On June 30, 2002, the Rockford school-desegregation lawsuit came to an end.  After 13 years of busing; the closing of numerous neighborhood schools, one of which is now a mosque and Islamic school; the construction of several massive (and massively overpriced) magnet schools, including a Spanish-language-immersion school and an environmental-science academy; white and middle-class flight from the district; declining test scores for all students, but especially minorities; decreasing security for students and for teachers; several years of illegal taxation; and almost a third of a billion dollars in taxes extracted from a city of 150,000 souls, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that District 205 had fulfilled both the spirit and the letter of the lower federal court’s integration order (no easy feat, since the court kept changing the target).  Each school in the district came within one-tenth of one percent of meeting the court’s racial quotas; astoundingly, each classroom came within a few percentage points as well, making District 205 perhaps the most racially integrated school district (simply on the basis of numbers) in the history of the United States.

And on June 28, 2007, by a five-to-four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that most of what Rockford had endured had been unnecessary.  In fact, it had violated the Constitution of the United States.

Of course, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al. did not directly involve District 205 (though Justice Stephen Breyer cited the Rockford case in his dissent), but the issue at stake was the same: “discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion for the majority, which included Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy (though Kennedy only concurred in part and in the judgment).  The second district (the et al.) involved in the case, that of Jefferson County, Kentucky, had emerged from a desegregation order in 2000 and promptly did what Rockford would do two years later: voluntarily adopt a race-based assignment plan.  The Seattle case was even more perverse than the Rockford one, since the Seattle district “has never . . . been subject to court-ordered desegregation” but “voluntarily adopted student assignment plans that rely on race to determine which schools certain children may attend.”  Any such plan, the majority declared, needs to be “narrowly tailored,” and both districts failed on that account.

Proponents of neighborhood schools and opponents of busing (overlapping but not identical groups) might think twice before rejoicing, however.  While the decision in Parents Involved might well prevent most of what happened in Rockford from happening somewhere else (or from happening here in Rockford again, a few years down the line), none of the justices on either side questioned the idea that government has “a compelling interest in maintaining racially diverse schools.”  Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion, came the closest to raising the question, declaring that, “as a general rule, all race-based government decisionmaking—regardless of context—is unconstitutional.”  But he was careful to make it clear that the “decisionmaking” in question involved the means used, not the goal itself.  Even though Justice Thomas handily demolished the “tenuous relationship between forced racial mixing and improved educational results for black children” and declared that the Constitution is “color-blind,” he continued to hold open the possibility that government might have a compelling interest in imposing racial diversity—in, say, areas where de jure segregation previously occurred.

And that brings us to the crux of the issue: What could that compelling interest possibly be?  And if there is none, why does the majority on the Court continue to pretend that there might be one?

In a community where de jure segregation did occur, and, in the process, black children or other minorities were deprived of publicly funded educational opportunities that white children enjoyed, the solution is simple, and always has been: End the segregation, and provide the same educational opportunities to all children.  Ending segregation, however, is not the same as forcing integration.  Here in Rockford, a true neighborhood-school system would mean that some schools would be 95-plus percent white, while others would be 90-plus percent black and Hispanic.  Provided with similar facilities, materials, and, most importantly, teachers, students in each school would enjoy similar educational opportunities.  Sitting next to a classmate with darker or lighter skin should have no real bearing on the quality of one’s education.

Here in Rockford, opponents of the desegregation suit often argued that those who favored busing were implying that black and Hispanic children could not learn unless they were around white children.  It was a rhetorically useful tactic, not because the pro-busing crowd really believed that, but because they could not come right out and say what they really believed: that the only way that whites can be trusted to provide equal educational opportunities to minorities is to ensure that white students get the same education as blacks and Hispanics.  Only then, the thinking goes, will whites be concerned with the proper education of differently colored people.

So the government’s compelling interest in imposing racial diversity in public schools comes down to this: You can’t trust white people.  Sadly, Justice Thomas, despite pulling back at the last moment, is the only one of the justices who even seems to understand why that might be wrong.  Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he received his (by all accounts, exceptional) primary and secondary education in all-black schools at the hands of white nuns.

Imagine what he might have accomplished if only he had attended a racially diverse public school.