July 25th will mark the 46th anniversary of the SCOTUS ruling on the Milliken v. Bradley case. Today, we revisit our episode from a year ago about this important and under-appreciated case. Joined by Michelle Adams, Constitutional Law Professor at Cardozo School of Law, who is writing Soul Force: Detroit, The Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle for Racial Justice in America, we discuss the case and its implications for today.
Based in Detroit, the Milliken decision functionally halted the promise of Brown v Board of Education at the city limits, allowing all-white suburbs (created through policies like redlining) to maintain all-white schools. The implications for ideas about what is possible regarding desegregation today, and how we fund schools are profound.
- Parents Involved v Seattle Schools
- Milliken v Bradley
- Keyes v Denver School District 1
- Swann v Mecklenburg
- Brown v Board of Ed
- EdBuild report on the $23 Billon funding gap
- Complete audio from the opinion, including the entirety of Justice Marshall’s dissent.
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Andrew Lefkowits: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is Revisiting Not In My Suburbs: Milliken v Bradley @ 46. We’ve got something a bit different for you today. About a year ago, we released an episode marking the 45th anniversary of the Milliken v Bradley Supreme court case. And we're going to revisit that episode today.
It opened like this
CLIP: The Honorable, the chief justice, and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oh yea, oh yea, oh yea [gavel drops]. I have the disposition to announce for the court in number 73-434 Milliken against Bradley.
Andrew Lefkowits: That's Chief Justice Warren Burger announcing the decision in Milliken v. Bradley.
CLIP: The respondents in these cases brought this class action alleging that the Detroit public school system was racially segregated as a result of the official policies and actions of the petitioner state, and city officials. They sought implementation of a plan to eliminate desegregation in Detroit, and establish a unitary, non-racial school system in that city.
Andrew Lefkowits: A case that saw Thurgood Marshall issue this memorable dissent:
THURGOOD MARSHALL: Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by this court's refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.
Andrew Lefkowits: Milliken v Bradley was decided 46 years ago. It was a case that I had never really heard of. It's a story that's rarely told, but it turns out to be crucial to understanding the current segregation we see in our schools. And, maybe more importantly, the massive funding discrepancies we see between school districts.
This case basically said that the desegregation required by the Brown v Board decision, didn't have to include the suburbs - that school district boundaries were walls that desegregation orders couldn't pass through. Thurgood Marshall said it would undo his life's work because he realized that the same state imposed boundaries that created residential segregation would perpetuate school segregation.
What he probably couldn't have imagined was the scope of the problem. Last year, the nonprofit EdBuild released a report that found that districts that serve predominantly kids of color receive over $23 billion less each year than districts serving mostly White students.
Milliken v Bradley, in many ways, restricted the promise of the Brown decision. So last year, we wanted to know more and found Michelle Adams. She's a constitutional law professor at Cardozo law school and is working on a book due out next year, called Soul Force: Detroit, the Supreme Court and the Epic Battle for Racial Justice in America.
The book's all about the Milliken decision. So we were incredibly grateful when she agreed to come on and teach us some constitutional law.
It's always bittersweet to revisit episodes that feature my late co-host Courtney, but i think it's worth it. So let's hear a slightly edited version of the episode we released last year.
Courtney Mykytyn: Michelle, can you introduce yourself?
Michelle Adams: Sure. My name's Michelle Adams. I'm a law professor at Cardozo Law School in New York. I have been a law professor for over 20 years. I teach constitutional law and a bunch of other fun topics like that. I specialize in race discrimination, housing discrimination, and I've done a lot of work around affirmative action as well. And I'm writing a book about Milliken versus Bradley.
Courtney Mykytyn: And that is the topic for today, because Milliken v. Bradley is celebrating its 45th anniversary.
Michelle Adams: Yes, and I'm delighted to be talking with you guys about this incredibly important but underappreciated case.
Andrew Lefkowits: Yeah, I feel like it is underappreciated. Everybody's heard of Brown v. Board. I think a lot of people have heard of Parents Involved [in Community Schools v. Seattle School District], sort of the other end of things. Can you maybe before we dive into Milliken, give us key highlights along the way?
Michelle Adams: Yes, so let's do a little bit of constitutional law. Let's pretend like we’re in my constitutional law class. Let's talk about Parents Involved and then we can walk backwards to Brown and then I can fill in some of the other cases that folks would want to know about, and then we can talk specifically about Milliken. Parents Involved was decided in 2007 and it was an interesting case because it really was a case where both affirmative action law and school desegregation law came together and, when the case first came out, I taught it under the label of two trains running, right? It was as if two trains were running on parallel tracks, and then one day they kind of just crashed into each other.
