As America continues a socially regressive trajectory under Trump and the GOP, it should come as no surprise that school busing and desegregation have now become controversial issues once again. Since the early 2000s and especially during Obama’s presidency, Republicans have repeatedly used “post-racial” and “colorblind” arguments for undermining gains made during the civil rights era. And right on cue, Kentucky’s state legislature introduced a bill to end a revolutionary and incredibly popular school desegregation policy in Jefferson County, the largest county in the state, where Louisville is located.
Since 1975, Jefferson County Public Schools have had a school desegregation policy that uses busing to create a diverse student body amongst the county’s 155 schools. However, Kentucky’s newly Republican-controlled legislature appears intent on dismantling this policy, despite the will of Jefferson County residents, via House Bill 151, which would require students to be enrolled in the school nearest to their home. The residents of Jefferson County believe that this bill would bring back school segregation and destroy the social progress the county has made over the last 40 years.
“This bill would have very unfortunate consequences for low-income and minority children,” Danyelle Solomon, the director of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress that specializes in racial equity and demographic change, told me. “We do our students a disservice if we think that housing patterns and schools aren’t linked together. If this bill were to pass there would actually be segregated schools.”
As of 2011, 89 percent of Jefferson County residents supported the school system’s desegregation policies (PDF), which is a far cry from the 98 percent of residents who opposed its implementation in 1975. It took an order by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1974, 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education, to force the county to desegregate the school system. White residents and the Ku Klux Klan vehemently protested the decision, and an estimated 10,000 people ran “out of control,” setting fires and throwing rocks during anti-busing protests.
For the next three years, the county was placed under court-ordered supervision to ensure compliance with desegregation requirements, yet despite supervision being lifted in 1978, the county has voluntarily committed to continuing its desegregation and school busing policies. In 40 years, an entire community’s perspective on diversity and schooling has completely reversed, yet still this policy remains under attack.
House Bill 151 has not been the only recent challenge to the busing and districting policies of JCPS. An inordinate amount of challenges have sprung up since 2000, when the U.S. District Court ruled that racial quotas could not be the primary determinant for school diversity. The court argued that the county had overcome the racial conflicts that had historically blighted the community, and therefore the consideration of race had become unnecessary and potentially divisive.
In response, JCPS remained committed to its diversity policy, and it decided to restructure its metric to incorporate household income, education level, location, and more in addition to race. Currently, families can select the school they would prefer their child to attend, including magnet schools, and students are assigned to schools based on JCPS’s metric and the wishes of the family. There is no guarantee that you will be assigned to your preferred school, and this stipulation, in addition to factoring in race, has brought about consistent legal challenges.
In 2006, Crystal Meredith, the parent of a JCPS student, sued the school district for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by requiring her child to attend a school other than the one nearest to their home. The District Court ruled in favor of JCPS, citing that the school had a compelling interest for maintaining racial diversity, and the U.S. Circuit Court upheld the ruling. However, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court and in Meredith v. JCPS the Court controversially ruled in favor of Meredith in a 5-4 decision. Chief Justice John Roberts famously wrote in the majority opinion that, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”
Following this controversial decision JCPS has needed to further retool its desegregation metrics and has been confronted with even more legal challenges. In 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld JCPS’s ability to decide where to assign students.
However, House Bill 151 could undo this ruling. State Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher (R), who is a sponsor of the bill and represents part of Jefferson County, says that the bill aims to bring common sense to an unfair system, and warns, “We have to look at what we’re giving up for desegregation.”
Bratcher and the supporters of this bill view desegregation as an option so long as it does not inconvenience residents in any way. He shows a complete disregard for the majority of Jefferson County residents who have learned first-hand about the social benefits of diversity. The Republican controlled state legislature sees nothing wrong with disregarding the will of the people.
Bratcher’s dangerous ideological myopia typifies today’s Republican agenda, which displays a quasi-racist underbelly. The three Steves—King, Bannon, and Miller—are shining examples of this influential underbelly. Conservatives refuse to crackdown on the increase in white nationalism and terror by white supremacists, but they don’t hesitate to undermine structures that promote and sustain diversity. Additionally, concerning JCPS, and other legal challenges, they have the gall to employ “post-racial” arguments for invoking the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to African Americans, and racial equity policies from the civil rights era as examples of denying rights to white Americans. They are using our established tools for social progress as implements for collective regression.
JCPS should be a shining example for the entire nation about the transformative benefits of promoting diversity in the classroom and beyond. In 40 years, a violent hotbed of racial confrontations has evolved into a community that is desperately working to sustain its cherished diversity. Today’s conservative movement seeks to swiftly destroy this progress.