Democracy Now? Race, Education, and Black Self-Determination

by Adrienne D. Dixson - 2011

Background/Context: The Supreme Court’s June 2007 decision on the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1 (PICS) provides an important context for school districts and educational policy makers as they consider the role of race in school assignment. The PICS decision has been described as essentially “undoing” the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that ended de jure racial segregation.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Given the rhetoric that education in the United States is the “great equalizer,” this conceptual article considers how the PICS decisions impact notions of educational equity and self-determination for African Americans.

Research Design: This article provides a conceptual analysis of the PICS decision and educational equity.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The author recommends that despite the PICS decision, school administrators and policy makers continue to consider how race impacts school assignment to ensure that public schools are democratic institutions that are racially and educationally equitable.

Given the nation’s long struggle for the essential right of equality and the promise of Brown, this state of affairs reflects badly on a nation that is eager to spread “democracy” around the world. (Anderson, 2006, pp. 32–33)

Brown can only be successful if communities of color mobilize to develop strategies that confront the ongoing structural concerns that decades of neglect have produced. (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 312)

The great challenge of any democracy is to ensure that all of its citizens are “stakeholders” in a common project called civil society. Millions of racialized “Others” are today experiencing “civil death”—the destruction of their social, legal and economic capacities to play a meaningful role in public life. We must find creative paths to reinvest in citizenship, to build civic capacities within the most disadvantaged sectors of our society. Combating civil death is the key toward revitalizing democracy for all of us. (Marable, 2002, p. xiv)

For the past 50 years, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, has ostensibly been the major legislation supporting equal educational opportunity educational equity in U.S schools. With Brown I, some African American parents sought more equitable distribution of resources for their children, although the mainstream discourse focused on access (Anderson, 1988). School districts, especially in the South, refused to comply with the demands of racially integrating its schools. In a move that essentially deflated the promise of equality gained with Brown I, the Supreme Court compromised by allowing limited access to better facilities through a myriad of strategies aimed at desegregating schools, the real promise of Brown, through what is known (albeit not widely) as Brown II (Ladson-Billings, 2004).  Historian Manning Marable (2002) argued that Black people’s struggles for equity, most notably as they manifest within the realm of education, crystallized with many of the strategies that resulted from the Brown decisions. Furthermore, Marable (2002) and others have been critical of school reform efforts that are touted as “equalizing” education but that stand within basic, capitalist terms and actually operate contradictory to democratic notions of fairness and equality. For example, Marable (2002) described the emergence of magnet schools as a precursor to the charter school movement. In particular, many school districts used the language of  “parental choice” to describe magnet schools. Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, described its magnet school program as “controlled choice.” The premise for magnet schools was to establish unique school programs not offered by traditional public schools that would draw parents to a particular school. Essentially, school districts hoped that magnet schools would retain White parents and stave off the White flight that many cities and city school districts experienced as they were ordered to desegregate schools.  Thus, under the auspices of academic opportunity, rigor, and, more recently, school choice, public education has exacerbated the capitalist notion of “winners and losers” that disproportionately affects students of color, especially low-income students of color.  

In light of the Supreme Court’s June 2007 decision on Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1 (PICS) and the specific implications it has for the Brown decision, in this conceptual paper, I theorize on the meaning of educational equity and American democracy using tenets of critical race theory (CRT) as a framework. I intend for my argument to highlight conceptual and epistemological concerns related to the relationship between democracy and schooling for African Americans, looking specifically at the notion of Black self-determination as a prerequisite for the full participation of Black people in the United States. I define Black self-determination as the ability for African Americans to exercise free choice as it pertains to political and social opportunities. In many respects, for African Americans, the opportunity or right to exercise free choice in any domain has always been wrought with contradictions. That is, from voting to school assignment, African Americans, in large measure, been given a forced choice.