And so the case had to do with these two school districts, one in Louisville, Kentucky, and one in Seattle, Washington. And they're both dealing with the same issue and the issue was, how do we maintain racial diversity in our public schools? In Louisville, the court had found that there had been something called de jure segregation, and de jure is just a fancy way of saying by law; what it means is that, state statute or municipal ordinance had required that the students be educated separately. Seattle’s different, right? Seattle's in the West, and there never was a state law that required the students to be educated separately.
But in Louisville, the court had in 2000 basically said, okay, you guys sort of did your time, and now that there's been a remedy it's all over now, and then it's like we're back to the beginning. Constitutional violation is cured and everything's done.
Andrew Lefkowits: So basically the Court said, you were in violation of the constitution by having segregated schools that were written into the law, you undid that law, you've taken the steps to sufficiently undo that. And now the constitutional violation is cured and you can assign kids however you want.
Michelle Adams: Yes, and so in Louisville, they said, well, we really like the fact that our schools are desegregated and we want to keep them that way. How can we do that? And so what they did was put into place basically a race-based system of deciding who is going to get into certain public schools to try to maintain a certain racial balance. Seattle, same idea. They had a series of tie breakers for the more popular high schools. But in both instances, both school districts use race as a factor to determine who is going to get into public schools to be able to make sure that there was a racial balance that roughly reflected the racial breakdown of the students in the system as a whole.
Courtney Mykytyn: So this was an intentional act of desegregation, right? Like we're using race as a way to desegregate, obviously.
Michelle Adams: Exactly. You know, technically it’s known as a voluntary desegregation plan and the reason why it's called voluntary is because no court is requiring it, right? So, in Louisville, in 1999 they were under court order, but then voila in 2000 there’s no longer a court order. But the folks say, hey, we love this, and most parents wanted this - they want to keep using race to try to maintain this racial balance. We think integration’s really important, so they're intentionally using race to try to desegregate.
So, ultimately, there's a challenge to the plan because there are a pretty small percentage of parents who don't like them, and they're saying you're using race in a way that violates my constitutional rights. I didn't get into my first choice school in Seattle. I wanted to go to a more popular school--it was oversubscribed, so because of race I couldn't get into my first choice school. And so they said, my equal protection rights are being violated as a White person, and so you can't use race in that way.
And the court ultimately agreed. And so even though the Supreme Court struck both of those plans down in Louisville and Seattle, Justice Kennedy said, well, I can imagine a kind of hypothetical voluntary desegregation plan for K through 12 that used race that might actually pass, but this is not it.
I'm sitting in the Supreme Court and I'm listening to the oral argument. I'm basically realizing that the school districts are going to go down, and I'm asking myself, how did we get here? Right? How is this that, if you've got communities and school boards, school boards don't just do what they want, right? They’ve got to be responsive to the parents. And if the school boards are basically voting these things in, and if the majority of parents of color and White parents want these programs, why would the Supreme Court not let them have them? It’s a really interesting and important question. And the question is, well, how did we get here?
Courtney Mykytyn: Can I just stop for a second, like we can't use race to achieve racial balance? Yeah, I just wanted to say that again.
Michelle Adams: You can't use it. You can’t use race. You know, if you do a deep dive into Justice Kennedy--because he's the one who had all the power--he basically says, listen, the objective is not constitutionally problematic. Meaning, it's okay if the school district seeks to achieve racial integration. That doesn't violate the equal protection clause. That's okay. You can have that motivation, but you can't do it in this particular way. You can't use a racial classification scheme to try to achieve the objective of racial integration. That was Kennedy's big thing.
So he said, there are a lot of other, what they call facially race neutral, meaning you didn't use race explicitly, but let's say you decided that you wanted to do some sort of outreach, or you wanted to use socioeconomic indicators, for instance, or you wanted to use a geographic system of gerrymandering the school zones based upon where students live. That might be okay, if the intent is to try to integrate. But what you can't use is that racial classification scheme. He thinks that's too pernicious.
So then the big question is, well, you know, this is 2007. That's pretty recent. What came before, right? Let's go back. Let's go back and figure out what came before, because what's so interesting about Parents Involved is that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Breyer, who are on opposite ends, they're coming from completely different universes, right, they’re fighting about Brown. And that's why Parents Involved is really worth taking a moment of your time to kind of just sit down with it and chew on it, because the case is really about Brown. What does Brown mean, what is Brown about?
Breyer says one thing, and Roberts says something very different. I'll give you a little preview, Roberts says--and you may have heard this--the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. The way to stop engaging in race discrimination is to stop discriminating. So, this plan discriminates on the basis of race because it uses racial classifications schemes, so just cut it out and we're good.
Courtney Mykytyn: Right, let's be colorblind.
