Democrats frequently brag about their party's diversity and support for "equality" measures. They also blast the Republican Party as a relic of the past and as a racist, sexist, and homophobic organization that only attracts white, male, and older voters.
After the "historic" battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic Party has given the country its first black president. Around 90% of blacks vote for Democratic candidates, and this trend started long before Obama's candidacy. Majorities of Latinos, Asian Americans, women, and younger voters also prefer Democrats. And liberal political scientists hope that Obama's election victory means that white elites, forward-thinking younger voters and traditionally Democratic-leaning persons of color have now formed a liberal "Great Society Coalition" that will reverse a generation of Democratic losses in presidential politics.
On many issues, the Democratic Party provides more support for the interests of vulnerable communities and progressive social movements. But Democrats perform miserably in other areas, and these failures undermine the rhetoric concerning its diversity and liberalism. Educational inequality is perhaps the greatest failure of contemporary liberal governance.
Separate and Unequal Schools: Blue States Outperform Dixie
Many of the nation's public schools are separate and unequal. Typically, the country's school populations are racially homogeneous, and vast differences in funding exist across jurisdictions. On average, schools with relatively poorer student populations receive less public funding. Also, schools with higher concentrations of students of color tend to have poorer student bodies. Together, these two realities produce school systems in which the average student of color attends racially isolated and poorly funded schools, while white students attend racially isolated, yet better funded schools.
Educational statistics repeatedly confirm that Democratic (or "blue states") are among the very worst offenders with respect to racial isolation and funding inequity. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly at Harvard University) and the Federal Education Budget Project of the New America Foundation conduct research and compile data related to education policy. Reports prepared by these two institutions reveal that "liberal" blue states have worse records than Dixie with respect to educational equality.
The Civil Rights Project is a leading national authority on race-related education research. A 2006 publication released by the Civil Rights Project analyzes the rate of racial segregation in public schools for each state. The report presents data regarding several categories of segregation (e.g., black, Latino, Asian-American) and for varying degrees of isolation (e.g., majority-minority, 90-100% minority). Public schools in liberal Democratic states consistently rank among the most racially isolated in the nation.
Blacks and Latinos Most Segregated in Democratic Jurisdictions
According to the Civil Rights Project, the 10 states with the lowest percentages of black students attending schools with white students are: New York, Illinois, Michigan, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin. In terms of black students attending highly segregated schools (90-100% minority students), the list is almost identical: New York, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.
With respect to Latino students' exposure to white students, the 10 most segregated systems are located in: New York, California, Texas, New Mexico, New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island, Arizona, Florida, and Maryland. The states with the highest percentages of Latino students attending highly segregated schools (90-100% minority) are: New York, Texas, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Arizona, Rhode Island, Florida, New Mexico, and Maryland.
These rates of racial isolation are not inevitable. Nevada, for example, has a large population of black and Latino students in its public schools, but it has one of the highest rates of integration for these two demographics. The Civil Rights Project attributes this to a longstanding, but now-expired, desegregation decree. Since the lifting of the desegregation order, however, Nevada has experienced an increase in racial isolation for black and Latino students.
California Consistently Bad
In 1979, California voters amended the state constitution to prohibit state courts from ordering busing or student reassignment unless a federal court would do so under the same circumstances. The amendment effectively toughened the legal standard for remedying racial isolation in the state's public school because at the time, California law, unlike federal law, prohibited both intentional and de facto racial segregation in public schools.
The movement to pass Proposition 1 began as a state judge contemplated issuing a busing order to cure segregation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The amendment made the proposed remedy illegal under state law.
Today, California has one of the most racially segregated school systems in the country. White students in the Southeast, however, are more likely than students in any other region of the country to attend public school in a multiracial environment, although resegregation in the Southeast has grown more rapidly than in any other region in the last decade.
In the 1978 case Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District, the Supreme Court held that funding inequity across school districts does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Funding inequity results because in most states, property taxes finance school expenditures. Wealthier districts with higher property values can generate greater tax revenue and allocate substantially more money for their education budgets. Although poor whites suffer from this problem as well, persons of color more often live in "concentrated poverty" neighborhoods than poor whites. Accordingly, funding inequality, though problematic across racial groups, has a distinct racial effect.
The Federal Education Budget Project of the New America Foundation has compiled data on funding inequity within each state. This research reveals that, in addition to having the most racially segregated school systems, the blue states have the highest levels of school funding disparities in the nation.
According to Federal Education Budget Project report, the "South is the most equitable region" with respect to school funding. Specifically, the 10 states with the most evenly funded school districts are: Hawaii, West Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Washington, Delaware, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. By contrast, the most inequitable states (from bad to worst) are: Idaho, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Wyoming, Missouri, Massachusetts, Virginia, Montana and Illinois.
Illinois and New York: Terrible Records, Despite Obama and Clinton
Examining funding and racial composition data together reveals that public schools in Illinois and New York rank among the most racially isolated and unevenly financed in the entire nation. These states also rank among the bluest states in the nation.
Illinois has one of the best records of electing blacks (and Democrats generally) to public office, and it is the home of the nation's first black president and the Great Emancipator. Illinois sits in the cradle of change. Yet, the state's record of "diversity" has not lead to the systematic implementation of egalitarian education policy. New York, a bastion for liberal Democrats and the home state of Hillary Clinton, has a terrible record of performance on these issues as well.
No Bragging Rights
As a veteran professor of Constitutional Law and Race Relations, my exposure to data confirming the persistence of inequality -- even in states governed by Democrats -- makes me more guarded than many of my colleagues concerning the implications of Obama's election victory and the Democratic sweep of Congress. Although having a black president provides an enormous amount of positive symbolism, this fact alone will not lead inevitably to policies that address entrenched patterns of inequality.
When progressives condemned Southern whites as racists because they supported Clinton over Obama, they conveniently ignored the vast patterns of inequality in their own communities. Although Democrats have legitimately criticized the GOP for referring to Obama as a "magic Negro," pervasive educational inequality harms black children much more than the Republican's satire. And while contemporary civil rights activists flexed their muscles to rid the nation's airwaves of Don Imus, they have not engaged in equally organized and passionate advocacy to challenge educational inequality.
Supporting symbolic change means little unless it leads to the actual transformation of policy. Embracing policy transformation does little, unless the new policies seek to undo entrenched patterns of inequality, rather than simply reciting (again) that discrimination is wrong. Until the Democrats begin to show progress on these issues in jurisdictions where they have consistently exercised dominance, I will remain guarded concerning the significance of their recent success in national politics.
By exploring these issues, I seek to push Democrats beyond a simplistic narrative that portrays liberals as just and conservatives as unjust. Ultimately, I hope to persuade liberals (and anyone else who listens) to embrace a concept of "diversity" that extends beyond mere window-dressing and to imagine and begin creating a society where access to equal educational opportunity does not depend upon one's race or class. Before they can meaningfully reform the image of the United States in foreign affairs, Democrats need to challenge the invidious distribution of important social resources in their own communities.