A number of scholars have thoroughly documented the history and development of CRT within both the legal field and education (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, &Thomas, 1995; Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Tate, 1997). Scholars in education have found CRT to be a powerful analytical and theoretical tool to examine the ways in which seemingly neutral educational policies and practices reproduce racialized educational inequity. As away to make sense of what PICS means in light of the continuing efforts for educational and racial equity, I use CRT to uncover and discuss the persistence of color-blind practices in education, both formal and informal, that indeed reproduce racialized inequity. For my analysis, I will draw on CRT’s critique of colorblindness and the notion of expansive versus restrictive equality. Specifically, CRT challenges us to consider how democratic ideals are compromised by persistent racial inequity. As it applies to education, the notion that education is the great equalizer falls flat when educational opportunities are not equal. Thus, in this context, using CRT as an analytical lens to examine racialized educational inequity as an obstacle to democratic education will facilitate a closer examination of the extent to which the notion of Black self-determination is possible. Bell’s (1980) notion of interest-convergence helps to bring to light the compromises that African Americans have to make when aligning their desire for equity with the interests of Whites—for example, in the more recent calls for “neighborhood schools” and “local control” of school districts by mostly White parents.1 In this way, the notion of self-determination is frustrated when it is predicated on the desires and interests of Whites, which quite often stand in stark contrast to those of people of color.


CRT scholars in law and education challenge the notions of color-blindness. In legal scholarship, law professor Kimberle Crenshaw (Crenshaw et al., 1995) noted that integration, assimilation, and color-blindness have become the official norms of contemporary “racial enlightenment” in which the dominant discourse positions color-blindness as an ideal. That is, a colorblind ideology is one that denies that inequity and inequalities are the result of racism, racial beliefs, or racial practices. Crenshaw argued that CRT scholars illuminate the ways in which the color-blind discourse is ostensibly a color-conscious discourse that sustains racial hierarchy and power (Crenshaw et al.). For example, in education, CRT scholars examine how teachers’ justification for tracking African American students in lower level mathematics and reading classes is racialized, yet they publicly espouse the color-blind ideology (Dixson, 2008; Rousseau & Tate, 2003). Similarly, legal scholar Neil Gotanda (1991) asserted that the color-blind ideal in the law serves to maintain racial subordination. In his analysis, Gotanda proposed that the Supreme Court chooses to see race in four ways: (1) Status-race describes racial status—upheld by Dred Scott and one he argued is important to consider in eradicating intentional forms of racial subordination and inferiority. One might consider the case of Black women, for example, who have had their discrimination cases dismissed when Black men and White women have not had similar issues, presumably because Black women do not constitute a separate class that needs protection (Crenshaw, 1989). (2) Formal-race refers to socially constructed formal categories. Black and White are seen as neutral, apolitical descriptions reflecting merely “skin color” or country of origin. Formal-race is unrelated to ability, disadvantage, or moral culpability. Moreover, formal-race categories are unconnected to social attributes such as culture, education, wealth, or language. This “unconnectedness” is the defining characteristic of formal-race. (3) Historical-race embodies past and continuing racial subordination and is the meaning of race that the court contemplates when it applies "strict scrutiny" to racially disadvantaging government conduct. (4) Culture-race uses Black to refer to African American culture, community, and consciousness. Culture-race is the basis for the developing concept of cultural diversity.

Gotanda went on to suggest that color-blind analyses of the law use “race” to mean formal-race. These four categories illustrate the instability of racial ideology that the court uses to address racial discrimination.

Because formal-race is connected to social realities, a color-blind analysis “often fails to recognize connections between the race of an individual and the real social conditions underlying litigation or other constitutional dispute” (Gotanda, 1991, p. 7). Gotanda noted that this disconnection from social realities places severe limitations on the possible remedies for injustice and thereby maintains a system of White privilege. This lack of historical or social context is one of the mechanisms through which color-blindness maintains inequity. In other words, within the context of the Brown I and II decisions and the PICS decision, it is important to consider the shortcomings of the implementation of Brown II that allowed for the restructuring of school districts, the advent of busing, and the emergence of  “segregation academies” (Ladson-Billings, 2004) that in effect frustrated desegregation efforts. Moreover, if we consider that although Brown I was decided in 1954, most schools in the southern United States were not formally desegregated until the mid-1960s, nearly a decade after the decision. Many of the segregation academies in the South opened in the early 1970s. In the northeastern and midwestern United States, school districts instituted busing programs as a way to desegregate schools in the 1970s. Because of massive White flight out of city school districts and the expanse of the suburbs and suburban schools, one could argue that Brown has never been fully realized (Ladson-Billings, 2004). Thus, the PICS decision, which also involved not only the Seattle Public School District but also another school assignment case, Meredith v. Jefferson County School District, is problematic in light of the implementation challenges associated with Brown I and II.

