A popular magazine recently asked its readers whether racial segregation is still legal, even if it is not deliberate. The answer depends on what we mean to oppose when we oppose racial segregation. If we mean to merely prevent formal and intentional acts of discrimination, then the answer is yes — unintended racial segregation is legal. If we mean to actually end racial exclusion, marginalization, and isolation in pursuit of substantive equality, then the answer is no — racial segregation, no matter how unintended, should be illegal.
Failure to commit to substantive racial equality continues to forestall attempts to achieve racial integration in our communities and schools. In Miami, for example, “unintended” residential racial isolation today is actually the product of intentional local, state, and federal policies that broadened access to safe, stable communities for some, while simultaneously denying home ownership, quality education, and public services to others. One need only examine neighborhood maps of Miami during the early 1930s that used racial composition to designate — for investment purposes — areas like Coral Gables as “best,” and certain parts of Coconut Grove as “hazardous,” to get a sense of this intentional government discrimination.
Although this sort of blatant racism has long been outlawed, enduring racial and economic segregation in our city is a direct byproduct of intentional decisions to deny access to mortgages and other forms of community investment and development on the basis of race. Moreover, our still-segregated communities have resulted in segregated learning environments.
Current debates about controlled choice in the city of Coral Gables implicate this very issue. When asked whether their government has any obligation to counteract school segregation, many parents might respond ‘no’ if it means that they cannot attend their neighborhood school. After all, they might argue, school segregation is an historical artifact no longer in operation.
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As members, however, of a broader community still impacted today by the intentional racial discrimination of yesterday, we have a duty to consider factors other than convenience, comfort, and our own ideal schooling arrangements when evaluating controlled choice.
We have a duty to also consider the value of school integration in helping us achieve our goal of substantive equality. We have a duty to weigh that value just as heavily as we weigh benefits of attending school close to home, and to reject the false dichotomy that the formality of “intent” creates. We have a moral imperative to actively embrace a commitment to racial inclusion in our schools and neighborhoods, and to reject school assignment plans that result, intentionally or unintentionally, in racial exclusion and segregation instead.
Osamudia James is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law where she writes about opportunity and inequality in America’s public schools. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow her on Twitter @OsamudiaJ.
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