PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY
SCHOOLS, PETITIONER

v.

SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 et al.

 

Chief Justice Roberts announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III-A, and III-C, and an opinion with respect to Parts III-B and IV, in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito join.

The school districts in these cases voluntarily adopted student assignment plans that rely upon race to determine which public schools certain children may attend. The Seattle school district classifies children as white or nonwhite; the Jefferson County school district as black or "other." In Seattle, this racial classification is used to allocate slots in oversubscribed high schools. In Jefferson County, it is used to make certain elementary school assignments and to rule on transfer requests. In each case, the school district relies upon an individual student's race in assigning that student to a particular school, so that the racial balance at the school falls within a predetermined range based on the racial composition of the school district as a whole. Parents of students denied assignment to particular schools under these plans solely because of their race brought suit, contending that allocating children to different public schools on the basis of race violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. The Courts of Appeals below upheld the plans. We granted certiorari, and now reverse.

I

Both cases present the same underlying legal question--whether a public school that had not operated legally segregated schools or has been found to be unitary may choose to classify students by race and rely upon that classification in making school assignments. Although we examine the plans under the same legal framework, the specifics of the two plans, and the circumstances surrounding their adoption, are in some respects quite different.

...

Justice Thomas, concurring

Most of the dissent's criticisms of today's result can be traced to its rejection of the color-blind Constitution. See post, at 29. The dissent attempts to marginalize the notion of a color-blind Constitution by consigning it to me and Members of today's plurality.19 See ibid.; see also post, at 61. But I am quite comfortable in the company I keep. My view of the Constitution is Justice Harlan's view in Plessy: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." Plessy v. Ferguson,(1896) (dissenting opinion). And my view was the rallying cry for the lawyers who litigated Brown. See, e.g., Brief for Appellants in Brown v. Board of Education, O. T. 1953, Nos. 1, 2, and 4 p. 65 ("That the Constitution is color blind is our dedicated belief"); Brief for Appellants in Brown v. Board of Education, O. T. 1952, No. 1, p. 5 ("The Fourteenth Amendment precludes a state from imposing distinctions or classifications based upon race and color alone"); see also In Memoriam: Honorable Thurgood Marshall, Proceedings of the Bar and Officers of the Supreme Court of the United States, X (1993) (remarks of Judge Motley) ("Marshall had a 'Bible' to which he turned during his most depressed moments. The 'Bible' would be known in the legal community as the first Mr. Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 552 (1896). I do not know of any opinion which buoyed Marshall more in his pre-Brown days ...").

The dissent appears to pin its interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause to current societal practice and expectations, deference to local officials, likely practical consequences, and reliance on previous statements from this and other courts. Such a view was ascendant in this Court's jurisprudence for several decades. It first appeared in Plessy, where the Court asked whether a state law providing for segregated railway cars was "a reasonable regulation." 163 U. S., at 550. The Court deferred to local authorities in making its determination, noting that in inquiring into reasonableness "there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature." Ibid. The Court likewise paid heed to societal practices, local expectations, and practical consequences by looking to "the established usages, customs and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order." Ibid. Guided by these principles, the Court concluded: "[W]e cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment than the acts of Congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia." Id., at 550-551.

The segregationists in Brown embraced the arguments the Court endorsed in Plessy. Though Brown decisively rejected those arguments, today's dissent replicates them to a distressing extent. Thus, the dissent argues that "[e]ach plan embodies the results of local experience and community consultation." Post, at 47. Similarly, the segregationists made repeated appeals to societal practice and expectation. See, e.g., Brief for Appellees on Reargument in Briggs v. Elliott, O. T. 1953, No. 2, p. 76 ("[A] State has power to establish a school system which is capable of efficient administration, taking into account local problems and conditions").21 The dissent argues that "weight [must be given] to a local school board's knowledge, expertise, and concerns," post, at 48, and with equal vigor, the segregationists argued for deference to local authorities. See, e.g., Brief for Kansas on Reargument in Brown v. Board of Education, O. T. 1953, No. 1, p. 14 ("We advocate only a concept of constitutional law that permits determinations of state and local policy to be made on state and local levels. We defend only the validity of the statute that enables the Topeka Board of Education to determine its own course").22 The dissent argues that today's decision "threatens to substitute for present calm a disruptive round of race-related litigation," post, at 2, and claims that today's decision "risks serious harm to the law and for the Nation," post, at 65. The segregationists also relied upon the likely practical consequences of ending the state-imposed system of racial separation. See, e.g., Brief for Appellees on Reargument in Davis v. County School Board, O. T. 1953, No. 3, p. 37 ("Yet a holding that school segregation by race violates the Constitution will result in upheaval in all of those places not now subject to Federal judicial scrutiny. This Court has made many decisions of widespread effect; none would affect more people more directly in more fundamental interests and, in fact, cause more chaos in local government than a reversal of the decision in this case").23 And foreshadowing today's dissent, the segregationists most heavily relied upon judicial precedent. See, e.g., Brief for Appellees on Reargument in Briggs v. Elliott, O. T. 1953, No. 2, p. 59 ("[I]t would be difficult indeed to find a case so favored by precedent as is the case for South Carolina here").24