In so much as both the Seattle Public School District and the Louisville Public School District were attempting to address historical racial segregation and discrimination with their school assignment plans, the Equal Justice Society (2007) offered this explanation of the “intent doctrine” and the ways in which the color-blind ideology has essentially straightjacketed attempts to address racial discrimination:

This presumption, termed the “intent doctrine,” has been applied to any governmental action where groups are treated differently on the basis of race. Under this doctrine these overt uses of race are constitutionally permissible only if they are “[narrowly tailored] to serve a compelling governmental interest.” This standard, known as “strict scrutiny,” has for the most part been “strict in theory, but fatal in fact,” and has meant that a great many of the governmental actions designed to address racial inequality, in areas such as higher education, contracting, and voting, have been deemed unconstitutional. In essence, this ideology of color-blindness functions to “legitimate and thereby maintain the social, economic, and political advantages that whites hold over other Americans.”

Thus, the color-blind discourse used by the court in the PICS decision not only thwarts the districts efforts to remedy historical racial discrimination and segregation but can also have a negative impact on students of color, especially as it relates to their intellectual abilities. CRT scholars in education have noted the ways in which educators describe themselves as not “seeing” race, while they use coded racialized language to describe their students and justify using ineffective pedagogies (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Dixson, 2008; Dixson & Fasching-Varner, 2008). Legal scholar Patricia J. Williams (1997) argued that “innocent” school discourses pathologize students of color and perpetuate the notion that they are deficient and in need of remediation. These “microaggressions” (Pierce, 1970), a less overt form of racism, illustrates how the color-blind ideology impacts children of color and can potentially cause them to internalize the shame and sense of abnormality that comes with being “not White.”  

In addition to examining color-blindness at the level of a teacher’s discourse, CRT scholars in education have looked at how the notions of liberalism and color-blindness inform educational materials and practices aimed at “diversifying” the curriculum. These scholars challenge the superficiality of a multicultural curriculum that does not call into question issues of power and race (Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Yosso, 2006), particularly as it relates to teacher preparation, curriculum, and educational policy. This critique of multiculturalism parallels CRT legal scholars’ critique of liberalism and/or the complete reliance on the legal system to eradicate racial inequity. Thus, one of the commonalities between CRT in the law and in education is that scholars in both areas seek to expose and challenge the inequities of the status quo and the limitations of liberal ideology because both mainstream legal doctrine and educational scholarship fail to advance the cause of justice for people of color. Taking their cue from their colleagues in the law, CRT scholars in education have begun to put their scholarship into action and challenge the field, especially those who embrace multiculturalism, to move from rhetoric to working toward material and structural change (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1994; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000).


A CRT analysis of how equality in antidiscrimination law can illuminate the limitations of the PICS decision and its implications for Black self-determination. Crenshaw (1988) described two views of equality in antidiscrimination law—restrictive and expansive—that essentially justified the rollback of some civil rights legislation. Crenshaw argued,

The expansive view stresses equality as a result, and looks to real consequences for African Americans. It interprets the objective of anti-discrimination law as the eradication of the substantive conditions of Black subordination and attempts to enlist the institutional power of the courts to further the national goal of eradicating the effects of racial oppression. The restrictive view, which exists side by side with this expansive view, treats equality as a process, downplaying the significance of actual outcomes. The primary objective of anti-discrimination law, according to this vision, is to prevent future wrongdoing rather than to redress present manifestations of past injustice. “Wrongdoing,” moreover is seen primarily as isolated actions against individuals rather than as societal policy against an entire group. (pp. 1341–1342)

Crenshaw noted that this tension—equality via process versus equality via outcome—is present throughout antidiscrimination law.  For example, applying this lens to education, Rousseau and Tate (2003) examined the ways in which formal-race color-blindness and the restrictive versus expansive notion of equality manifested in their study of high school mathematics teachers. The teachers in their study held a simplistic understanding of race that did not take into account their specific teaching context and refused to acknowledge the race-related patterns in the math achievement in their classrooms. Rousseau and Tate argued that this form of color-blindness, in conjunction with viewing equality as a process rather than an outcome, made it difficult for the teachers to reflect on their own practices and how their practices contribute to their students’ underachievement.

