A new racial era for San Francisco schools

A court settlement ending the city's 16-year experiment in desegregation marks acceptance of California's new racial realities.

Published February 18, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Anyone trying to understand the ever-changing dynamics of race relations in California needed to look no further than a San Francisco courtroom Wednesday, where one of the nation's most ambitious, successful but ultimately disappointing experiments in school desegregation was scheduled to come to a dramatic end.

On one side, defending the embattled plan, was its architect, the NAACP, which had sued the San Francisco Unified School District on behalf of black students in 1983 and won a consent decree requiring a massive overhaul of the city's worst schools and a mandate that henceforth, no single racial group could make up more than 45 percent of any one school. On the other side were Chinese parents, several of them immigrants, who had sued the school district in 1994 after their children were turned away from popular public schools because they'd reached their "cap" on Chinese students. They had argued that such limits were a form of race discrimination.

On the bench sat William Orrick, a white judge from an old San Francisco family -- comparisons with Boston busing sponsor Judge Arthur Garrity were irresistible -- who had presided over the consent decree since its inception, regularly protecting it from legal challenges until finally allowing this one. Defending the agreement was a phalanx of lawyers and administrators from the school district, on behalf of Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, a combative New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who had struggled energetically to protect a consent decree that was on a collision course with demography. Adopted when blacks and whites were San Francisco's two largest racial groups, for the last five years it has governed a district that was mainly Asian and Latino. But the decree brought $37 million in desegregation dollars into a fiscally strapped urban district, and Rojas had tried hard to keep it intact.

Until Tuesday, anyway, when lawyers for the Chinese plaintiffs revealed the district had agreed to a historic settlement that removed race as a criteria for admission to San Francisco schools. Wednesday the judge was supposed to make it official and announce the adoption of a new "race-neutral" enrollment plan that would mark the end of the district's two-decade experiment with desegregation.

I sat in the back of the courtroom, a white parent with an almost eccentric commitment to two goals: a good public education for my middle-class daughter and improved educational options for low-income children, especially African-Americans, who despite the consent decree still have the lowest achievement in the district. I had written about the consent decree and, most important, I had wrangled with it, jumping its many hurdles -- a grueling school search, a lottery and finally an appeals process, all governed by race -- to get my Irish-Jewish daughter into one of the best public schools in San Francisco, whose bustling multiethnic schoolyard looks like a postcard from the integrated future we all imagined in the 1960s. Having survived the school search with my social values and my daughter's educational future intact, I'd had the luxury of becoming a fan, if a reluctant and critical one, of the consent decree and the integration magic it worked on San Francisco schools, widely judged among the most racially mixed in the country. I had come to the courtroom to watch the controversial decree's demise. And although I understood that parents whose kids didn't get into that elite school, who weren't as fortunate or politically savvy as I, might not feel the same way, I was surprisingly saddened to see it go.

But the mood in the courtroom was anything but sad. It was, in fact, quietly jubilant. The Chinese parents who'd fought the decree for so long were barely able to contain their glee. Chinese was the dominant language in the back benches, and greetings of "Gung Hay Fat Choy" -- coincidentally, the agreement had been reached on the day the city celebrates Chinese New Year -- rang out over the whispers of lawyers. As we waited for Orrick to announce the settlement, I realized I was in the midst of a civil rights celebration I didn't feel a part of. We had moved into a new era of race relations, and I had been left behind.

The consent decree represented the best and worst of 1960s-style liberal social engineering. On the positive side, it represented an almost naive optimism in the capacity of integration to solve the problems of black children (Latinos were later added to the decree's intended beneficiaries, when their school achievement proved as poor as African-Americans') and the capacity of government to cajole and/or impose that integration on anxious, tax-paying parents of every race. A system of thriving alternative schools like the one my daughter attends was established to coax families into voluntary integration. And in neighborhoods where school integration didn't occur naturally, students were bused to achieve it.

