Monday, April 24, 2006

The renewal of racial segregation, as empowerment?

  Traditional liberals are no doubt shaking their heads in dismay upon hearing that Nebraska’s legislature recently passed a law, then signed by the governor, that would divide Omaha’s public schools into three districts – one largely white, one largely black, and one largely Latino.  Undoubtedly this is unconstitutional, they may be assuring themselves.
   But the Nebraska action also reveals some unusual turns that have taken place in American racial politics.  Fifty years ago, it seemed clear to liberals that the practice of racial segregation hurt black students, who almost always received an inferior education and were led to conclude that they were second-class citizens.  Today, however, the only African American in the Nebraska legislature was the leading advocate of the school separation measure.  Today, the legislator sees giving the black community in effect its own school system not as abandonment but as empowerment.      
   Many Omaha whites supported the bill because it would decrease the chances of renewed school busing for racial balance in Omaha.  The long-term response to Brown v. Board of Education was, of course, that many white families fled integration simply by moving to the suburbs, where they were much less likely to have their kids bused.  The biggest era for suburbanization from the central city was not the 1950s, as commonly assumed, but the 1970s –- the era of busing. 
   Segregation’s renewed appeal saddens many of us, especially those who admire, to some extent, Singapore’s controversial policy that tries to maintain a rough racial balance in housing complexes among Singapore’s ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians.  A rose-colored view is that the policy fosters racial understanding and harmony; a more skeptical view is that the majority Chinese use it as a way of avoiding enclaves of potentially disgruntled minorities. 

  If America is veering further away from racial integration as a policy and towards accepting empowerment to justify forms of segregation, might redrawing municipal boundaries be far off?

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