Michelle Adams: Exactly, Breyer says, wait a minute, like don't we have to look at the history? Don't we have to look at Louisville and what was going on in Kentucky, and what actually was happening in Seattle? Doesn't history matter and doesn't Brown matter? And doesn't it matter that if the school boards are trying to bring students together as opposed to keeping them apart, shouldn't that count for something? And so Breyer takes a much more historical look at how did we get here.
But now let's go back. Let's go back to 1954 and the famous Brown case. So Brown, if you go and you read it, it basically says that it violates the Equal Protection Clause, which is in the 14th Amendment, to require the races to be educated separately, that it violates equal educational opportunity and that every student in the country has a right to equal educational opportunity for a couple reasons. One is just because education is very important, and the other reason is for good citizenship. The court talks a lot about educating people to be able to do things like vote and to read and to be able to participate in a democracy. And so, for those reasons, they have to have equal educational opportunity. And when you separate students, it violates those notions.
And so that's Brown I. Nothing about remedy, nothing about how do you make it stop, nothing about desegregation. Next year, Brown II says, well, okay, now we understand that we've gotta do something. The question is, what has to happen in the South? And you get this very famous formulation of all deliberate speed.
And Brown II in ‘55 is really, you know, rightly criticized as being the court’s embrace of gradualism, where it basically gives the South a long period of time to stop segregating. And then the Supreme Court basically just gets off the field until 1968. There's the school segregation cases between 1955 and 1968 and the Supreme Court basically says, hey, we’re out, do what you're gonna do, we done, basically. And it's a problem, right? Because the Supremes takes a step back.
Now, what happens is, of course, that the Congress gets on the field and we pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is really, really important because not only does it have the public accommodations requirement, but it also has the federal funding piece there. And the Congress basically triggers the ability to get federal education money on coming into compliance with certain desegregation mandates. And that really gets the South's attention because they want the federal money.
Then in 1971 you have this other famous case, called Swann, and Swann is basically known as the busing case. And in the Swann case, the court says, well, here are the specific things the federal courts can order school districts to do to come into compliance with the Brown mandate, including changing the geographical zoning, changing student assignment plans, pairing and clustering schools, and busing in some instances, and some limited racial quotas.
That's basically what the court says in Swann, and that's ‘71. Then you move to ‘73 and you get this case called Keyes. And Keyes is important because Keyes is the first time this court really steps out of the South. Keyes is in Denver, and it's really about - how do you prove that there's been what's known as a Brown violation? How do you prove that the school districts have engaged in an action that would violate the Constitution, when there was no state statute actually requiring the kids to be separated? Are there intentional acts that the school district can take that are basically functionally the same as passing a statute thing, you know what, White kids, White schools, Black kids, Black schools? And the answer is yes.
And then the following year, tada, you get to Milliken I, which is an incredibly important case that we can talk about. So that's your overview of the landscape.
Andrew Lefkowits: Alright, Brown I - separate is unequal. Brown II - take your time fixing that. Civil Rights Act says, if you want actually federal money, you got to do something about it. 71 Swan says you seriously got to do something about it, like maybe even bus kids around. 73 Keyes says, even if it doesn't say in your laws that you're segregating, if your kids are segregated, that's still a constitutional violation. And now i think we're ready to jump into Milliken.
Michelle Adams: Basically, what happens in the Milliken case is, and it’s fascinating, you know, the school district in Detroit was actually one of the more liberal school districts and was trying in a kind of halting way to desegregate. At the time, liberals were in the majority of the school board and decided to put into place a limited integration plan that would have, for the first time in the history of the Detroit school system, required White kids to go to Black schools and vice versa.
And there’s an uproar with respect to this. And ultimately, the State of Michigan passes a statute to overturn the school board action that would have integrated the schools, right? So it feels very Southern. Has a very Southern vibe to it. A state statute passed to prohibit integration feels familiar? Right? That sounds like a bad thing. That sounds like an equal protection violation. And, in fact, it was...that was proven in the federal District Court. It was upheld at the sixth Circuit and then ultimately the Supreme Court upheld that. So with respect to was there a Brown violation in Detroit? Yes, there was. So the NAACP gets involved in the case. They sue.
And what’s super interesting is that, you know, there had been this whole question of how do we bring Brown North? You know, it's very complicated. It's sort of easy for people to understand why Mississippi and Alabama and Florida and what have you are doing something that’s bad and wrong. But then you get into the north and the West and people are like, well, we like our neighborhood school. We didn't do anything wrong. We just want our kid to go to our neighborhood school. We're not racist, right?
And you know, the folks in the NAACP say it's the same problem, right, that the school boards in the North have basically been taking these actions to segregate the schools, and they didn't pass a statute, but it's basically as if they did.
