Supreme Court Initiates a New Era

During the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc Brown mastered the space time continuum’s subtleties—illustrating well how one event sets in motion a chain of events. What if we could recognize these events as they occur. Psychics claim this power—seeing the future. But we consider them shady. Today, I claim the power. I hope I am not shady. The Supreme Court’s Parents v Seattle decision is a historical marker of United States’ race relations. As I see, things, the next generation faces a period where the goal is “Increase Individual Competition.”

Some look at the country’s time line and see segregation’s return. Man! Do I hope they are wrong. If I am correct, we should get ready for the new era by improving our willingness to take risk and preparing our ego’s response when faced with life’s challenges. With increased competition, everyone will want high performance. And achieving the best requires people believe in themselves, and trust that others fairly present opportunities.

The Supreme Court Decides

On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court joined and decided Parents v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County. The majority opinion made a demanding call for a race neutral government. The four traditionally conservative judges (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia), clearly stated their opinion, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The court provided a clear warning for those who use race as a criterion for their choices, when it stated, “racial classifications are simply too pernicious to permit any but the most exact connection between justification and classification.” Indeed, the court raised the bar for justifying race usage.

Although the court acknowledges some compelling interests require race based government action, they do so narrowly. The majority opinion described two compelling interests: rectifying a past intentional discrimination; and achieving diversity in higher education. Alternatively, Justice Kennedy, who joined the majority, presented a broader view when he said, “a compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation.” His words carefully distinguish avoiding isolation from seeking balance yet they provide hope that a return to segregation faces insurmountable obstacles. This position, from the swing vote on the Supreme Court, means racial isolation that “just happens” will not receive tacit approval from the courts.

All the justices found legal segregation deplorable and intolerable, which creates a comforting feeling, yet, reading the justices’ vehement disagreement on providing race based help provides uncertainty and a need for caution. One side took the rational approach as a government cannot help one race without violating another citizen’s rights, the court must strictly limit race’s use. The other side took the empathetic approach—individual majority members do not willingly give up advantages, thus minorities need help to compete fairly. Both sides’ arguments have convincing elements but they also rely on unprovable judgments about race based decision making.

Amazingly, the intricate debate centers on the Fourteenth Amendment’s keystone sentence. It states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” No taking privileges without due process and a guaranteed equal protection. Varied interpretations have been published but the latest—the one that matters follows the childhood axiom, two wrongs do not make a right. Hence, the strict ruling—no helping, no hurting.

A New Public Counterbalances Historical Patters

Many believe racial balance—integration is required for society’s progress and this notion underlies a core disappointment in the Supreme Court’s action. Justice Beyer’s reliance on the legal standard established in Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education (1971) illustrates this belief. The justices wrote in Swann, “school authorities are traditionally charged with broad power to formulate and implement educational policy and might well conclude, for example, that in order to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society each school should have a prescribed ration of Negro to white students reflecting the proportion for the district as a whole.” Friends have echoed this sentiment as they describe their fears that the court is undoing all the past’s positive gains. Their opinion is clear, actions encouraging racial isolation must be stopped because isolated environments breed hatred and bigotry. And for them, integration is the best cure for isolation.

The Fourteenth Amendment has not changed since its adoption, yet it has yielded extreme interpretations. In Plessey v Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decided separate but equal was lawful. In Brown v Topeka Board of Education (1954), they decided separate but equal was unlawful and in several related cases established integration as a compelling interest justifying the use of race. Now, with Parents v Seattle School District (2007), the court has decided race neutrality as the proper constitutional interpretation. Just maybe, Supreme Court decisions merely reflect rather than prescribe the country’s underlying mood.

The Pew Research Center recently published survey results reflecting the American public’s mood. In March 2007, they reported that 83% of the public agreed with the statement “I think it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” Eighty-three percent agree! As recently as 1972, only 29% agreed with a similar statement (How Race is Lived in America published by Henry Holt & Company). As a contrast, Emmet Till’s 1955 murder (one year after the Brown decision) for allegedly ill-mannered behavior toward a white woman, reflected a violent murderous mood about interracial dating (a fair comment for Mississippi? But I do take, given the level of vile response in Mississippi, the liberty to presume that less than 29% of the nation would have agreed with interracial dating then). Given the Plessey decision occurred only thirty years after the civil war over slavery, I think the country’s mood in 1896 toward interracial dating is self-evident. Categorically, a new public exist one hundred years after Plessey, and I firmly believe segregation as we knew it cannot start anew.

Differences Exist—Help Is Needed

The Pew Research also reports 90% of whites and 94% of blacks agree with the statement “society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” Encouraging. However, I have one serious concern. Blacks, importantly, do differ in one way from whites—feeling empowered. The same Pew Research found nearly half (48%) of African-Americans agreed that life’s success is pretty much determined by forces outside our control although less than a third (31%) of Whites similarly agreed. These feelings combined with a race neutral government can yield backward progress for African-Americans.

I, too, desire tolerance and acceptance throughout this country. However, I find that the expectation that others will welcome integration is a far more important attribute than the actual mixing between the races—it is the ability to choose an integrated environment that matters. A government proclaiming race neutral practices should raise citizens’ expectations. The raised expectations in turn, increase individual accountability for knowing the governments’ rules and requirements that support each citizens’ objective for claiming government resources—a competitive but level field. Many will temptingly, quickly welcome a fair competition, however, a level field is intensely more competitive, with potentially more hurtful disappointments. For example, losing a contract because you are black upsets you, takes your energy, while encouraging you to find pride and self-esteem in others’ accomplishments. However, if you lose a contract because you are not good enough, who do you blame? Only people with self-esteem routinely face into defeat with greater energy. I fear a great difficulty as the African-American community has never wholesale possessed high self-esteem.

I hope the society does not misread unfolding events or ignore the need for help. The help should develop the African-American communities’ beliefs regarding self-empowerment and responsibility. This help is not, as Ronald Reagan once led us to demand, that everyone lift them self by their boot straps. I have written blog entries stating my support for Carol Dweck’s thoughts as described in her book Mindset. African-American relatively high acceptance of fate’s role in success suggest a significant fixed mindset. Ronald Reagan had a growth mindset, his biographies provide compelling evidence. However his beliefs illustrate a mistake made by many people with a growth mindset—to assume everyone else has a growth mindset. As professor Dweck wrote, “mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework.” Changing mindset is difficult hard work, and African-Americans need guidance and support to wholesale remove judgment and adopt learning.

This help cannot come from the courts. Shockingly—to me—I agree with Justice Thomas, “this court does not sit to create a society that includes all Americans or to solve the problems of troubled inner city schooling. We are not social engineers.” However, I believe simulating citizen behavior is an appropriate role for government. Attributes such as improved competitiveness, and importantly responsiveness to failure are at the core of the United States economic success. Sharing these skills across the population is surly a compelling government interest.

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