It was the fall of 1968 when I walked into an elective class at City College called "Problems of Democracy." The man teaching the course was the incomparable Samuel L. Banks. I still remember what Banks - Mr. Banks to his City College students - said about racial diversity in schools.
"I think what we have here is the best learning environment," Mr. Banks said. "A school with students from all racial and ethnic groups."
Indeed, the City College of the 1960s had a healthy mix of students whose ancestors came from places such as Africa, Russia, Poland, Greece, Italy, South Korea, China, India, Ireland, Scotland, England and Germany. The school had Jews, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. The only thing we didn't have was girls: City College was still all-male at the time.
That situation didn't prevail for long. In less than 10 years, City College shifted from being racially and ethnically diverse to almost 100 percent black, as did other schools in Baltimore and across the nation.
The result was school systems in some states being more segregated than they were before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed "separate but equal" education. Officials in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., came up with plans to prevent resegregation, but the plans were based on race, and parents filed lawsuits after their children could not go to the schools of their choice.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down those plans by a 5-4 margin. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the court's swing vote, sided with the majority while leaving local systems a little wiggle room by suggesting that race could be a factor in plans that are "narrowly tailored."
Natalie Woodson, the education chairwoman for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is pessimistic, even though Kennedy left that crack in the door.
"It's certainly a step backward for those of us who have been fighting on behalf of educational excellence for all the students of America," Woodson said, adding that she may have additional comments after she reads the entire decision.
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, e-mailed me these comments:
"Integrated schools better prepare children for the diversity of our society and it enhances learning environments. Integration cannot and will not be achieved or maintained, to correct years of proven segregation, by ignoring this issue and hoping it will go away. I contend the Justices have set us back, placed more challenges and barriers, and have sent a conflicting message as it relates to the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and those related attempts to achieve school diversity."
It appears Cheatham, like Mr. Banks, holds dear the principle of racial and ethnic diversity in schools. I hold it dear myself. Here's something else I hold dear: educating students.
Diversity is great. Education is better. (And for those who want to rewrite history, now is the time to point out that Brown v. Board of Education wasn't about diversity; it was about ending legal segregation that clearly violated the 14th Amendment.) Given the choice between diversity and education, I'd choose to educate students and let diversity be damned.
Baltimore's KIPP Academy charter school isn't all that racially diverse. According to the Web site www.mdreport card.com, the school has two white students, two Hispanic students, one American Indian student and 305 black students. KIPP is an elementary/middle school with grades from fifth through eighth. In the 2006-2007 school year, nearly 83 percent of KIPP's eighth-graders passed the state assessment test in reading and over 98 percent passed the one in math, according to www.mdreportcard.com.
Cradlerock Elementary/Middle School in ritzy Howard County could be a model for racial and ethnic diversity: 427 black students, 57 Asian students, 307 white students and 126 Hispanic students are enrolled. Although they attend a more racially diverse school, Cradlerock's eighth-graders didn't fare as well on the math and reading assessments this year.
According to www.mdreport card.com, nearly 67 percent of Cradlerock's eighth-graders passed the reading assessment and just over 45 percent passed the math assessment. When you do the racial breakdown, the picture is even grimmer: 55 percent of Cradlerock's black eighth-graders passed the reading assessment and 34 percent passed the math assessment.
If racial diversity were the holy grail its proponents make it out to be, you'd find the parents of students at the KIPP Academy moving to Howard County in droves to enroll their students in Cradlerock. But judging from test scores, maybe precisely the opposite should happen.