What was interesting about what they did in Detroit, though, is they had two pieces of their litigation, this is in the district court now. They had the classic school case. You know what school officials do and when did they do it? What do they know? And when did they find out? And how did they take the actions? But they also had a housing case. This is what was so fantastically interesting was that they tried to show that it wasn't just that the Detroit public school officials took actions intentionally to segregate the school, but that they incorporated the background residential segregation into their action.
And so they put on a case going back to almost the turn of the century, that laid out how did Detroit come to look like it did. Why did the neighborhoods look the way they look? Why are the suburbs so White? Why is Detroit becoming increasingly a Black city? Let's talk about racially restrictive covenants. Let's talk about the role of the federal government in terms of how it decided to provide money to developers. And what were the insurance regulations and whether Black homeowners could gain access to federally-backed mortgage loans. And let's talk about redlining. Not just why is the school located where it is but who paid for the school and why do Black folks live there, and if they wanted to move, could they leave?
So they built this case to basically say, when the school board decided to build a school that, by the way, was authorized by the state and paid for in part by the State Board of Education, in a particular neighborhood that they were, incorporating the residential segregation that was already in that neighborhood. And they're making it worse, right? It’s synergistic, right? The neighborhood gets to be known as a Black neighborhood because the Black school’s located in the center of the Black neighborhood, and then the funding isn’t the same for the Black school, and then the White folks don't want to live there anymore.
And you get this district court judge who starts out a pretty conservative guy, you know, not a flaming liberal by any stretch of the imagination, starts out being very skeptical of the NAACP’s case and that by the end of the trial, this guy's like, if Brown means anything, it means that you can't do this. And if we're gonna have meaningful desegregation in Detroit, guess what, we have to use the suburbs, because if Black folks had wanted to move to the suburbs, they couldn't move to the suburbs. They couldn't move there because of the housing segregation. And the State of Michigan is liable for all of this.
The suburban school districts and the suburbs themselves are what we call political subdivisions of the state. They're just little, mini portions of the state. They don't have an independent sovereignty. So because of all of this finding of liability against the state of Michigan, because of the fact that it was school and housing segregation, and because it's impossible to provide a meaningful desegregation remedy within the four corners of the city of Detroit, we're gonna use the suburban school districts to have this remedy. And that's when the shit hit the fan.
Andrew Lefkowits: Right? Right, because the suburban school districts had not actively segregated their own school districts because their own school districts were all White to start with because of residential segregation that created the suburbs in the first place.
Michelle Adams: That's exactly right, they thought, listen, we look at the 14th Amendment, the 14th Amendment doesn't talk about the suburbs. It says no state shall... It doesn't say no Southfield shall or no Troy, Michigan shall or no Bloomfield Hills shall...It says no state shall, and the state was guilty.
Andrew Lefkowits: And that school district boundaries are drawn by the state. The state is in charge of where the school boundaries are. So the argument that- well,these school boundaries just happened to be here and they just happen to be in places that happened to be segregated, shouldn't hold weight.
Michelle Adams: So, let me be specific. The remedy is we're going to have the Detroit school system joined with around 50 suburban school systems, basically creating a cluster plan, so there would be busing between certain high schools in Detroit within a ring school district so you would use these suburban school districts to basically create a large scale desegregation plan.
It would have been the largest across-district desegregation plan in the history of the United States, affecting around 780,000 students. So this is why Milliken is so important. You're talking about, you know, 3/4 of a million kids. This is a massive program, so that was what was on order.
Andrew Lefkowits: But that's not actually what happened.
Michelle Adams: Right, because there had been no finding against the individual suburban school districts that, in fact, they had actually contributed to segregation in the city of Detroit or that school district lines had been drawn with an intent to keep Blacks out. Because there was no finding in the record of either of those two things, it was improper to use suburban school districts as what the court called an integrative resource in the remedy for the constitutional violation.
So what the court really did was, it said Brown doesn't extend to the suburbs. And, so, what Brown means is what the Black kids in Detroit are entitled to is a desegregated school system within the city of Detroit, even if there was no possibility of meaningful desegregation in the city of Detroit; and even if that order itself might contribute to more White flight, because now the remaining White folks in Detroit would know, all they have to do is move across the eight mile road line--the famous line that Eminem rapped about--to avoid desegregation.
And so the district court judge is like, listen, I'm worried that my order is actually gonna increase White flight. And so, even though that might happen, the Supreme Court said that doesn't really matter, all you get, all you’re eligible for under Brown is desegregation within the city of Detroit. And it just doesn't really matter if there's no White folks there.
Courtney Mykytyn: So because the outlying school districts weren't expressly segregated by law, this couldn't actually target those suburbs.