The contrast between the restrictive and expansive visions also serves as an important framework for analyzing the nature of equality and equity in education (Ladson-Billings, 2007). The restrictive versus expansive construct is useful in examining the impact of Brown and PICS on educational equity. More specifically, a focus on an expansive vision of equality can bring into sharper view the problematic ideal of color-blindness. A focus on outcomes (the expansive view) can show whether a process or policy (the restrictive view) ostensibly designed to address inequality or inequity is actually eradicating the inequality.   


Scholars in both education and the law have written about the promise and disappointment of Brown vs. Board of Education (Anderson, 2006; Bell, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Marable, 2002). Although in the popular imagination, Brown is lauded as proof that the United States has transcended its racial discrimination and color consciousness, the historical record with respect to its implementation and current statistics on school resegregation and inequitable school funding (Orfield & Lee, 2006) suggest that Brown stands as a conundrum of racial and educational equality. For example, where the court decided to redress racial inequity in education with the Brown decision, in essence, the decision primarily addressed racial segregation, but not the substantive material inequity that resulted from racial segregation (Anderson, 2006; Bell, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2006). While African Americans were challenging Jim Crow laws, within the context of education, racial segregation in schools was only one of many issues. For most African American parents, the primary concern was the inequitable funding of schools and the distribution of resources. African Americans, for the most part, agitated for the equitable funding of schools because in essence, they paid a “double tax” to support a system that marginalized their children and advantaged White children (Anderson, 1988; Margo, 1990). Thus, for many African American parents, ending racial segregation, they assumed, would ensure that their children had access to the same resource-rich schooling as White children given that the lion’s share of the funding went to support White schools (Anderson, 2006; Bell, 2004). Despite White recalcitrance, the loss of employment for Black teachers and administrators, and the displacement of Black children from their neighborhood schools into mostly hostile White communities, historians and legal scholars suggest that Brown also served an important social and constitutional purpose by overturning Plessy vs. Ferguson and the “separate but equal” doctrine (Anderson 2006; Bell, 1989,1992). In other words, as a matter of law, Brown formally legalized African Americans as equal citizens in America’s democracy. This notion of equality for African Americans, some legal scholars argue, was more “glitter than gold.”

Derrick Bell (1975) argued that in their insistence on racial integration, civil rights activists missed an opportunity to make a significant change and impact the lives of African Americans. Bell suggested that perhaps rather than arguing for integration, civil rights lawyers should have agitated for a full funding of Plessy that would indeed ensure that although facilities were racially separate, they were in fact equal in terms of substance and quality. Under the auspices of the separate but equal doctrine, not only were educational facilities separate but unequal; so were public facilities like swimming pools, water fountains, and restrooms. African Americans could be barred from entering restaurants and trying on clothes in department stores, and segregated in movie theaters. School buildings were not updated regularly; books and materials were outdated and were essentially the old, discarded materials from the White schools after they received new materials. Thus, Bell argued that a “full funding” of Plessy would have ensured that facilities and materials were of equal quality. Similarly, Ladson-Billings (2007) posed the question, “Can we at least get Plessy?” in the face of inequitable public schooling for Black and Brown children in the United States today. Both of these ideas highlight the shortcomings of agitating only for access rather than the equitable funding of schools, which was and is a concern relative to Brown. To be sure, these arguments are provocative and to a certain extent uncomfortable because they appear to accept racial segregation; however, these ideas represent the CRT notion of racial realism. That is, both Ladson-Billings and Bell acknowledged the racial context in which schools and public facilities are de facto separate and unequal. Agitating for full and equitable funding of schools and public facilities that are patronized primarily by people of color does not foreclose the possibility for change, but demands that while agitating for change, these facilities be funded equitably. This agitation for a full funding of Plessy challenges the color-blind discourse that refuses to acknowledge that most public schools are separate and unequal along racial lines.

