Friday, August 03, 2007

Colorblindness, the Liberal Version

I spent yesterday on a series of Practicing Law Institute panels on the recently completed Supreme Court Term. During the panel on the school integration cases, NYU Professor Derrick Bell raised an interesting question. (Bell is technically a "visiting" professor, but he has been at NYU many years, so the "visiting" designation seems mostly a clever ploy on his part to avoid faculty meetings.) With other members of the panel and liberals more generally lamenting the Supreme Court's ruling in Parents Involved, Bell wanted to know why liberals are so attached to integration. Plainly, he said, integration hasn't worked. Here we are more than half a century after Brown v. Board, and most African American public school students attend nearly all-minority schools. Even if the case had come out the other way, Bell said, not much would have changed. Although Bell disagreed with Clarence Thomas as to the constitutional issue, Bell joined Thomas in embracing the viewpoint of W.E.B. Dubois, who said that what African-American children need is neither separate schools nor integration but education. He ended with his question: Why the romantic attachment of liberals to integration?

Duke Professor (and program co-chair) Erwin Chemerinsky gave one answer: African-American students need integrated schools in order to have access to the same resources as white students. "Green follows white," as the saying goes. In this view, separate will always be unequal because people will only work to improve schools that their own children attend.

I don't think Chemerinsky is wrong, but I have my own supplemental theory. Liberals value integration as a good in itself because liberals, like conservatives, value color-blindness, albeit in a different sense. Conservatives believe that GOVERNMENT decision-makers should always or almost always be color-blind in the sense that government should not make decisions that turn on race. Liberals believe that INDIVIDUALS should be color-blind but see ubiquitous evidence that they are not. In deciding where to live, with whom to socialize and all sorts of other matters, individuals make decisions based on race. The conservatives don't deny this, but they call the phenomenon "societal discrimination" or "voluntary segregation," and conclude that the government cannot take any race-conscious measures to remedy it. Liberals, by contrast, see the harms that result from numerous individual private race-based decisions as worse than the harms that result from race-based decisions by the government to remedy these private decisions. Meanwhile, the conservatives deny that such race-based government action is a "remedy" at all, because they deny that private race-based decision making is (at least constitutionally speaking) a harm.

Is that just a roundabout way of making the familiar point that conservatives make more of the public/private distinction than liberals do? In part, sure, but what strikes me as interesting about this example is how the underlying value is the same: color-blindness. Because conservatives have for so long used the term "color-blindness" as a justification for preventing government from fostering racial justice, the concept itself has become something of an anathema to liberals. I'm suggesting that this term may be worth taking back.

Of course, that still only answers half of Bell's question: The attachment to societal color-blindness explains what liberals value in integration but it doesn't explain why they (we) pursue it in the face of evidence that the pursuit has been a failure. And on this point, I think the best answer is simply that many of us believe that Bell---who writes about the "permanence of racism"---is unduly pessimistic. American attitudes about race today are hardly a model of egalitarianism. Revealed preferences are even worse. But both represent a marked improvement over the not-all-that-distant past. So while Bell and others are right to pursue whatever methods of education that work within de facto segregated schools, we conventional liberals are also entitled to think that it's too early to give up on the goals of integration.