Michelle Adams: Because the plaintiffs didn’t prove that those school district's created segregation in Detroit, because the plaintiffs couldn't prove that the state of Michigan drew the school district lines with an intent to keep the Blacks in Detroit, the suburbs couldn’t be used.
Andrew Lefkowits: But they didn't have to, right, because plenty of other government programs had already made sure that the Black people in Detroit had to stay in the city.
Michelle Adams: Exactly. Right. So this was the part of it that I think is hard, and this is the part that is directly relevant to where we are today, because it's very difficult when you're going about your life and you just think I'm doing the best I can for my kid, to turn around and look at the history that brought you to this moment and brought your family to this moment, to step back, and say how did all this stuff happen?
Not that any individual person is a guilty, bad person, but the way I think about it is we're all operating in the context of certain structures. All of our choices that we're making that we think are our own individual … we’re cowboys, right, Americans are cowboys, we’re just out there and we’re individuals. We're making our own choices, and we're doing our own thing and it's all on us, right?
In actuality, we're making choices under contexts of constraints, and we're making choices based upon structures and against backgrounds of things that happened before us. And so when suburban White folks found out that they would be involved in this remedy. Oh, whoa, this isn't my problem.
Andrew Lefkowits: I didn't do this.
Michelle Adams: I didn't do it. I didn't do it. And it's that emotion. It's that feeling. It's not just an intellectual thing that we've gotta be doing if we're going to do this work, it's not just the sort of the way I just gave you that whole spiel of constitutional law. You've got to do that. And then you got to go to the next place, which is to talk about who we are as a people, how we connect as a people, what we want as a people, what we want our world to look like, what we want our society to look like, and how do we get here. And to stop the finger pointing and start the understanding and start the handshaking. Get away from the finger pointing and let’s start building bridges and shaking hands.
Courtney Mykytyn: So I have a thousand questions. But there were people in the suburbs, White folks in the suburbs, who were like wait, hold it. But there were people who were really pushing hard for desegregation and thinking about equity.
Michelle Adams: So one of the things I learned in my research, one of the many million incredibly interesting things is, in between when the trial court says this is what we're gonna do, and up to when we get to the Supreme Court, you've got a couple of years there, and so there's organizing on the ground. And the faith-based community is out there, I think, right after the District Court judge handed down this order, they issued a statement, the Metropolitan Council of Churches and then basically, virtually every single major denomination in southeastern Michigan - The Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Catholics, the Jews - all got together and said, you know what? This is gonna be tough, no doubt about it, but we want this to happen. This is an opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to become American, for us to go to that next level, to take that next step to really perfect our nation.
And some of the parochial schools said, listen, if you're trying to take your kid out of public school because you want to avoid busing, we don't want you, we don't want your kids. We're not gonna become private, segregated academies, right?
And so it's obviously a minority. There's no question it's the minority of White folks. It's a minority view, but it's not two people, it’s not seven people, right? There are people on the ground who are coming together, who are trying to create the possibility for this to happen.
And I think this is a story that’s gotten lost, and one of the things that's just so heartbreaking about what happens when the Supreme Court overturns the district court plan, which it does, is that it cuts those people off at the knee. The faith-based community leaders, the people on the ground who were willing to do the work, who had come together, who were raising money, who were putting together organizations in the suburbs and trying to go into Detroit and trying to shake hands. Basically, the Supreme Court says to them, well, you know, you guys, too bad, so sad! It cuts them off at the knee. As opposed to celebrating those people who are willing to do the work, the hard work of bringing us together, and supporting those folks. We basically said, you know what, you guys, there is nothing for you here, move on. And that's one of the things that I think is still heartbreaking from my perspective.
Andrew Lefkowits: Yeah, yeah, that's a huge story that definitely doesn't get told. And I think it's not just Detroit, right? There were pockets around the country of places where this was not fought. I mean, the overwhelming response from White people was to fight integration, tooth and nail, but certainly that was not the universal response.
Michelle Adams: It wasn't and I think that's one of the things, there’s a lot of myths out there, right? Myth number one is all White people hated integration. That's not true. It doesn't help Black folks to say that, it doesn’t help White folks to say that. Right? What I want to talk about is White supremacy. White supremacy and Whiteness are two different things. And it's vitally important to draw a distinction between the two, because there were White folks who were doing the work of trying to fight against White supremacy, and they were doing it without necessarily that vocabulary. But they were like, you know what? This is gonna be hard, but this is going to make us have a better country.
And it's the same people who are on the ground in Louisville, in Seattle, too. What you had in Louisville, Seattle, also Wake County, North Carolina, you had people--White folks for the majority of them--in these instances when you have a desegregation plan that's been on the ground and working for 30-40 years, the majority of them were like, 85% are like, you know what, we like our desegregated school. Then you have a minority of White folks who then come and then sue, when the majority of White folks are like, you know what, maybe I wouldn't have liked this in the beginning, but I got used to it no. It's not a problem.