Its downside was its reliance on rigid, court-monitored racial formulas that resisted reform, even as the city's demography changed dramatically. There was always an Orwellian feel about the consent decree. It was monitored by an outside "Committee of Experts" and a "Special Master." The school district's lead attorney, Aubrey McCutcheon, lived in Michigan and almost never spoke to the press. The agreement was presided over by Judge Orrick, who likewise never talked to the media. Although he was observing rules of judicial propriety, Orrick's distance seemed like elitism, and that most democratic of institutions, public education, in San Francisco came to seem out of reach of democracy. School boards came and school boards went, it seemed, but the consent decree was with us forever.

From the beginning, Chinese parents had taken the lead in opposing the agreement; white parents who opposed it tended to leave the city. To fight this set-up designed to help black children, they boldly borrowed from the civil rights movement, setting up what they called private "freedom schools" -- it was brazen, really -- to protest the new ethnic limits in the district. As the Chinese population grew, so did the number of complaints. They reached fever pitch at San Francisco's prestigious Lowell High School, where students are admitted on the basis of grades and test scores. Over time, rising Chinese demand for precious seats at Lowell forced the district to increase the scores they needed to enter the high school, in order to keep within the consent decree's racial caps. By 1993, Chinese students required much higher scores than any other racial group -- including white, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian ethnic groups, not just blacks and Latinos. That inequity led to the lawsuit settled this week.

Even after the district moved away from differential scores and began to diversify Lowell by giving students special consideration if they came from poor families, lived in public housing, had parents without much education or took part in community and extracurricular activities, Chinese parents continued to complain. Adding to their ire was the fact that Chinese kids were reaching racial caps at almost every popular San Francisco public high school, and some elementary schools as well. "We make up 28 percent of the district, but in high school we're 42 percent of the district, because our kids don't drop out as much as other groups," complained Roland Quan, a Chinese-American parent activist who supported the lawsuit against the district. "Our kids are being penalized for achieving."

But the NAACP continued to resist lifting the racial caps. In 1993, the late Lulann McGriff, the local NAACP leader considered the mother of the consent decree, told me: "The Chinese are the largest group at most of the best schools in the city.
They can't have it all. If anything, I'd say lower the caps, don't raise
them -- otherwise we're headed back to segregated schools, only all Chinese
instead of all white."

Ultimately, the biggest failing of the consent decree was its inability to substantially improve the achievement of the black and Latino students it was designed to help. Although black achievement rose at the first five schools overhauled by the decree in the mid-1980s, since then there's been little significant progress at low-achieving schools. "San Francisco has actually done a better job than most cities in linking desegregation to school achievement," says Harvard University education professor Gary Orfield, who has monitored the consent decree. "The district has made genuine progress for all groups, but black achievement still lags behind." Indeed, dropout rates are still high, and test scores, while improving, are still low. And while most black parents and activists support the desegregation agreement, and especially the money it provided for special programs, a few have begun to critique the consent decree, too. "Black kids have been sold out," says Naomi Grey, a longtime community activist who supports ending the consent decree. "Busing hasn't helped our kids. They still have the lowest achievement in the district. How can anybody explain that?" The dissatisfaction of black parents has been one factor leading city after city to abandon their desegregation agreements in recent years. Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., Denver, Oklahoma City,
Norfolk, Va., Wilmington, Del., Nashville and Cleveland have all given up on desegregation agreements.

But when Judge Orrick took his seat in his crowded District courtroom Wednesday and read from his proposed order, approving the settlement of the Chinese parents' lawsuit against the school district, exactly what had changed was unclear. The consent decree wasn't over, Orrick announced; it would continue in effect until the end of 2002. The district continued to have authority to devise admissions criteria, and it could still promote racial and ethnic diversity in the schools, if it chose, by considering a variety of factors in admissions. Orrick's order contained two clear changes: The district could no longer use race or ethnicity as the "primary or predominant" consideration in determining enrollment criteria. And parents would be free to decline to state their race or ethnicity at the time of enrollment, further ensuring that race could not become key in admissions criteria.

