice support for such ideals. However, they do not necessarily wish to act on their expressed values in ways that might sacrifice their material advantage or their cultural standing relative to others.


Writing for the majority in Parents Involved, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, The Seattle public schools have not shown that they were ever segregated by law, and were not subject to court-ordered desegregation decrees (2007, p. 12).4 As the cultural political economy of desegregation in Seattle reveals, although the schools themselves may not have been segregated by laws specifically related to public education, they were segregated largely as a result of racially discriminatory social policy, inequitable social and economic conditions, and a state complicit in reproducing these conditions over generations. These connections are not even considered in the courts deliberation.

The court also displays a willful naïveté about the significance of White dominance and privilege. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is simply that their uncritical analysis of the history of school desegregation does not offer a language to explain how the cultural formation of Whiteness translates into disproportionate educational advantage. In either case, the court ignores evidence that White people preserved for themselves the best schools and the best seats in those schools. This is evident in Robertss complaint that the districts racial balance formula privileges a certain percentage of White enrollment over a broadly diverse representation of racial/ethnic groups: Under the Seattle plan, a school with 50 percent Asian-American students and 50 percent white students but no African-American, Native-American, or Latino students would qualify as balanced, while a school with 30 percent Asian-American, 25 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino, and 20 percent white students would not (Roberts, 2007, pp. 15, 16). What Roberts ignored here, or simply rejected, is that resources were already allocated along racial lines, despite the absence of any explicit policies dictating that this be so. A school with more students of color than White students rarely has the political and therefore economic power of a school that White people regard as theirs. For Black desegregation proponents, the goal was to create a situation in which those who are more politically and economically privileged are in a position that encourages (or forces) them to share the resources they have accumulated largely as a result of that privilege.

Fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas went out of his way to deride the existence of White privilege or advantage, as part of his broader argument that school districts should not be trusted to consciously consider race in the formation and implementation of policy. In a concurring opinion, he complained, The school district sent a delegation of high school students to a White Privilege Conference. One conference participant described white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious (Thomas, 2007, p. 36). Thomas was so certain that the public would share his distaste of the idea of White privilegeand the idea that a school district might take it seriouslythat he simply cited this one definition5 offered by a conference speaker without further comment, as if the very definition were damning enough. Again, this serves as another example of the court refusing to acknowledge the central premise that I have argued we need to embrace: The cultural is economic, the economic is cultural, and the interimbrication of the two is acted out within, and never outside of, relations of power.

This concept, so vividly clear in the Seattle case, is also untheorized in mainstream liberal discourse on school desegregation; the more oft-cited goal is to improve racial harmony by bringing people together across differences. The weakness of this liberal argument is that it fails to take into account that integrated schools do not necessarily mean that Black children will have access to the same resources, nor does it mean that they will have meaningful egalitarian encounters during the school day (Fine et al., 2005). Thomas (2007) was able to exploit this in his concurring opinion:

By the dissents account, improvements in racial attitudes depend upon the increased contact between black and white students thought to occur in more racially balanced schools. There is no guarantee, however, that students of different races in the same school will actually spend time with one another. Schools frequently group students by academic ability as an aid to efficient instruction, but such groupings often result in classrooms with high concentrations of one race or another. (pp. 22, 23)

Of course, Thomas failed to consider why individual classrooms might be racially segregated. Chief Justice Roberts (2007) explained away these racial imbalances as the result of private choices rather than a product of state action (p. 28). Therefore, he concluded, there is no violation of the Constitution in the racial disproportionality between different academic tracks.

I worry that the justices, and indeed, the U.S. public, have little use for an analysis of school desegregation informed by a critical cultural political economy. We have reached a moment in which rights are being turned back; the state has retreated on the issue of racial and economic enfranchisement (Singh, 2004). The popular-cultural discourse suggests that with the election of President Barack Obama, we have entered a postracial era in our national history (Wise, 2009).

I have argued that a cultural political economy of school desegregation allows us to more richly critique a history in which social actors have exercised power to culturally delegitimize and materially dismantle policies that aim to redistribute educational resources in ways that consciously take into account past and current maldistribution of resources and misrecognition of students and communities on the basis of race. In offering a critical history of the Seattle case, I have mostly resisted the temptation to identify certain people, events, or policy shifts as motivated simply by race or class, or as advancing this certain racial outcome, or having this specific class-related implication. The evidence simply belies this kind of simplistic, unimodal (or even bimodal) analysis. Similarly, I have attempted to tell the story in such a way that we move toward seeing class as just as much a matter of culture as it is economic structuration, and race as seeped with economic function and intent as it is a lens through which we produce cultural representations of ourselves and others.  It is precisely because of this necessary messiness and fluidity, imbued nonetheless with a certainty about the reproductive impulses of power, that cultural political economy complicates our understanding of the politics of school desegregation and provides a foundation for a more radical reimagination of how class and race breathe through our cultural political struggles and our scholarship. The journey from here for critical researchers, educators, and youth and community activists must include cultural and political strategies to shift the very relations of power highlighted in the Seattle case.  


This work would not have been possible without financial support from two sources: the Spencer Foundation, which awarded me a dissertation fellowship for 20062007, and New York philanthropist Barbara Slifka, who provided funding for an additional dissertation fellowship I received through the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


1. I am not suggesting that predominantly Black schools should be regarded as, or are in any objective sense, less desirable. However, I would submit that given the dominant representation of Black as poor, unintelligent, dangerous, and lazy (Kelley, 1997; Leonardo & Hunter, 2007; Wilson, 1997), schools marked with the signifier Black are not only culturally devalued, or in Nancy Frasers term, misrecognized, but are also seen as less worthy of economic investment; this is due (at least in part) to resentment about the redistribution of economic resources to serve those whose mere Black existence is constructed as a social problem (Gordon, 2000). Hegemonic racialized framings of schools in turn affect such things as the material conditions in those schools and graduates opportunities for meaningful employment or admission to desirable colleges or universities. Thus, for most middle-class parents, exercising the choices they have in the educational marketplace, a Black school is unlikely to be an attractive option (for a critical examination of middle-class parents discourses about school choice, see Ball & Vincent, 1998).

2. About 25%30% of schoolchildren in Seattle attend private schools (Bach, 2005) substantially higher than the national average, which is about 10% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).

3. Ironically, the desegregation activists who pushed Seattle into implementing citywide busing without a court order might have done better to actually insist on one, because here the court uses the absence of legal action as proof that discrimination was never proved!

4. For a more detailed analysis of this case and the cultural and political-economic dimensions of school funding in Seattle, see Dumas (2009).

5. Here Thomas is referring to Peggy McIntosh, the author of the much-cited article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1989).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 4, 2011, p. 703-734
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15970, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 10:01:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael J. Dumas
    California State University, Long Beach
    MICHAEL J. DUMAS is assistant professor of social and cultural analysis of education and also teaches in the doctoral program in educational leadership at California State University, Long Beach. His research focuses on the cultural politics of Black education, redistributive justice, and urban educational policy discourse. His recent publications include “‘How do we get dictionaries at Cleveland?’: Theorizing Redistribution and Recognition in Educational Research” in Theory and Educational Research (Jean Anyon, ed.) and “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Education? Imagining a Cultural Politics Without Guarantees,” in Handbook of Cultural Politics and Education (Zeus Leonardo, ed.).
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