Still Separate, Still Unequal

From In These Times:

How our reverence for diversity and multiculturalism helps perpetuate inequality

By John M. Davis
March 2, 2011

We like to think of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision as a watershed that marked the beginning of an America characterized by greater equality and individual rights. So profound were the changes it wrought, we tell ourselves, that blacks were just one of many minorities that benefited. What began as a demand for greater African-American equality enlarged to include the demands of various ethnic groups and “unprotected” classes. We think that what followed the Warren Court’s decision gave meaning to claims that we are a multicultural, pluralist and inclusive society.

The truth of the matter is very different. Ours is, indeed, an admirably pluralistic society. It is also increasingly unequal and shockingly segregated. Our first African-American president, Barack Obama, governs a country in which the richest 1 percent of people takes home almost 24 percent of the wealth—up from about 9 percent in 1976. The median household income of African-Americans is now 40 percent less than that of white households. The nonpartisan Civil Rights Project of UCLA says U.S. schools are more segregated today than they have been in four decades.

What began as a radical egalitarian impulse 56 years ago aiming to remake our educational and racial landscape has ended in the de facto reinstatement of “separate but equal” and an end to most integration efforts. (Recent evidence: In January, the school board governing Raleigh, N.C., eliminated its program of integrating schools based on socioeconomic status.) Yet virtually every institution of higher education takes as part of its mission or value statement a ­set of phrases that recognizes and promotes the diversity and equality of cultures.

How did we get here? How did separateness, which the Warren Court understood as the root cause of inequality in America, acquire such intellectual currency and legitimacy? Liberals and progressives are partly to blame. We fetishize multiculturism—celebrating increasing diversity in government, universities, corporate boardrooms and popular culture—while tacitly tolerating rampant inequality, poverty and informal segregation. Through our less-than-circumspect arguments for multiculturalism, we have engaged in a massive equivocation. The Warren Court would not recognize these arguments as anything but antithetical to its views about education and culture.

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