Parents Involved in Community Schools

There is a cruel irony in THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s reliance on our decision in Brown v. Board of Education. . . . The first sentence in the concluding paragraph of his opinion states: Before Brown, school children were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. . . . This sentence reminds me of Anatole France’s observation: “[T]he majestic equality of the la[w], forbid[s] rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread” . . . . THE CHIEF JUSTICE fails to note that it was only black schoolchildren who were so ordered; indeed, the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools. In this and other ways, THE CHIEF JUSTICE rewrites the history of one of this Court’s most important decisions . . . history will be heard . . . (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting, “It is a familiar adage that history is written by the victors”). (Stevens, 2007)

On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court decided what legal scholars describe as one of the most important cases in our recent history with respect to civil rights and racial justice: deciding whether school districts can voluntarily ameliorate racial segregation. Although the magnitude of the Court’s decision is, to a certain extent, what many expected, it did not provide a complete overturning of Brown, although most expected that it would, given the court’s conservative majority. Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle Public School District was filed in response to a school assignment plan in the Seattle Public School District that considered race, among a number of other factors, as a tie-breaker for admission to the district’s five “more popular” high schools (Brief for petitioner in Parents Involved, 2006). The petitioners, Parents Involved in Community Schools, argued that the district’s use of race as a tie-breaker to admit students to the two most competitive high schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment (Brief for petitioner in Parents Involved, 2006).

In Meredith v. Jefferson County School Board, the petitioner, Crystal D. Meredith, sued the Jefferson County School Board because her son, Joshua, was denied admission to Bloom School based on his race (White). Jefferson County School Board (JCSB) had been under a court-ordered school desegregation order from 1975 to 2000. As part of their desegregation plan, JCSB had established that no school could have an enrollment of Black students less than 15% or more than 50% of its population. Meredith sued on the grounds that denying his admission was a violation of students’ 14th Amendment right of equal protection.

Although separate cases, PICS and Meredith v. Jefferson County School District had a similar set of questions for which the court had to answer: (1) Do the decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger apply to public high school students? (2) Is racial diversity a compelling interest that can justify the use of race in selecting students for admission to public high schools? (3) Does a school district that normally permits a student to attend the high school of her choice violate the Equal Protection Clause by denying the student admission to her chosen school because of her race in an effort to achieve a desired racial balance?  

The court answered the following questions in Meredith: (1) Do Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger allow a school district to use race as the sole factor to assign high school students to public schools? (2) Can a student enrollment plan that requires each school's student population to be between 15% and 50% African American meet the 14th Amendment's requirement that racial classifications be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest?

In the plurality opinion, with Justice Kennedy concurring on two parts of it, both Seattle and Jefferson County’s plans were deemed unconstitutional; however, Justice Kennedy’s opinion states that the way they used race to determine school assignment was unclear at that time. With his opinion, although concurring with parts of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, he left open the possibility that they can devise a plan that uses race as a factor in school assignment. He disagreed with the plurality on the importance of considering race:

The plurality opinion is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race. The plurality’s 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. (Kennedy, 2007, p. 7)  

Legal scholars Charles Ogletree and john a. powell pointed out that Kennedy’s opinion also adds a new compelling governmental interest: racial isolation (Gossett & powell, 2007; Ogletree, 2007). In other words, although Kennedy concurred with the plurality’s opinion that the districts’ use of race in school assignment was unconstitutional, in large part because of how both districts determined racial classification, his opinion disagreed with the plurality in that he saw diversity and avoiding racial isolation as compelling state interests. Legal scholar Patricia J. Williams (2007), however, offered a different perspective:

What concerns me at the moment is the general lack of outcry that has met the decision that public school districts cannot take voluntary action to overcome racial inequality. This represents, for all intents and purposes, the overturning of Brown v. Board of Education. Yet the response in many quarters has been to put a positive spin on it. At least it was a plurality decision. At least Justice Kennedy allowed that diversity is an interest.

