Today the Supreme Court has handed down this decision blocking attempts by the public school administrations of Seattle and Louisville to reassign students solely on the basis of race in an attempt at greater diversity.
Here’s the NY Times’ summary of the ruling, which was a close 5-4 decision breaking along the expected Supreme Court lines, with the usual conservative/liberal split among the Justices. In the majority opinion, the Court wrote that the districts had failed to meet the burden of justifying the “extreme means” they chose to right the perceived racial divisions.
I haven’t had time to read the full opinion with all the dissents, although I hope to do so later. But I have several preliminary observations, two based on memory, one based on social science.
The first is that I lived in Boston back in the days of the controversial institution of busing, and although I was (and remain) extremely sympathetic to the plight of African-American students in inner cities with virtually segregated schools, I thought busing opponents had understandable objections. Yes, yes, I know, some were motivated by racism, but others were motivated by the principle of keeping young children in local schools and not making them be guinea pigs to social science experimentation ordered by courts under the aegis of academics (the busing plan was based on a PhD thesis by Harvard student Charles Glenn).
In the case of Boston, busing went both ways, and white students (in predominantly poor neighborhoods, naturally) were forced out of their own districts on sometimes lengthy rides to predominantly (and often substandard) African-American schools. This was supposed to foster equality of opportunity and greater racial understanding. It may have done the former—an example of “a lowering tide sinks all boats”—but it certainly didn’t lead to the latter, as this fascinating history of the busing experiment will attest.
In fact, the result was not only increased racial turmoil, but helped lead to the effective desegregation of Boston public schools as whites pulled out of the city (or the public school system) and the student body become approximately 85% minority. Perhaps this would have happened anyway, but the process supposedly was accelerated by the busing crisis.
Busing in Boston effectively ended in the late 1980s, when school choice—which seems to have been a comparatively effective and successful solution—was instituted. But that was found unconstitutional by the courts at the turn of the millennium, and the Boston public schools are now unable to use either method to balance schools racially (perhaps moot, considering the racial demography that exists today among the public school student population).
My second memory is of the college I attended back in the mid-to-late 60s. When I started it was a large coed school with an almost totally white student body, its black students mostly athletes on scholarship. Two years later the African-American student population there had increased enormously to approximately 15% or so, but I noticed (I had transferred, but was back for a visit) that there was virtually no mixing. When the number of blacks had been small, they were well-integrated into the student body, but now the dining halls were utterly segregated, seemingly by choice. In other words, the black kids stuck together and so did the white kids.
It’s easy to say that enforced integration of these two types certainly has not led to racial harmony. And yet something has—at least, relatively speaking. Those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s can readily tell the difference, and it is profound: African-Americans are far more integrated into our society, and far more visible in positions of power and influence than ever before. In addition, the sort of seething racial turmoil that one could feel simmering—and often erupting—seems to have diminished. So perhaps, in the long term, some of these solutions “worked.”
That brings us, however, to my third point. Recently there has been some interesting research indicating that, in the short-and even the medium-term, increasing diversity ends up fostering problems more often than not. Well-known Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, has found over five years of research that:
…immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties.
This conforms almost exactly with my observations, but there’s more. Diversity leads to a general lack of trust and withdrawal from community activity, a kind of “hunkering down” effect, lower confidence and investment in community, less charitable giving, lower happiness. This is true whatever the economic level of the community is, by the way.
Putnam himself was disturbed enough by his own findings that he “delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” A very odd course of action for a scientist—but this is a social scientist, after all. At least he published in the end, although he has yet to make the details of his research available and has only released a summary.
But the results indicate that diversity has profound negative consequences in the short and medium runs, and so we should not be surprised if we notice that is exactly what has happened. And, by the way, for those who think this is primarily a phenomenon of the big bad old USA, it is not. The result apparently holds true in studies of communities in Australia, Sweden Canada and Britain as well.
I’m not suggesting we go back to the days of segregation, or that we ban legal immigrants. But I am suggesting that the idea that the enforcement of diversity at all costs is no panacea, and is not going to lead to the results even its proponents are hoping for. At the very least, expect a very bumpy ride for decades along the way.