For all its good intentions, the NAACP appears to be living in another era. It is fighting a legal battle to desegregate Los Angeles schools that it won in court and then lost at the polls when voters rejected mandatory busing. Now the U.S. Supreme Court says the NAACP can move its battle up to the federal courts. But the city school population over which the earlier battle was fought has changed so dramatically that even another victory may have little practical effect.
The NAACP has many strong points going for it. Los Angeles schools were segregated by school board decisions years ago. A state court ruled that that was so. Many schools are still segregated because of housing patterns. One could even argue, as we did at the time of the Proposition 1 initiative, against mandatory busing, that the vote itself might constitute a discriminatory action. Many black citizens have long memories and have felt, with justification, that the city schools neglected their children. In short, Los Angeles would not come to the case with completely clean hands.
In addition, the goal the NAACP seeks--integrated education--is the best goal. Its achievement would tell minority parents their children were getting the same education as white children and it would teach people of different races how to discuss their problems and pool their strengths.
But one cannot turn one's back on reality. Los Angeles is not the same city it was when the current case was filed in 1963. It is not even the same city it was in 1978 when mandatory busing began or in 1981 when state courts upheld the initiative that said busing could be ordered only when a federal law had been violated. Today only 19% of the city school population is white. If the NAACP pursues this case and wins, yes, it wins a moral victory. But who is left to integrate?
Latinos make up the largest single population group in Los Angeles schools today. Many Latino parents have already resisted transporting their children out of their neighborhoods to reduce overcrowding. Their goals may be at direct odds with those of the NAACP. A decision to move forward with the desegregation case may force postponement of moves the school board is now considering to reduce the massive overcrowding in areas of East Los Angeles and along the Wilshire Corridor where Latino and Asian immigrants have settled.
Los Angeles NAACP president Raymond Johnson Jr. says that school boards over the years have "shown a sense of meanness toward black students that we just want stopped." NAACP attorney Joseph Duff says his organization understands the demographic realities but refuses to gauge the civil rights of black students by the number of white students. He thinks that there are sufficient whites to engage in more meaningful integration than the city has attempted and he calls the existing desegregation plan "window dressing" that leaves vast numbers of black students in segregated schools. The NAACP case will also focus on what it considers specific acts of "containment" in the past, such as expansion of black schools and building of new ones in black neighborhoods rather than transfer of students to under-utilized white schools.
A victory by the NAACP could turn up the heat on Los Angeles school officials and state financial planners to improve educational opportunities for minorities. There might be more magnet schools as well as more money to buy textbooks and hire teachers to reduce class sizes. And there would be the inner satisfaction of proving that rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments had been violated. But Los Angeles is already trying to improve its school system. Can't the city be allowed to look beyond its past and prepare for its future?
No one pretends that the education of all black students, or all Latinos, or all whites is all it should be in the Los Angeles schools today. Why not spend the time and money this lawsuit will absorb on making the goal of quality education the real victory? Then all benefit.