Voluntary desegregation in Minnesota: Where does it stand now?


Should race be used as a factor in determining which students go to which schools in a district in order to achieve racial balance? The boards of education in Seattle in Louisville did just that. Last June the Supreme Court ruled that these plans were unconstitutional, starting a new chapter in an ongoing national debate. But what exactly does this mean for voluntary desegregation plans in Minnesota?

A forum hosted by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP) and William Mitchell College of Law attempted to answer that question and increase understanding as to exactly where racial balancing stands in Minnesota today in light of this ruling. The October 9 forum included panelists from a number of perspectives on the issue and was well attended by an eager audience.

Professor Michael Jordan of William Mitchell School of Law addressed the topic by providing a history of rulings on race and the court’s evolving logic. “From the beginning, the principle has been the same,” he told the audience, “Race can be used most explicitly when a state institution is charged by the court to undo the effects of its own legacy.” When there has been no finding of racism in the past, “The Supreme Court said you can’t do anything about it.”

The issue of cultural racism, or as Prof. Jordan called it, “ambient racism,” is not sufficient reason for the court to institute action based on race. “There was no court order (in Seattle or Louisville) finding that they were segregated. They explicitly denied they were undoing acts of segregation.” That meant that racial preferences were not allowed, even in the interest of diversity. “When you say ‘diversity’, what do you mean?” was the issue Jordan saw the court grappling with.

Dan Jett, the Superintendent of the West Metro Education Program (a consortium of eleven school districts in Hennepin County) spoke next. He stated that they allow students from Minneapolis entry into other schools based on poverty, defined by qualification for free or reduced-price lunch. “We are not engaged in anything that would raise concern in the courts,” he said, noting that he was concerned that the ruling would have a chilling effect on their efforts to reduce racism.

Carlos Mariani of MMEP focused on the reasons for action against racism. “Why would a Seattle or Louisville or Saint Paul go through the incredible effort and risk of creating integrated learning environments? It speaks to who we are and our principles.” According to Mariani, the real issue is not one of racial balance, but one of power. “We need a deeper understanding of what it means to live in a racialized society and how power is reflected in our daily lives,” he said, citing the need for empowerment.

Karen Miksch, Professor of Higher Education and Law at the University of Minnesota, clarified the narrow nature of the ruling. She noted that the court is deeply split, with a 4-1-4 vote (four voting either way and Justice Kennedy in the middle.) It was his opinion, separate from the majority ruling, that allowed some leeway. “Broad race-conscious decisions are acceptable such as location, attendance zones, or recruitment.” She noted that programs across the nation stopped recruiting based on race when this ruling came out, erroneously believing they were not permitted to continue.

The forum then turned to questions from the audience, which were often pointed, if politely stated. A typical example was, “Now that we have created a vehicle for desegregation by choice in Minneapolis, doesn’t that make it easier for them to not improve their system?”

Dan Jett responded first, saying, “No, there is a lot more work to do. There is no reason that race should predict performance, and to the extent that it does, we have a problem.”

Carlos Mariani added that “There’s nothing about this decision that prevents districts from being more creative in opening access to networks of power.”

Another question concerned the use of languages other than English. “How does language enter into racism?” was asked of the panel.

Prof. Jordan read from Justice Kennedy’s opinion, “School Boards may pursue the goal (of ending racism) through other means, which can include … special programs” Jordan continued that, “You have to show that the means are a pretty good fit, and not based on race to avoid violating the Equal Protection Clause (of the Fourteenth Amendment).”

By the end of the questions, it was clear that a greater understanding of the ruling and what it means to Minnesota was reached – even by the panelists. Dan Jett said in response to a question on socio-economic status (income) as a determining factor, “Based on what the Professor has said, we should definitely pursue this.” A consensus formed that the ruling was not as restrictive as many feared.