Recent court decisions have placed institutional racial diversity in danger, Gary Orfield, the director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, said Friday.
Orfield, also co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, spoke at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea and addressed the trend toward re-segregation in schools. He said current Republican-dominated courts are stunting progress that has been occurring over the past several decades.
“The South’s success in ending apartheid and becoming more integrated is very much in jeopardy,” Orfield said. “There is a historic reversal going on. We’re finding that what is happening now is what happened at the end of the first Reconstruction when leaders abandoned efforts to create real integrated institutions because it was unworkable.”
Within the next year, the United States Supreme Court may choose to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action, and, Orfield said, there is a strong possibility that it will be outlawed. Texas federal courts ended affirmative action six years ago and California voters have banned it as well.
“The majority of justices have been actively hostile toward civil rights since the appointment of Clarence Thomas,” Orfield said. “The case will have to be argued in front of a court with only two Democratic appointees in the last 30 years.”
Orfield has testified in courts around the country and some of his suggestions have been adopted into policy. He and his colleagues have attempted through their research to debunk the idea that diversity has no educational value. The changing demographics of society make exposure to all groups of people imperative.
“There are huge educational benefits that are key to the operation of a society that is going to be profoundly diverse,” Orfield said. “We’re going to be going through a very dramatic change. No society has gone through such a change smoothly, but there is almost no intelligent thought going on about the problem in the present political system.”
Without institutional impetus, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain diversity, Orfield said. Almost no place has ever desegregated voluntarily, but each place that has been forced to do so has achieved stability within a matter of years. Orfield said it will be easier to persuade communities that have already experienced desegregation to keep it, but convincing suburbs that they need this experience will be more difficult.
Cynthia Farrar, the Office of New Haven and State Affairs’ director of Urban Academic Initiatives, brought Orfield to speak to an urban studies seminar earlier on Friday and introduced him at the tea.
“People feel it’s a forgotten topic, and it’s important for undergraduates to recognize that some of the leading scholars in the field are still concerned about it,” Farrar said. “He’s one of the leading people in the country in this field, not only writing scholarship but also making a difference on the ground.”
Franklin Miles ’04 attended the tea and said that he could relate to what Orfield was saying because his community of Alexandria, Va., was one of the last places to desegregate.
“The conservative bent right now is very problematic for diversity,” Miles said. “As important as diversity is, we’re gradually becoming more of a segregated society.”