For Williams, this decision marks a direct attack on and overturning of the Brown decision, in that it essentially prevents districts from ensuring that their schools are not racially segregated unless they are legally mandated to do so. Moreover, Dennis Parker, the director of the Racial Justice Program of the American Civil Liberties Union, lamented that in their opinion, the plurality “commandeers Brown and ignores that it was about Black stigmatization” (Parker, 2007). Thus, although the decision offers some possibility to use race-conscious strategies to ensure educational equity, it should also signal to us, as john a. powell (2007) suggested, to be more strategic and sophisticated in how we think about and address educational equity.

The Roberts-led majority generally, and the PICS decision specifically, however, suggested that racial segregation is a natural outcome when people exercise their right, under the auspices of American democracy, to live and attend school where they please. In this way, Roberts and the concurring justices not only rely on the formal-race notion of equality, but also essentially offer no remedy to school resegregation. Moreover, as Parker (2007) reminded us, the plurality attempts to commandeer Brown and suggest that Whites have been harmed by this kind of status-race notion of equality in the race-conscious school assignment policies.  In other words, Roberts’s opinion suggests that because Whites could not exercise their right to go to school wherever they wanted even though more Whites had access to and attended high-quality public schools than did students of color, they somehow experienced the same harm and stigmatization that precipitated the original Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Justice Stevens pointed out the absurdity in Roberts’s coupling of remedies to avoid racial segregation with essentially the rampant and unabated White privilege of 1954. Moreover, Roberts’s opinion is an example of the limitations of the color-blind ideology and Crenshaw’s (1988) notion of the restrictive view of antidiscrimination law. Roberts, while invoking language from the Brown, decision failed to acknowledge that both Seattle and Jefferson County had a history of denying African Americans access to specific educational institutions. Further, Roberts’s opinion does not account for the fact that in both cases, the goal was to ensure that schools were racially balanced, an important goal for both districts, especially JCSB, given its fairly recent desegregation order. Thus, JCSB and Seattle had to be concerned about the outcome of their schools’ racial balances to ensure that they did not create racially segregated schools, presumably an untenable goal in light of the original Brown decision.

The PICS decision is part of the dismantling of not only Brown but also the infrastructures that support the “Black and Brown” working class (Bell, 2004; Marable, 2002; powell, 2007). Equitable access to schools is one infrastructural feature that can help students to penetrate the opportunity structure. Restricting access by refusing to consider race as a factor frustrates those supports for Black and Brown working-class students. Policies and legislation rooted in the maintenance of White privilege that ignore the sociohistorical context under which most people, and specifically people of color, live in the United States has consistently undermined the quest for participatory democracy (Bell, 2004; Marable, 2002; West, 2004). The PICS decision is an example of a race-neutral (or color-blind) policy that ignores the history of racism in the United States and the enduring battles to resist the implementation of Brown. Moreover, the decision places people of color at the mercy of the benevolence and courage of school districts to use creative policies to ensure that all students have access to high-quality education. Given the embattled history of school desegregation that extends far beyond 1954,2 it seems unconscionable that school districts should not be vigilant about ensuring racial equity in school assignment.


The new civil rights movement must reframe its strategy around combating civil death, pushing for meaningful winnable reforms that increase the civic capacities of oppressed people, permitting them to assume greater roles in determining society’s future. (Marable, 2002, p. xvi)

In this post-Brown, and what many would like to describe as a postracial, era in which people juggle multiple identities and inhabit multiple subject positions, how do we define Black self-determination and education within the context of democracy? Cornel West (1994, 2008) described African Americans as a “blues people” (Jones, 1963) who find a way to persist in the midst of misery and hold out hope “on a tight rope” and faith in the midst of pain and suffering. With increasing globalization, the radical shift in the economic order, the proliferation of social media and networking via the Internet and Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States, there are calls from a number of groups, both Black and White, for a redefinition of identity within the larger African American community.  Although identity, no matter who defines it, is messy, as Edward Said (1979) argued, “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic” (p. xxv). Yet, it is this messiness, Said’s hybridity, and threat of postraciality that provide a necessary context for us to critically examine color-blindness within the context of democracy, and the possibilities for educational equity and self-determination for African Americans.  