The similarities between the dissent's arguments and the segregationists' arguments do not stop there. Like the dissent, the segregationists repeatedly cautioned the Court to consider practicalities and not to embrace too theoretical a view of the Fourteenth Amendment.25 And just as the dissent argues that the need for these programs will lessen over time, the segregationists claimed that reliance on segregation was lessening and might eventually end.26

What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today. Whatever else the Court's rejection of the segregationists' arguments in Brown might have established, it certainly made clear that state and local governments cannot take from the Constitution a right to make decisions on the basis of race by adverse possession. The fact that state and local governments had been discriminating on the basis of race for a long time was irrelevant to the Brown Court. The fact that racial discrimination was preferable to the relevant communities was irrelevant to the Brown Court. And the fact that the state and local governments had relied on statements in this Court's opinions was irrelevant to the Brown Court. The same principles guide today's decision. None of the considerations trumpeted by the dissent is relevant to the constitutionality of the school boards' race-based plans because no contextual detail--or collection of contextual details, post, at 2-22--can "provide refuge from the principle that under our Constitution, the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race." Adarand, (Thomas, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).

In place of the color-blind Constitution, the dissent would permit measures to keep the races together and proscribe measures to keep the races apart.29 See post, at 28-34, 64-65. Although no such distinction is apparent in the Fourteenth Amendment, the dissent would constitutionalize today's faddish social theories that embrace that distinction. The Constitution is not that malleable. Even if current social theories favor classroom racial engineering as necessary to "solve the problems at hand," post, at 21, the Constitution enshrines principles independent of social theories. See Plessy, 163 U. S., at 559 (Harlan, J., dissenting) ("The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time ... . But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. ... Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens"). Indeed, if our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories.30 See, e.g., Dred Scott v. Sandford, 19 How. 393, 407 (1857) ("[T]hey [members of the "negro African race"] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"). Can we really be sure that the racial theories that motivated Dred Scott and Plessy are a relic of the past or that future theories will be nothing but beneficent and progressive? That is a gamble I am unwilling to take, and it is one the Constitution does not allow.

Justice Breyer, with whom Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginsburg join, dissenting.

The historical and factual context in which these cases arise is critical. In Brown, this Court held that the government's segregation of schoolchildren by race violates the Constitution's promise of equal protection. The Court emphasized that "education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments." 347 U. S., at 493. And it thereby set the Nation on a path toward pub-lic school integration.

     In dozens of subsequent cases, this Court told school districts previously segregated by law what they must do at a minimum to comply with Brown's constitutional holding. The measures required by those cases often included race-conscious practices, such as mandatory busing and race-based restrictions on voluntary transfers. See, e.g., Columbus Bd. of Ed. v. Penick, 443 U. S. 449, 455, n. 3 (1979); Davis v. Board of School Comm'rs of Mobile Cty., 402 U. S. 33, 37-38 (1971); Green v. School Bd. of New Kent Cty., 391 U. S. 430, 441-442 (1968).

Beyond those minimum requirements, the Court left much of the determination of how to achieve integration to the judgment of local communities. Thus, in respect to race-conscious desegregation measures that the Constitution permitted, but did not require (measures similar to those at issue here), this Court unanimously stated:

"School authorities are traditionally charged with broad power to formulate and implement educational policy and might well conclude, for example, that in order to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society each school should have a prescribed ratio of Negro to white students reflecting the proportion for the district as a whole. To do this as an educational policy is within the broad discretionary powers of school authorities." Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Ed., 402 U. S. 1, 16 (1971) (emphasis added).

As a result, different districts--some acting under court decree, some acting in order to avoid threatened lawsuits, some seeking to comply with federal administrative orders, some acting purely voluntarily, some acting after federal courts had dissolved earlier orders--adopted, modified, and experimented with hosts of different kinds of plans, including race-conscious plans, all with a similar objective: greater racial integration of public schools. See F. Welch & A. Light, New Evidence on School Desegregation v (1987) (hereinafter Welch) (prepared for the Commission on Civil Rights) (reviewing a sample of 125 school districts, constituting 20% of national public school enrollment, that had experimented with nearly 300 different plans over 18 years). The techniques that different districts have employed range "from voluntary transfer programs to mandatory reassignment." Id., at 21. And the design of particular plans has been "dictated by both the law and the specific needs of the district." Ibid.

Overall these efforts brought about considerable racial integration. More recently, however, progress has stalled. Between 1968 and 1980, the number of black children attending a school where minority children constituted more than half of the school fell from 77% to 63% in the Nation (from 81% to 57% in the South) but then reversed direction by the year 2000, rising from 63% to 72% in the Nation (from 57% to 69% in the South). Similarly, between 1968 and 1980, the number of black children attending schools that were more than 90% minority fell from 64% to 33% in the Nation (from 78% to 23% in the South), but that too reversed direction, rising by the year 2000 from 33% to 37% in the Nation (from 23% to 31% in the South). As of 2002, almost 2.4 million students, or over 5% of all public school enrollment, attended schools with a white population of less than 1%. Of these, 2.3 million were black and Latino students, and only 72,000 were white. Today, more than one in six black children attend a school that is 99-100% minority. See Appendix A, infra. In light of the evident risk of a return to school systems that are in fact (though not in law) resegregated, many school districts have felt a need to maintain or to extend their integration efforts.

