Is the Race Question Suited for Lawsuits?
Quite timely given that today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday (he would have been 79 today!), we have a race case to discuss today.
In the Post, another racial quota lawsuit against NY Schools. This time, a South Asian couple from Brooklyn has initiated a class action lawsuit based on an antiquated quota system from a 1974 desegregation order. The deseg order required a 6:4 ratio of white to minority students in the schools. Although the couple's daughter, Nikita, scored 2 points higher on her music test than she would have needed to if she were white, she was rejected from the school's gifted program.
Relying on the Seattle/Kentucky school integration Supreme Court ruling, the Rau family is suing the Chancellor and Department of Education in federal court. Mr. Rau, suing on behalf of his daughter and other minority students left out because of the quotas, quoted words from Dr. King's famous I Have a Dream Speech as he explained why he filed the class action lawsuit:
"Children should be judged on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin," said Dr. Anjan Rau, the girl's dad, about the quotas at Mark Twain School in Coney Island.
First, the easy stuff: this lawsuit is again an example of the civil justice system providing a forum for individuals to bring their grievances forward, seeking both individual redress and, often, a solution that will affect other individuals, or even the national community, for the better. Having sought alternative resolutions, and having found none, the Rau family turned to the civil justice system to settle what they feel (and in my opinion, rightly so) is a serious injustice. They'll have the opportunity to state their case, their case will be resolved, and this will inform the way the law operates for students.
But now for the more difficult stuff--the question of whether this problem can be fixed through our courts? Do our civil courts even allow us to articulate the problem in a way that is helpful and productive? We've discussed this a little bit, here and here, but could benefit from more dialogue. (Comment away!)
No doubt that on a very individual basis, yes, the problem of these individual students being excluded from certain opportunities based upon their race will be addressed, and one hopes also solved, through the civil justice system. But in terms of shifting the way we, through our laws and norms, understand race, privilege, and power in this country? I'm not so sure. And I suppose this is the nagging feeling that plagues both plaintiffs and civil rights lawyers grappling with these issues in the courts. It's why racial-justice oriented litigation strategists wrestle with the question of bringing suit in the first place.
Sigh. The race cases. Du Bois said the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. Well, we all know that a problem doesn't go away by just covering it up or sweepting it under the rug. So unfortunately, we still have the same problem on our hands, in all of its new, complicated, frustrating, and interesting manifestations.
That's my 1.5 cents, but I really hope to hear from folks in the comments thread. While the civil justice system is a vehicle for racial justice in terms of enforcing already-established laws and norms, in terms of changing the laws and shifting the way we think about race, power, and privilege, it may only serve as a reminder that we have some serious digging, and 'splaining to do as a society.
Let's keep talking about this. Happy Birthday to MLK, a true drum major for justice.