So I think this is about trying to figure out a way to tell a story of, in some instances, it's actually the majority that wanted integration. But the minority didn't want it. But it was a well-funded minority that had the ear of the Supreme Court, and that explains Parents Involved.
Courtney Mykytyn: You know, we talked with Elizabeth McRae, who wrote Mothers of Massive Resistance, and she she talks about, you know, this very vocal minority and the concept of like segregation needed constant gardening. And so what I think is interesting about the story you're telling about Detroit here is that segregation is not like the natural space. Segregation has to be fought for and protected at all costs, but that it's actually more natural to want to build those bridges, have those handshakes, and create a different kind of community or city.
Michelle Adams: Well, I I agree with that. I mean, I think it's important to create a constituency. You know, segregation had a constituency created that was supported by law for generations. We've had a very, very, very short period of time, a very short period of time - and now we're backsliding - where we've tried to have something more approximating equality or egalitarianism, and so we need to create a constituency and structures that will support that. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to come on this podcast to talk to you guys because I very much want to support the work that you're doing.
Courtney Mykytyn: Thank you.
Andrew Lefkowits: We talk about that a lot, that policy is necessary and policy is important, but policy relies on some on-the-ground social capital and constituency to support it and to fight for it and to hold people accountable for it. And I think telling the story of White people who were not opposed to busing, who were not opposed to desegregation plans, is an important piece of that, because I do think that story has been lost. So I'm very glad you're telling it.
Michelle Adams: I think there's a bunch of myths out there. That integration never worked is one of the big myths. Actually, it worked kind of well and so it had to be destroyed, and it was a right-wing project to destroy it. I'm challenging people to look at this from a broader social-political context, which is to say, maybe integration is such a good idea that we gotta destroy it every generation. It's such a great idea, right? It’s such a great idea that we have to destroy it.
Andrew Lefkowits: That it keeps coming back. Despite all the opposition, despite all the energy and money spent to fight it, it still keeps coming back.
Michelle Adams: Well, it's kind of like democracy. It's a great idea, too, but it turns out that we actually have to fight for it every generation. You can't go on cruise control.
For me, going through and doing the work of going into the archives and reading the letters, and reading the newspaper articles, and looking at the legal theory, and looking at the case, and looking at how the lawyers brought it, and looking at the people who were involved has actually left me more hopeful than I think I would have been.
I think it was a horrible result from the Supreme Court's perspective. But I do think that what you see is not the sort of static narrative of the one that I think you've been fed in the media, which is this monolithic idea that all White folks just sort of hated integration.
I think, you know, social norms are an interesting thing, right? And I think people have done work about the idea of social norms being contagious, right? So, yeah, I mean, I think it's because you get thought leaders, you get a certain number of people who are saying, you know what, I think we got to do this, and you change minds. Doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time. But it does work. It's just that it's not gonna happen in three seconds.
Andrew Lefkowits: Yeah, I wonder how financing schools sort of plays into all of this.
Michelle Adams: You know, I spent a little bit of time in the book talking about rational economic actors and, so imagine, White folks are rational economic actors who are like, listen, my schools are being funded by my property taxes, and so part of this is just the way that we fund public schools is just atrocious. I mean, if you wanted to have people behave in the most selfish way possible, this is how you do it. You have to ask people, seriously, to basically be incredibly magnanimous, to not want to engage in segregative behavior because all of the structures are set up to drive them in that direction, right? That's the problem.
And so when you start the finger pointing, which I get--I actually lose patience a little bit with some folks, some progressives who are finger pointing--if you finger point without the structural analysis, you're not gonna get anywhere because people are making decisions under conditions of constraint.
Andrew Lefkowits: The system that sort of continues to incentivize segregation seems really crucial for people to understand. I mean it ties into this idea that the sort of natural state of things is segregation and that, you know the, I mean, I don't know the whole idea of de facto segregation, like there just happens to be segregation. But there doesn't really--segregation requires intentional work by people to maintain and systems and structures that are set up to reinforce it, for it to continue on.
It feels like if we don't understand that, then it feels like it's sort of overwhelming. We're never gonna overpower human nature because that's just the way things are. But really, it's the way things have been created, the way things have been designed, and the systems that keep perpetuating it.
Michelle Adams: Well, I agree with that 100% but I would also add that it's not just that, segregation is actually inefficient and expensive. It's, you know, it’s economically irrational.