The upshot is that myriad school districts operating in myriad circumstances have devised myriad plans, often with race-conscious elements, all for the sake of eradicating earlier school segregation, bringing about integration, or preventing retrogression. Seattle and Louisville are two such districts, and the histories of their present plans set forth typical school integration stories.

I describe those histories at length in order to highlight three important features of these cases. First, the school districts' plans serve "compelling interests" and are "narrowly tailored" on any reasonable definition of those terms. Second, the distinction between de jure segregation (caused by school systems) and de facto segregation (caused, e.g., by housing patterns or generalized societal discrimination) is meaningless in the present context, thereby dooming the plurality's endeavor to find support for its views in that distinction. Third, real-world efforts to substitute racially diverse for racially segregated schools (however caused) are complex, to the point where the Constitution cannot plausibly be interpreted to rule out categorically all local efforts to use means that are "conscious" of the race of individuals.

In both Seattle and Louisville, the local school districts began with schools that were highly segregated in fact. In both cities plaintiffs filed lawsuits claiming unconstitutional segregation. In Louisville, a federal district court found that school segregation reflected pre-Brown state laws separating the races. In Seattle, the plaintiffs alleged that school segregation unconstitutionally reflected not only generalized societal discrimination and residential housing patterns, but also school board policies and actions that had helped to create, maintain, and aggravate racial segregation. In Louisville, a federal court entered a remedial decree. In Seattle, the parties settled after the school district pledged to undertake a desegregation plan. In both cities, the school boards adopted plans designed to achieve integration by bringing about more racially diverse schools. In each city the school board modified its plan several times in light of, for example, hostility to busing, the threat of resegregation, and the desirability of introducing greater student choice. And in each city, the school boards' plans have evolved over time in ways that progressively diminish the plans' use of explicit race-conscious criteria.

...

And what of the long history and moral vision that the Fourteenth Amendment itself embodies? The plurality cites in support those who argued in Brown against segregation, and Justice Thomas likens the approach that I have taken to that of segregation's defenders. See ante, at 39-41 (plurality opinion) (comparing Jim Crow segregation to Seattle and Louisville's integration polices); ante, at 28-32 (Thomas, J., concurring). But segregation policies did not simply tell schoolchildren "where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin," ante, at 40 (plurality opinion); they perpetuated a caste system rooted in the institutions of slavery and 80 years of legalized subordination. The lesson of history, see ante, at 39 (plurality opinion), is not that efforts to continue racial segregation are constitutionally indistinguishable from efforts to achieve racial integration. Indeed, it is a cruel distortion of history to compare Topeka, Kansas, in the 1950's to Louisville and Seattle in the modern day--to equate the plight of Linda Brown (who was ordered to attend a Jim Crow school) to the circumstances of Joshua McDonald (whose request to transfer to a school closer to home was initially declined). This is not to deny that there is a cost in applying "a state-mandated racial label." Ante, at 17 (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). But that cost does not approach, in degree or in kind, the terrible harms of slavery, the resulting caste system, and 80 years of legal racial segregation.

*  *  *

Finally, what of the hope and promise of Brown? For much of this Nation's history, the races remained divided. It was not long ago that people of different races drank from separate fountains, rode on separate buses, and studied in separate schools. In this Court's finest hour, Brown v. Board of Education challenged this history and helped to change it. For Brown held out a promise. It was a promise embodied in three Amendments designed to make citizens of slaves. It was the promise of true racial equality--not as a matter of fine words on paper, but as a matter of everyday life in the Nation's cities and schools. It was about the nature of a democracy that must work for all Americans. It sought one law, one Nation, one people, not simply as a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.

Not everyone welcomed this Court's decision in Brown. Three years after that decision was handed down, the Governor of Arkansas ordered state militia to block the doors of a white schoolhouse so that black children could not enter. The President of the United States dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, and federal troops were needed to enforce a desegregation decree. See Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U. S. 1 (1958). Today, almost 50 years later, attitudes toward race in this Nation have changed dramatically. Many parents, white and black alike, want their children to attend schools with children of different races. Indeed, the very school districts that once spurned integration now strive for it. The long history of their efforts reveals the complexities and difficulties they have faced. And in light of those challenges, they have asked us not to take from their hands the instruments they have used to rid their schools of racial segregation, instruments that they believe are needed to overcome the problems of cities divided by race and poverty. The plurality would decline their modest request.

The plurality is wrong to do so. The last half-century has witnessed great strides toward racial equality, but we have not yet realized the promise of Brown. To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown. The plurality's position, I fear, would break that promise. This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret.

I must dissent.