Prepare to be shocked. A public school district in Indiana has organized a series of field trips so third-graders can visit local colleges, but student eligibility for attendance is based on skin color. That’s right, over sixty years after the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v Board of Education – invalidating “separate but equal” school segregation, at least one school district still openly conducts segregated events.
There’s a slight twist. The Indiana field trips are open to black students, but students who are Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or white, may not attend. Fortunately, when parents of all races complained after the first field trip was held, the district “postponed” the remaining two. Attorneys for PLF have written a letter to the South Bend Community Schools Corporation asking officials there to permanently cancel all segregated and discriminatory events.
The Indiana school district’s classification and differential treatment of students according to their race for the purpose of attending racially segregated field trips is harmful to students and likely violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In the context of public schools, the Supreme Court defines segregation as the deliberate operation of a school system to carry out a governmental policy to separate students solely on the basis of race. Segregation deprives children of equal educational opportunities regardless of whether school facilities and other tangible factors are equal, because government classification and separation on grounds of race themselves denote inferiority. Indiana’s segregated field trips are discriminatory because they reinforce the notion that students of a certain race perform poorly in school, and send a signal to students that they are judged by the color of their skin, and not on their merit. The Supreme Court recognized in Rice v Cayetano that one of the principal reasons race is treated as a forbidden classification is that it demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities. Additionally, prohibiting other students from attending school events on the basis of race deprives those students of equal educational opportunities.
Segregated field trips violate the Constitution of the United States. The Equal Protection Clause mandates that, “[n]o state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that “any official action that treats a person differently on account of his race or ethnic origin is inherently suspect,” and subject to “strict scrutiny.” To justify its use of race, the Indiana school district could be forced in court demonstrate that its decision to classify students on the basis of race is a “narrowly tailored” means of furthering a “compelling” government interest. It’s unlikely the Indiana school district could make that showing.
Indiana school district officials are no doubt sincere in their desire to motivate students from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well in school and attend college. But the Constitution does not permit race-based government decisionmaking simply because a school district claims a remedial purpose and proceeds in good faith with arguably pure motives.
The point that school district officials must learn is that race-conscious action is not just unconstitutional, it is unnecessary. For instance, if it is valuable for poor performing students of one race to visit a college campus, then poor performing students of all races should receive that same opportunity, together. The school district could easily choose students to attend the field trips based on race-neutral criteria, such as grades, or socio-economic status.
If the District wants to raise the academic performance of its students, then remedial action should be geared towards better instructional methods for all students, rather than efforts targeting students from one racial group. If student motivation is a problem, the District should employ race-neutral measures that inspire all students, not just students of one race.