Any contemporary theorizing on self-determination for the educational experiences of people of color, and African Americans in particular, must be rooted in the complicated and nuanced terrain of “post” discourses and identity politics (Kumashiro, 2001). That is, we need to look at both the way in which identities are constructed in the postmodern/poststructuralist senses and how those constructions still have a material impact on particular people (e.g., people of color, people living in poverty, the differently abled, and people who identify as gay/lesbian and transsexual, among others). Both PICS and the Obama candidacy highlight the complicated manner in which race gets leveraged to dismiss historical inequity3 and compels African Americans to confront what West (1994) described as the “new cultural politics of difference.” West’s cultural politics of difference describes the strategic moves that people use to highlight or mute certain aspects of culture, personal experience, or their beliefs. This politics of difference facilitates the kind of strategy that first Anzaldua (1987), and then Giroux, described as border-crossing, or the ability to “engage in their various knowledges as border-crossers, as ways to move in and out of borders constructed around coordinates of difference and power” (Giroux, 1991, p. 29). As Yosso (2006) argued, it is important to complicate what constitutes cultural capital to provide a space for the “various knowledges” that “border-crossers” have in an effort not only to penetrate institutions but also to reconstruct those institutions so that they reflect the various knowledges they bring. The historical record confirms that knowing how to move in relation to power and circumstances is not new to the struggle for Black education, liberation, and self-determination (Anderson, 1988; Marable, 2008). However, in West’s definition, we see the new politics of difference used to “highlight the creative response to the precise circumstances of our present moment” (West, 1994, p. 19).

In his book Democracy Matters (2004), West posited that three antidemocratic dogmas serve as a threat to American democracy: a callous free-market fundamentalism, an aggressive militarism, and an insidious authoritarianism. He suggested that internal racism and imperialism undergird America’s inexorable drive toward world hegemony and dominance. For both West and Marable, the challenge of realizing both the promise of American democracy and Black self-determination rests with African Americans’ willingness to mobilize, organize, and agitate to dislodge the status quo. Moreover, the remedy suggested by the court with respect to school assignment represents the free-market ideology that disparities will take care of themselves through demand and choice. As legal scholar Lani Guinier (1994) suggested, citizens in a democratic state should not accept that for certain segments of society, life will be more unjust or less unjust. In other words, given the “permanent minority” status that shapes the experiences of people of color in the United States despite their collective numerical majority, we should challenge and delegitimize this notion of “winner takes all” as the acceptable practice of democracy in the United States that indeed ensures that life for some U.S. citizens will be more unjust or less unjust depending on the policies and legislation that the majority supports. Fundamentally, West argued, democracy is supposed to maintain a stable and peaceful administration of affairs for the entire society. In short, like CRT scholar Derrick Bell and historian Manning Marable, West is concerned with a democracy that leads to liberation for the oppressed or “the least of these.”4 Thus, in light of the Supreme Court decision that school districts cannot take voluntary action to avoid racial segregation in schooling, any serious commitment toward educational equity and Black self-determination must be socially and historically situated within the metanarrative of political struggle for democracy and liberation.

A popular myth about Brown is that it is rooted in the civil rights movement and for many epitomized Black self-determination and the struggle for equality and liberation. Brown is also perceived as expanding the economic opportunities for groups that had been on the margins—mainly people of color and White women. For those individuals who were poised to take full advantage of less restrictive educational opportunities, Brown and the legal affordances that came as a result of the decision essentially served as the catalyst for their upward social mobility by providing access to prestigious universities and upper and middle management positions in both the corporate and public sectors (Marable, 2002). Only perhaps during the Reconstruction period had individual African Americans been granted access to such a slice of the American pie (DuBois, 1935/1992; West, 2004). For West (2004), democracy represents more than merely the passage of social policies that are often restrictive and allow for mere tokenism for individual upward mobility; it is a social movement that expands the opportunities for disenfranchised groups.

Yet despite educational and economic gains and the creation of a more robust Black middle class,5 full participation in American democracy has been, and continues to be, an elusive dream. It is too early to tell what an Obama presidency will mean in terms of redressing racial inequity, especially as it pertains to African Americans; however, full participation in American democracy has often been a dream deferred and predicated on a political rhetoric that shifts, it seems, with every political whim (West, 2004). That is, despite the troubling history of educational equity that led up to filing the Brown case, most African Americans celebrated the decision and the demise of de jure segregation, believing that it opened the door for self-determination and active participation in American democracy. Yet, the PICS decision signals a retrenchment in policies designed to address educational equity.  

