Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Integration Now, Integration Tomorrow, Integration Forever!

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States entertained arguments in two cases over whether it is permissible to use race as a significant factor in choosing, for diversity reasons, which public-school students get into particular highly desirable schools and which don't. The argument of the school districts involved in the case is that diversity is a compelling interest, and that it is therefore permissible to take account of race, something otherwise not permitted by the Constitution, to achieve it. Now whether diversity is such a compelling interest is very debatable and hangs on the flimsiest of legal threads. And there is a good argument to be made that the moral position is for the state to ignore race at all times - no schools that are legally required to be segregated, no schools that are legally required to achieve a certain level of integration. But a far more compelling question is whether full nationwide integration is even achievable.

Over thirty years ago an economist named Thomas Schelling demonstrated through computer modeling that the tiniest degree of preference for living around people of one's own ethnicity (a desire, for example, by whites that nonwhites not exceed fifty percent of their neighborhood) translates quickly, in a dynamic system, from a starting point of random allocation of ethnic groups among the available housing into substantial self-segregation. Very tiny preferences forone's own type means that once someone of a different type opens up a neighborhood, others of that latter type quickly move there, and the original inhabitants become less and less desirous of living there and thus eventually move themselves. This means that government efforts to achieve residential integration are generally futile. (Schelling did not consider the possibility that some people may have an active taste for neighbor diversity. Some such people, probably more and more as time goes by, obviously exist, and they congregate in a highly diverse neighborhoods. Such is the benefit of property rights in allowing people to achieve their goals.)

The United States government has been trying for years to use legislation and the federal courts to achieve the "proper" racial balance in the nation's schools. And yet still, as Jonathan Kozol's entire righteously angry corpus has shown, it has conspicuously failed, in that many American schools are still segregated more than fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And so at some point, we will accept that attempts to engineer particular diversity or integration outcomes are doomed to fail. As an aside, they are also philosophically repugnant, because they require that government officials turn other people's children into the raw material for experiments in social engineering. The most revolting spectacle of the anger over busing in the 1970s (and you would think we would learn from the failure of that experiment not to try it again in a different guise) was the sending of children into faraway schools amid armed police escorts.

Parents love their own children more than other people, including bureaucrats, do, and will always resist (and have the moral right to resist) attempts by bureaucrats to make their children's education subject to someone else's bureaucratic whims.

Of course, a diverse society requires that people get along, and a modern one requires that they be adequately educated. And so if there is to be significant residential self-segregation (and the historical record suggests there will be), the citizenry has an obligation via the government that represents it to make sure that all schools provide an equal opportunity for each student to achieve his potential. And so while whether the government should be actually producing education (as opposed to, for example, merely funding it by the provision of private vouchers) is more than an open question, whatever it decides it should provide those services equally to everyone’s children, perhaps by equalizing funding per student. But that is all we can hope for. Any attempt to solve America's ethnic-tension problems by turning its school system in to a Petri dish onto which various possibly toxic policy chemicals are introduced is a fool's errand, and immoral to both the children and their parents to boot.


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