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Back to the Supreme Court: racial balance in schools

On Monday, the court takes up cases from Seattle and Louisville on the role of race in school enrollment.

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America is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse countries in the world. Yet 52 years after Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation – US classrooms are growing increasingly segregated.

In part, the racial divide reflects the persistence of segregated housing patterns and the stifling grip of poverty. But it also reflects national disagreement and confusion over how best to address the issue of race.

Monday, the US Supreme Court takes up two cases that confront the heated debate over race. On one side are those who believe affirmative action and other race-conscious programs are necessary to fight the effects of discrimination and inequality. On the other side are those who believe the Constitution mandates a colorblind approach to race relations – that government programs granting benefits based on a person's race are just as illegal as withholding benefits because of a person's skin color.

At issue in the two cases are race-based student enrollment plans at public school districts in Seattle and in Louisville, Ky. Both plans were designed by the local school boards to voluntarily achieve racial integration to provide a diverse learning environment for the benefit of all students. Both plans are under attack by local parents who say the use of race to maintain a racial balance amounts to an unconstitutional form of government discrimination.

The cases confront fundamental issues that stretch back to 1954, when the high court ruled in the Brown case that racial segregation violates the constitutional principle of equal protection.

"This is about what is left, if anything, of Brown v. Board of Education," Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a recent debate hosted by the Century Foundation. If the high court strikes down the Seattle and Louisville programs, "it will be a reversal of historic proportions," he said.

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