When Oliver Brown sued the schools in Topeka, Kan., with the help of the NAACP in 1954, he was indeed seeking an end to the vile “separate but equal” system of public education that had been upheld by the court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896. But he wasn't explicitly seeking the kind of court-ordered busing often associated with his case. That came much later, and was upheld by the court in 1971.
As even the Journal Gazette acknowledged in its coverage of Brown's appearance – without once acknowledging the irony – her father's lawsuit was in fact a defense of the very neighborhood schools later targeted for extinction by the civil-rights establishment's enthusiasm for busing. Cheryl Brown and her two sisters had been bused to “black” schools even though they lived closer to all-white schools closed to them because of segregation.
It will always be debated whether the busing improved race relations or the quality and viability of urban public schools, but advocates of the now-fading practice should at least acknowledge their own inconsistency. If Oliver Brown's demand for a neighborhood school for his daughters was just and noble – and it was – why should others' support of the same cause automatically be questioned?
All of which brings us to this week's Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on race-based college admissions Michigan voters passed in 2006.
Affirmative action has always been steeped in the same sort of hypocrisy that clouds our understanding of the Brown decision: Racism is immoral, so a counterbalancing form of government-imposed racism is not only moral, but mandatory.
That was more or less the logic – if that's the right word – displayed in Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissenting opinion. Sotomayor, who has acknowledged how affirmative action “opened doors” for her, wrote that “As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, racial inequality.”
But what is the basis of that inequality in college admissions? It's true that blacks comprise 14 percent of Michigan's population and just 4.6 percent of the undergraduate student population, but no one seriously argues that is due to racial discrimination. Asians, on the other hand, comprise 13 percent of undergraduates – far more than their representation in the population. That's why even high-performing Asians students are often kept out by the very schools claiming to value “diversity.”
The court did not say other states must follow Michigan's lead, although some already have and others no doubt will. But the ruling was consistent with Martin Luther King's dream of judging people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin and with the latitude granted states by the Constitution.
None of this is to say that greater minority representation is undesirable. But perverting the intent of the original civil-rights movement is no way to achieve that, and only fosters resentment where none is justified. The court this week most definitely did not “take away the rights of minorities,” as Detroit lawyer George Washington claimed. Diversity may be a worthy goal, but it is not a right – and is only moral if achieved in the right way.
So what is that, exactly? Leaders of the University of Michigan's Black Student Union had an obvious suggestion: lower costs for lower-income students, for one – many of which would be minority. Improved student transportation, for another. And, of course, improving the education offered in primary and secondary schools would make students more attractive to universities. There are a million ways to improve opportunity without rewarding or penalizing people on the basis of skin color or gender.
In the end, lowering standards – whether in college admissions or anything else – causes far more harm than good, setting up the unprepared for failure while undermining the genuine achievements of those who benefit from it and punishing the achievement of those who don't.
Turns out Oliver Brown was right all along: Race shouldn't decide who gets to go to school.