No good parents want their children sent to inadequate schools. But in our country, that is the fate of lots of children who are born poor...

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No good parents want their children sent to inadequate schools.

But in our country, that is the fate of lots of children who are born poor, black, Latino or in the wrong neighborhood.

It isn’t a fate middle-class parents envision for their children. I understand why people fight to give their children advantages, because this is a competitive society. You win or you lose.

But the game is not played on the level, and most of us know that.

The disaffected white parents who took school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., to court know that, too.

School is a highly personal space and a very public one, where the needs of the individual and of society meet and sometimes conflict. It is the place we build our futures.

The case the U.S. Supreme Court heard Monday is about individual families, of course, and it is about Seattle and Louisville, but it is more important than that, because the court’s ruling will say something about what kind of nation we want to be.

In Seattle, housing segregation created a self-sustaining separation in the city’s neighborhoods. That segregation is mirrored in Seattle’s schools. Indeed, it is magnified in the schools, which are only 40 percent white. The overall population is 71 percent white.

The schools and programs that parents find most attractive are in predominantly white neighborhoods or serve mostly white children.

The school district has tried a lot of different tactics to mix things up so that black, Latino and Asian students would not be automatically consigned to the least-successful schools.

It was a mostly white district, nearly twice its present size, when the first remedies were tried. Many white families headed for the suburbs and to private schools.

The latest district plan, which has been suspended since 2001 because of the suit, has been a mild one. Race was just one of the factors officials used to determine school placement, and most students were assigned to one of their top choices.

Without action, we’ve been sliding backward. The high school closest to my house is 10 percent white; the next closest is 6 percent white. We live in liberal, majority white Seattle.

After Monday’s arguments, I spoke with Ted Shaw, who heads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. One of his predecessors, Thurgood Marshall, brought the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case to court.

Shaw said, “We all knew the addition of [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito to the court would in all likelihood move the court to the right and make it difficult for us to win. That was evident in [Monday’s] arguments.”

He remains hopeful but also said, “This has been a conservative court on issues of race for a long time, and it is more conservative now.”

If the court should rule against the two school districts, Shaw said, “It would be a reversal of historic proportions.”

It may seem as if we’ve been working at integration for a long time, but we haven’t, really.

I was born the year the Brown decision came down, but I didn’t sit in a classroom with white children until I was in seventh grade.

Shaw said it took 17 years before Brown was seriously enforced around the country. You know about the often-violent resistance in the early years of integration.

Violent resistance gave way to legal challenges, and by the 1980s, what gains had been made were being reversed in jurisdiction after jurisdiction.

Shaw takes an even longer view of the challenge of creating an equal-opportunity, interracial society. The NAACP celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown two years ago, but inequality has a much longer hold on this land. It took 350 years to get to Brown. Where do we go from here?

Shaw said the constitutionality of racial integration in schools is a narrow issue. “The broader issue is whether it is going to be legal to do something about racial inequality on any ground in this country.”

If we follow the opinion of the people who brought this suit to its logical end, Shaw says that would mean we couldn’t do anything to address the crisis among young black men, for instance, because programs aimed at them would be race-based.

It is intellectually dishonest, he said, to equate discrimination against black people with the situation these families faced. “No one is intending to subordinate white people, and white people aren’t being subordinated,” Shaw said.

“The question is whether the court is going to see attempts to address racial inequality in the same way it once saw attempts to discriminate against black people. That would be a tragedy.”

We all want a good life for our children, but does it have to be every family, every race, every class for itself? I guess we’ll see when the court makes its decision.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or His column runs Thursdays and Sundays. See