In a phrase often cited to show the Supreme Court's disdain for racial preference, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 1995 ruling (quoting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor): At the heart of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that government must treat citizens as individuals, not as components of a racial class.
The Seattle and Louisville school districts have not honored this basic precept of equality. Excluding students from a desired public school on the basis of race is as wrong today as it was in 1954 when the court decided Brown v. Board of Education. Treating students as white or non-white statistics should be unanimously rejected.
The supporters of racial balancing are not the descendants of Brown, which desegregated public schools, but of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the pernicious separate but equal doctrine in the late 19th century. Just as the Plessy majority obtusely asserted that if separation meant inferiority it was only because the minority chose to put that construction upon it, so too the advocates of today's rigid ratios of white and non-white students can see no harm. The harm, however, is palpable. And it is to all races, since it indulges the ugly stereotype that skin color determines thought and action.
Race may be an aspect of our personal lives for good (racial pride) or ill, and diversity in viewpoint is attractive in educational settings. That is why the Supreme Court allowed public universities in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) to consider race along with other factors in admissions decisions. But the court was adamant: Racial balancing is always unconstitutional. The school districts violated that principle, and worse. Seattle's differentiation of white from non-white, for example, lumps together those of African, Asian, Latino or Native American heritage. When a student declines to disclose racial ancestry, the schools use visual inspection. Admission by skin pigment is not academic diversity.
It is speculated that the usually collegial, and often unanimous, court led by Chief Justice John Roberts might divide sharply on this one. It shouldn't. The moral authority asserted by Earl Warren to banish race stands foursquare behind his young, articulate successor. The way to end racial discrimination is to stop discriminating by race not to invite and embed the practice in the decision-making of thousands of schools.