It was left to the warring parties to explain how the new system will work. When they began talking it became clear how much still separates them -- and how far the city is from a system of school admissions that will satisfy everyone. The lawyers on the two sides mostly agreed. "No one will be told they can't attend a school because there are too many Chinese," announced Daniel Girard, lead attorney for the Chinese parents. But he acknowledged the district can use a wide range of considerations -- geography, socioeconomic status, residence in housing projects -- to achieve racial diversity and avoid the "concentration" of any one group at any school. Attorneys for the NAACP and the school district declared the consent decree "alive and well" and insisted "race can still be a factor, just not the primary or dominant factor" in school admissions, in the words of NAACP attorney Peter Cohn.

But outside the press conference I spoke to the Chinese plaintiffs and their supporters and got a different view. It was clear that they weren't prepared to give back any of the racial territory they believed the settlement had won for them. When I asked how they would feel if the district found new ways to depress Chinese enrollment at Lowell, community activist Amy Chang, who had shepherded the suit from its earliest inception, insisted it could not. "They now have to prove that having a school with a 'concentration' of one race would 'adversely affect' their educational goals, and how could they do that?"

Chang suggested that one of the lawsuit's biggest coups was liberating parents from having to state their children's race when filling out enrollment forms. "The days of racial bean-counting are over," she declared. I asked if the parents thought they'd decline to state their race, and several nodded yes. "I feel uncomfortable answering questions about race now," said Jane Chen, the mother of one student denied entry to Lowell High. "I feel more and more I should just answer, 'Other.'"

Would it bother them, I asked the parents, if Lowell and other good San Francisco schools
became all Chinese, thanks to their lawsuit? Chang snapped: "If every student at Lowell was like Patrick Wong [one of the Chinese plaintiffs denied admission], it would be the finest school in the country."

Not surprisingly, NAACP lawyer Michael Harris took issue with the way Chang interpreted the settlement. "No school will become all-Chinese under this agreement," Harris said. "I can guarantee that." Harris noted that the agreement's stipulation that parents not be forced to state their child's race might be superseded, at some schools, by federal laws requiring schools to collect racial data to receive funding. "Our sense is that people in San Francisco want the district to continue to be integrated," Harris said.

Sitting in a chair nearby, Lulann McGriff's daughter, Minyon, shook her head pessimistically. "Time will tell. I think we're going to see a return to segregation, but time will tell."

It's too easy, and too self-congratulatory, to believe white and black San Franciscans are the sole guardians of the city's racial integration -- as though we share joint custody of this polyglot city's civic conscience. "I think you'll see that kids who need help will continue to get some help," says Roland Quan. "We'll consider socioeconomic status, geography, and we'll get diversity that way. We'll establish some floors, to make sure all groups have access to good schools, and do away with racial caps -- which were a ceiling. I think you'll see that Chinese-Americans are themselves a diverse group, and there are differences of opinion on this."

I did manage to see that, despite myself, crashing this Chinese civil rights celebration I wasn't a part of. I saw some of what my own preconceptions prepared me to see: Chang's defiance, and a widespread belief that the lingering problems of black students could be licked solely by old-fashioned Confucian hard work and discipline, without any role for government. "We have to make the people study harder, and make parents make their children study harder," Deborah Ng, a Chinese immigrant, said. "If they think they don't have to study, they'll just get into schools anyway. That's bad. I love America, I love all kinds of people, but I think it's very bad for younger people to say don't study."

But I also saw Chen, one of the plaintiffs, struggle with what her legal battle taught her about the nation's civil rights movement, which is still incomplete. "I have a lot of respect for the NWCP," she told me shyly, her immigrant-English mangling the name of the venerable civil rights group nonetheless. When I asked if she thought it was fair for the district to try to diversify the schools, even after her settlement, she seemed to accept some social engineering in the interest of integration. "I think we all have a responsibility to society. It's a constant struggle to work on racial harmony."

Then Chang interrupted her, but even she seemed to agree with Chen. "The district can still pursue a limited racial and ethnic diversity," she acknowledged. "But if in bad faith they try to subvert this agreement, that would be using race the wrong way. And we'll be watching."

By Joan Walsh

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