The Private Citizen / "July IV, part II"
Published 1:05 am, Friday, July 23, 2010
As promised, we celebrated the Fourth of July with friends, fireworks, adult refreshments, and the reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence. There were just under 20 of us, including five who had been born in other countries, although you wouldn't know this to look at us. One of the guests had been born and raised in England, and in the fullness of time, she relinquished her British citizenship, but kept her charming accent. Hearing the timeless cadences of the Declaration in the diction of the BBC was (to mix a metaphor) an eye-opener for me.
Another word for this is diversity. And there is more: one member of the family was overseas -- in Afghanistan -- participating in what I lightly call "armed humanitarianism," or nation-building. The object is to create an alternative to chaos, an alternative that the people of that country themselves will want to preserve, and willingly defend. Accomplishing this is a high-stakes exercise in cultural sensitivity. If His Majesty's Government had taken this approach in 1775, there might not have been a Declaration of Independence for us to be celebrating that day. (That was what I was getting at in my last column.)
And now to the present day. A handful of Board of Ed alumni attended the second board meeting in June, to offer praise for Dr. Ann Clark at her final public appearance as superintendent of schools. I was sitting next to my former colleague Brenda Kupchick when she was overcome by habit, and went to the microphone for a second time. Under consideration was a motion having to do with Fairfield's continued efforts at "racial balancing" under a law that I have criticized in two earlier columns ("Diversity 101" and "Diversity 102"), and that Brenda, using fewer and much shorter words, described as "a crock." This took the headline, and a low-intensity controversy has ensued. The root of the controversy was the mistaken belief that she was against "diversity." Not so.
The important points are, first, that laws favoring diversity are not only constitutional, but desirable in their own right, whereas laws requiring racial balance, particularly when it is numerically defined, are neither of these; and second, that "diversity" is not a code word for racial balancing, it is something else entirely. Diversity is what happens when people engage with other people of different backgrounds and circumstances, to their mutual benefit. The leading constitutional cases before 2007 were a matched pair of decisions involving admissions at the University of Michigan and its law school, respectively. The university used a point system, and awarded bonus points to certain categories of applicants, including alumni legacies, recruited athletes, and members of "underrepresented minorities" -- that is, African Americans and Hispanics, but not Asians. This quantitative racial balancing was held to violate the constitution. The law school, by contrast, took into account whether an applicant had lived abroad, or was fluent in another language, had overcome adversity or run a business -- that is, not whether the applicant was of one color or another, but whether the applicant had some difference of any kind in his background that the other students might benefit from encountering. The law school considered each applicant individually, rather than through the use of a numerical formula. This was considered to be the promotion of diversity, and constitutional.
Connecticut adopted its racial balancing statute 40 years ago, and it is not only still on the books, it is being actively enforced by the state department of education. It works like this: First, you disregard everything about the individual student except his race, and not only that, you disregard everything except whether he is "white" or "all other." This process of racial classification is not something that comes naturally to a liberal New Englander, by the way, particularly when you get to some of the non-obvious cases but are required to classify them as well. (Suppose, for one example, a descendant of Leopoldo Galtieri, who was a former president of Argentina but of purely Italian extraction, came to live here. Hispanic, or "white"? And tell me again why it should matter.) Next, you take the percentages of each of just those two categories in the town as a whole, and at each school, and then you see if the percentage for a given school deviates from the town-wide percentage by as much as 25 percentage points. Finally, if there is a deviation, you "correct" it by any means necessary, up to and including redistricting. This means banishing some students, but not others, from their neighborhood school for no other reason than their race.
After the Supreme Court struck down two racial balancing laws just like ours in 2007, we "talked to some people in Hartford" about fixing the statute. Sorry, they said, no dice. The State was still embroiled in the Sheff v. O'Neill litigation over "racial isolation" (O"Neill was the governor in the 1980s), and amending this particular statute at this particular time would, um, send the wrong message.
I would say that refusing to repeal an unconstitutional statute before it is struck down, sends a worse message.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.