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Across the nation, school officials are searching for ways to improve education for disadvantaged students. Here in Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have refocused attention on the challenges faced by our public schools. Their energy has also sparked a dialogue about how the community can support the work that lies ahead. In other school districts throughout the country, equally important challenges are being faced. On June 28, the Supreme Court looked at school plans to increase racial diversity in the consolidated cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. A deeply divided Court held that programs to promote racial integration adopted voluntarily by public school districts in Seattle and in Louisville, Ky., are unconstitutional. Yet in striking down the Louisville and Seattle plans, the Court nonetheless preserved the right, albeit narrower, of school districts to employ race-conscious measures to combat racial segregation that results in inequality of educational opportunity. In school districts throughout the nation, the men and women entrusted with the responsibility of educating our children are likely doing their best to interpret what they may and may not do as they seek to meet the educational needs of their diverse students. By now, they understand that the Roberts Court has limited their options and that their decisions may be subjected to future judicial scrutiny, potentially offering the ultraconservative majority additional opportunities to chip away at Brown v. Board of Education (1954). It’s a heavy burden that these school officials bear. Their educational directives will affect multitudes of children for several generations. And the importance of a quality education cannot be underestimated: Its absence is a prescription for poverty and the root of many social ills, such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, and crime, that are chronic in disadvantaged communities. Although most of us in the legal community cannot have a direct impact on how schools are run or what goes on in the classrooms, we can read beyond the words of an opinion to understand its true impact. And to the extent that this impact is objectionable, we, as legal professionals, can make a difference in several ways. HARMFUL IMBALANCES When I was reading the Court’s lengthy opinion in these school cases, one item I found of particular interest was Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion, which has not yet been a key area of focus by legal scholars and which the other justices in the majority did not join. Maybe that’s a good thing. Justice Thomas asserts that there is an important distinction to be drawn between “racial segregation,” which is unconstitutional, and “racial imbalance,” which he goes to great lengths to defend as not at all unconstitutional. Thomas says that although racial segregation may be a root cause, “racial imbalance can also result from any number of innocent private decisions, including voluntary housing decisions.” In my view, that’s a hollow distinction not worth the investment of the intellectual capital necessary to draw it. I call upon any of us to cite examples of where racial imbalance resulting from these “innocent private decisions” has worked to the advantage of any students of color, who in city after city throughout this nation suffer the ill effects of unequally apportioned educational resources, lack of highly qualified instructors, and substandard facilities. And “voluntary housing decisions” are often not as voluntary as our justices may wish to believe. Most people don’t choose to live in disadvantaged communities; they live there because of the absence of a choice. Practices such as redlining and other forms of discrimination that still occur daily outside the protected world of the Supreme Court justices make housing choices far from voluntary for many people of color. Who considers their plight in this defense of “racial imbalance”? WE, THE PEOPLE The issues are complex, and we cannot lay 100 percent of the burden for fostering diversity of education in our schools squarely on the shoulders of our local school boards. Nor should we simply acquiesce to the decisions of the Supreme Court as it swings the law like a pendulum to a more conservative or moderate place, depending upon which president appoints the justices. At the bedrock of our society is the simple phrase “We, the People.” As educated professionals, we should take the recent decision as a wake-up call. Working together, committed groups of private citizens can have a greater impact than any court, legislature, or public official. If equal educational opportunity for students of color is important to us, why don’t we get more involved in addressing educational pipeline issues to ensure that we foster diversity of education in our schools and communities? For those looking for specific ways to help, here are just a few opportunities available from the legal community: • Support leading efforts such as the National Bar Association’s Crump Law Camp, a two-week program held annually in Washington, D.C. High-school students from different cultural, economic, and ethnic backgrounds get to spend two weeks on a college campus, where they are exposed to lawyers and legal issues. The goal is to stimulate an interest in our profession. Other bar groups are already taking a page from the National Bar Association’s book. The Gate City Bar Association of Atlanta launched the Justice Robert Benham Law Camp at Georgia State University this past June. Modeled after the Crump Law Camp, it will annually introduce 20 diverse high school students to career opportunities in the law. • Get involved with a great program such as Street Law, which provides opportunities for lawyers to go into public schools (in Washington and elsewhere) and teach students about American law and democracy using Street Law’s curriculum. Similarly, the King County, Wash., Bar Foundation’s Future of the Law Institute encourages diverse high school students to pursue careers in law through experiential programs, mentoring, scholarships, and internships. • Inquire about opportunities to volunteer at youth programs that already receive financial support from your law firm, corporation, or other legal employer. Your employer may also be involved in one of the local “adopt a school” programs, where your energy and participation would surely be welcomed. • If all else fails, donate your money (and lots of it!) to worthwhile organizations with track records of helping disadvantaged students for whom the effects of “racial imbalance” translate into a lack of a quality education. Although Brown may have been shaken by the Roberts Court, its structure still stands, offering the promise of a more integrated and equal society. We cannot all fight civil rights battles or help craft the next set of solutions for school boards. But those of us who believe in the importance of fostering a diverse educational environment can and must work to achieve Brown‘s promise and build a legacy that will withstand the pendulum of judicial ideology.
Veta T. Richardson is an attorney who serves as executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing diversity in the legal profession. The views she expresses here are her own, not official positions of the organization.

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