What I want to do also is shift the burden. For many years I was running around talking about integration and what have you, people would always say, well, integration, it didn’t work. And what would be interesting to me was that all of the burden would be on the pro-integration people to prove that it would work. And actually, I think, and this is my offering to you guys in the work that you do - The burden is not on you, the burden is on the segregationists. You guys are doing the right thing. I think the burden should be on people who basically say to themselves, hey, I really want to have my kids go to school with 100% White kids who are upper middle class, like, I think that's a great educational environment. They need to explain why that is.
I think we need to shift the default, and one of the things I want my book to do is to provide you with the ammunition to be able to do that. Folks who are doing the work that you're doing, folks that are doing the work across the country, in Black communities, communities of color, to be able to shift those defaults and have those conversations.
I think we need to have, you know, the discussion has to happen in the context of is it possible to think about an educational environment that's not diverse, is it possible to have that and have a multiracial democracy? Really, is it, are we gonna transition to a multiracial democracy? Maybe we're not. I mean, maybe that's one of the lessons from the past couple years is we’re actually hiccupping, right? We’re having a major hiccup right now and we're trying to transition to a multiracial democracy and some people are freaking out about it. So maybe the answer is we're not gonna transition to that. But if we are going to transition to that, can we do that with segregated schools?
Andrew Lefkowits: No. I feel pretty confident saying that. That's what it feels like is at stake to me. I mean, the reason that I care about these things is that it’s not some on the periphery, kind of...it does really feel fundamental to the future of our country, that there is not a path forward that doesn't involve finding a way to come together.
Michelle Adams: Yeah, I mean, I actually think you guys are more dangerous than you think you are. People who disrupt the status quo are dangerous. If you get people who push back really hard you’ll get people unnerved by what you're saying, or they get upset by what you're saying, you know that you're doing the right thing.
Courtney Mykytyn: I much prefer the anger than the apathy about it. That's for real.
Michelle Adams: There are ways in which I'm optimistic, there are ways in which my research is taking me to a place of optimism. And there are ways in which I'm a clear eyed realist.
Andrew Lefkowits: I think there's something to be said for the fact that it took a decade after Brown before we really started to make changes. And part of that was about the fact that, you know, the sort of cultural atmosphere shifted. It took some political cultural will to actually enforce Brown. And so, you know, there's some pulling from the Supreme Court, but that requires also some pushing from the ground up, from the community.
Michelle Adams: So you know, there's a lot of people who write about theories of social change and the relationship between social movements and that effect of social movements on the Supreme Court and the federal court, that it's very interesting stuff, and I guess I think that's an important qualification. That it is true that the Supreme Court, although they will deny it, lives in the world, and they read the newspaper, right? So it is true that if they do things that are extraordinarily unpopular, that that can have a disciplining effect on the court. This is certainly true, so I agree with you, and I think that I don't want to be so negative that it puts the kibosh on people doing the important work that needs to get done at the state and local level. So I think that's completely correct.
The one thing I would say, though, is that when you look at the nature of the justices and the philosophy of the justices, and I think if we had more of those kinds of justices on the Supreme Court now who are conservatives, I might agree with them, but who were really committed to stare decisis and who were more of that kind of classic in the century mode, I would be less concerned.
I worry the court is gonna behave in an activist way. We've already seen some of that, and, um, you know, it's just a serious concern that I have. But you're correct that you can blunt some of that by coming out in force and by being incredibly active politically. And we've seen some of that since 2016 and it's been very heartening.
Andrew Lefkowits: Yeah, there's hope, a lot of work to do, kernels of hope.
Michelle Adams: But I mean, look, you know, I'm reading about a case that overturned what I thought was a really important decision, but still, there's hope in that book. And there's hope in this discussion.
Andrew Lefkowits: We're incredibly grateful for your time and your expertise and sharing all this with us.
Michelle Adams: My pleasure.
Andrew Lefkowits: Can't thank you enough for coming on.
Michelle Adams: I look forward to maybe seeing you guys on book tour.
Courtney Mykytyn: Yeah, and hopefully we'll be able to bring you back when your book is published and get a redux.
Michelle Adams: Love to.
Andrew Lefkowits: So that was the episode from a year ago. A pretty mind blowing, eight minute constitutional law class, and then some really great ties to the current state of our schools. And revisiting it a year later, I'm struck by just how broad the conversation is and how many of the issues of school segregation it touched on, particularly as we're looking at how to do school in the midst of this pandemic.
You know, acknowledging that there are definitely no good options for the fall, we know that any steps we take to improve the education we're able to offer, whether it's virtual or in person, will require resources. And Milliken, in many ways, was instrumental to solidifying the inequitable funding of public schools in so many places. The resources available to districts to try to make the most of a very difficult situation are vastly different and the results will be worse for those already the most marginalized by our education system.