Even as we embark on an important political moment in which this nation elected its African American male as president, the specter of racial hypocrisy rears its ugly head. How might we find our place in a democracy that on one hand invites “the people” to participate and lend their voices to equality for all, and on the other hand has turned a deaf ear to the voices of all the people?  


The impetus of this article was to respond to the Parents Involved decision on race conscious school assignment and the implications of it for a democratic education that allows for Black self-determination. Whereas some scholars see the promise in the decision with respect to avoiding racial isolation, others see it as a complete overturning of the Brown decision that sought to equalize educational opportunities. A more critical assessment of Brown and the related PICS decision is that both fail to address equality and equity in education. The promise of Brown to equalize opportunity and access resulted in years of litigation that in fact led to de facto racial segregation in most of the nation’s cities and schools that some scholars argue rivals pre-Brown segregation (Kozol, 2005; Orfield, 1996). Indeed, the race-neutral remedies offered by Justice Kennedy do not necessarily address or forestall the racial resegregation found in most schools (Frankenberg, 2007). An abiding issue regardless of one’s perception of the PICS ruling is to determine our goals and intent as they pertain to educational policy: equalize opportunity or ensure educational equity. Thus, the challenge for educational researchers and policy makers is to investigate the ways in which we can address the deleterious affects of racial inequity in education and appeal to the best interests of school districts so that people and communities can be self-determining.

In her 2002 essay, “Critical Race Studies: The First Decade: Critical Reflections, or ‘A Foot in the Closing Door,’” Crenshaw discussed the development of CRT and its future. She closed the essay looking forward to where CRT will be in 10 years—which interestingly is just a few years from now:

Ten years ago, I wondered: Where do we take our sit-ins when the white only signs come down, when Kresge closes its lunch counters and moves out of town, when power doesn't live where it used to anymore? What happens when the contemporary configuration of power doesn't have an address; when dogs and water hoses are traded in for numbers and tests; when gatekeepers are automated, and exclusion is formulaic; when ideas are red-lined, and people are warehoused? These days, colorblind discourse is the virtual lunch counter, the rationalization for racial power in which few are served and many are denied. Thus, in my fantasy, ten years from now, the caption reads: “Discursive Disobedience: Critical Race Theory Stages a Virtual Sit-in in American Consciousness.”

Indeed, the challenge for those of us who take up the mantle of social justice and educational equity is to take heed to Crenshaw’s admonition at the level of discourse, but also to work with people on the ground to craft strategies that resist and redress the new age racial retrenchment and challenge our democracy and democratic process to truly be of and by the people.


I would like to thank D. Ted Hall, Celia Rousseau Anderson, Jamel K. Donnor, and the anonymous reviewers for their input on earlier drafts of this manuscript.


1. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County Public Schools are but two recent examples of how families, mostly White, have been using the discourse of local control and neighborhood schools as a way to frame their frustration with school assignment policies designed to facilitate racial balance. Families in New Orleans are also using the language of local control and neighborhood schools as they try to make sense of and navigate school reform post-Katrina.

2. See for example, research by Thandeka K. Chapman (2006) and Eugene E. Eubanks (2004) on the Rockford School District’s long history with mandatory school desegregation orders.

3. Although certainly contested, the media portrayal and Obama’s description of Reverend Wright during his “race speech” in Philadelphia sought to cast Reverend Wright as a relic of the past and one who is out of touch with the new racial terrain. Similarly, Chief Justice Roberts, in his PICS opinion, ostensibly argued that with the Brown decision and the subsequent litigation and enforcement, racial inequity had been resolved and thus, there was no need to be vigilant about racial balance in schools.

4. Mat. 25:40, King James Bible.

5. Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad (2009) provided a compelling analysis of employment data from 2000–2007 that show a decrease in employment for African Americans, with a significant decline in the Black middle class.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 4, 2011, p. 811-830 ID Number: 15968, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:40:56 PM

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