“Asian Americans Value Racially Diverse Public Schools”


July 2, 2007, San Francisco Chronicle

By Khin Mai Aung and Christina Wong

When the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on Seattle’s and Louisville’s school integration cases came down, our offices received a flurry of calls inquiring how the rulings impact Asian Pacific Americans. Without a doubt, the court should have found these integration plans to be constitutional and legal efforts to diversify classrooms. In that regard, these decisions were dead wrong.

However, it should be noted that the court did not prohibit all consideration of race in school assignment plans. Justice Anthony Kennedy clearly states that “A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district, in its discretion and expertise, may choose to pursue… . Race may be one component of student diversity, but other demographic factors … should also be considered.”

One of the court’s primary criticisms of the Seattle and Louisville plans was their lumping of various races into two categories — black versus non-black in Louisville, and white versus non-white in Seattle. Both plans determined whether schools were integrated using only two categories. School districts across the country should adjust their school assignment plans to consider the diversity interests of many ethnic and racial communities, including those of Asian Pacific Americans, albeit in the more limited manner prescribed by the court.

Some would argue that race-conscious school assignment plans harm Asian Pacific Americans, but this is false. Asian-American students, like all others, benefit from diverse learning environments. The court’s decisions leave room for school districts to address the very concerns described in our amicus brief in these cases, where we show that Asian-American parents greatly value racially integrated schools. They know integrated schools will prepare their children to succeed in a diverse society. Further, immigrant Asian Pacific American students feel racial integration decreases harassment in the long run by fostering cross-racial dialogue and friendship. Finally, racial segregation impedes the social and educational development of students, including in particular those who are linguistically isolated.

These decisions create both a challenge and an opportunity for school districts seeking diverse, integrated classrooms. Desegregation law — and many integration plans still in effect — were fashioned in an earlier era, when “race” meant black or white. This is no longer true, and school districts can still adjust their plans to reflect today’s reality. For example, in San Francisco, about half of all students are Asian Pacific American, while 22.4 percent are Latino, 13 percent are African American and 9.3 percent are white.

How will these court decisions impact such school districts? San Francisco’s experience may point to one viable solution. In many of San Francisco’s schools, racial isolation has dramatically increased without race considerations in student assignment plans. Its school assignment process has failed to provide children with a racially diverse learning environment and, as a result, access to a quality education.

Now, because the Supreme Court has continued to hold racial diversity as a compelling government interest, school districts such as San Francisco can hope to design a process that ensures racial integration. San Francisco already uses race-neutral factors such as extreme poverty, socioeconomic status, home language, academic rank of the school and student academic achievement. San Francisco should explore ways to add race to these factors within the confines of the court’s decision.

While it is unfortunate that these decisions further constrain school districts’ ability to consider race in school integration plans, they also present a valuable opportunity to fine-tune these plans to better reflect our diverse communities. These decisions create an opening to refashion school assignment plans to include a broader array of diversity factors — uch as specific races and other demographic characteristics. This aspect of the rulings could ultimately benefit Asian Pacific Americans, who previously were not considered a separate category in many integration plans, including those in Louisville and Seattle.

We hope this happens. Such a result would not only benefit Asian Pacific American students and parents, it would benefit all public school students and their communities, regardless of race.

Khin Mai Aung is a staff attorney with the national civil rights organization the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and co-counsel to 16 amici groups in the Louisville and Seattle cases.

Christina Wong is director of community initiatives at CAA/Chinese for Affirmative Action, a community-based civil rights organization in San Francisco founded in 1969. CAA is an amici in these cases.

This article appeared in Open Forum on page B-7 of the San Francisco Chronicle.