You know, her question about segregated schools being incompatible with a multiracial democracy is really hard to grapple with in this moment, when our lives continue to be as segregated as possible. Finding ways to build bridges, instead of pointing fingers feels even more important now, but so much harder in our isolation. But her story also reminds us that the forces pushing for segregation will not rest during this time. And so we have to keep fighting, we have to keep focusing on our entire community, finding ways to build relationships, and trying, through it all, to be guided by equity, even when that feels elusive.
So, I want to play the conversation that Courtney and I had after that episode from last year, but first I want to let you know that Integrated Schools, along with the National Coalition on School Diversity and Learn Together, Live Together, will be hosting a #ThurgoodWasRight Twitter chat. It'll be July 28th, 3:00pm Pacific / 6:00pm Eastern. Log on to Twitter, look for the #ThurgoodWasRight hashtag to join the conversation. We’ll be talking about the impact of Milliken on how we think about current segregation and what's possible to address it, as well as what we can learn from the decision to inform how we think about school in the context of COVID and after.
For more conversation about this episode, or just to support this work, please join our Patreon- patreon.com/integratedschools. Check out Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to engage with other parents grappling with these topics and let us know what you think of the episode by emailing. [email protected]
And now the conversation Courtney and I had last year.
Courtney Mykytyn: I have a much better understanding of how we got from Brown “separate is never equal” to Parents Involved “can't use race for racial equality.” And it seems like Milliken is really one of the major turning points.
Andrew Lefkowits: Yeah, right up until Milliken the court has been moving slowly, unevenly, but moving towards more desegregation. And then, and then Milliken says, hang on, desegregation plans have to stop at these artificially drawn boundaries of a school district. And so, of course, what did White people do? They drew up school district boundaries that only had White people in them, right? District's that had explicit policies around who could or couldn't buy homes there. And then they moved there to avoid the desegregated schools.
Courtney Mykytyn: Yeah, and this still goes on, right? Like we can say that it's not really about racism or anti-integration, but it is. And this, of course, leads to raising different kinds of money and resources to support the schools. And that's a whole other topic, right? Local control in school funding.
Andrew Lefkowits: And it seems like the through line through this is that those who are pushing to maintain their advantage at the expense of others, which, you know, in many places is the minority of White people as Michelle Adams points out, those ones who are doing the racist stuff, they have been the loudest voices. And I think when we ignore the stories of White people who didn't hate this, right, parents in Seattle, in Louisville, who viewed their desegregated schools as a real positive for their neighborhoods and for their kids, when we don't tell those stories, we allow the default to become segregation. We have to set the terms of the debate right, like integrating is the default.
Courtney Mykytyn: That's right, yeah, you know, and I just want to say that I really love her quote that we are more dangerous than we think. You know, next time you hear pushback from a parent on the playground or your mother in law, that integrating is the wrong choice, just remember, if you are getting push-back, it's probably because you're doing something right.
Andrew Lefkowits: Last thing about Milliken, I think it was a decision that really set the country back in many ways, but it did lead to Thurgood Marshall's dissent, which is really an amazing piece of writing. And thanks to oyez.org we have Supreme Court audio. So you heard a bit at the beginning of the episode, at the end of this episode we've got about three minutes of Thurgood Marshall's dissent that I think is really worth a listen.
Courtney Mykytyn: Yeah, definitely. And we are happy to be in this with you as we try to know better and do better.
Andrew Lefkowits: And now Justice Thurgood Marshall:
THURGOOD MARSHALL: On Brown v. Board of Education, this court held that segregation of children in public schools on the basis of race deprives Negro children of equal educational opportunities and therefore denies them the equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment. This court recognized then that remedying decades of segregation would not be an easy task. Subsequent events, unfortunately, have seen that prediction bear bitter fruit, but however embedded old ways, however ingrained old prejudices, this court has not been diverted from its appointed task of making a living truth of our constitutional ideal of equal justice under law. After 20 years of small, often difficult steps toward that great end, the court today takes a giant step backwards.
The rights at issue in this case are too fundamental to be abridged on the ground, as superficial as those relied on by the majority opinion today. We deal here with the rights of all of our children, whatever their race - their right to an equal start in life, to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. The children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them the right in the future.
Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by this court's refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.
Desegregation is not and was never expected to be an easy task. Racial attitudes ingrained in our nation's childhood and adolescence are not quickly thrown aside in its middle years. But just as the inconvenience of some cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the right of others, so public opposition, no matter how strident, cannot be permitted to divert this court from the enforcement of the constitutional principles at issue in this case.
Today's holding, in my view, is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough enforcing the constitutional guarantee of equal justice, than is the product of neutral principles of law. In the short run, it may seem to be the easier cause to allow our metropolitan areas to be divided up into two cities, one White, the other Black. But it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret, and for these reasons, I respectfully dissent.