Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"Brown v. Williams-Bolar"

Once upon a time it could be difficult to get your children into a neighborhood school. It all depended on your parents: if they were one sort of people, your child walked a few blocks to the nearest school; if they weren't, your child went miles to attend a school that had people like you. There was no law—not anymore—saying things had to be that way; but on the other hand there was a long-standing custom that they should be. Any other arrangement would have been liable to make people uncomfortable. Better that everyone stayed with their own kind.

Then along came Brown v. Board of Education and the accompanying cases, "separate but equal" was revealed for the lie it was, and school busing began.

Desegregation should have been—and at the time it was—a great triumph of individual freedom and human dignity in a society still warped by the evils of its past. Little would Linda Brown and her fellow students have thought that the freedom to attend one's local school would turn out to be a two-edged sword.

* * *

Government is a necessity even among those who have few or no vices. Religious communities have their governments, and the angels are ordered into a hierarchy. But among ordinary mortals, government exists not only for the constructive end of ordering society's virtues but also for the restorative end of limiting its vices. Human government, whether it be in the family, the city, or the nation, has and must have a punitive function. Sometimes this is manifest in obvious ways, as when a criminal is imprisoned or fined; but sometimes the punitive nature of government takes on more subtle forms. I remember grumbling to my father (little libertarian that I was!) when our dog needed to have a license.

"Ah, well," he said, "if a few people hadn't let their dogs run all over the neighborhood tearing up other people's property and threatening their livestock—well, then the rest of us wouldn't need to buy licenses for our dogs."

"That's so unfair!" I said. "Just because other people are irresponsible, the rest of us have to ..."

My father grinned. "Irresponsible people are responsible for most of the laws that get made."

* * *

If racism had been nonexistent or statistically negligible in the 1950s and 60s, there would have been no need for Brown v. Board or for many other components of the vast network of rulings and legislation that today governs where you send your child to school. If we hadn't been in some degree a vicious society, we wouldn't be dealing with the unintended consequences of our reformative laws today. If we hadn't so restricted freedom for a few people—if Linda Brown had been allowed "to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of [her] playmates"—we would all have more freedom now. We would not be living in a country where it is a felony to send one's child to a school outside one's district.

Well, no, isn't a felony, strictly speaking, to send your child to the "wrong" school. It is a felony to lie to officials about one's home address, though; and that's what one has to do these days to send one's child to a school outside one's district.

"An African-American mother of two, Ms. Williams-Bolar last year used her father's address to enroll her two daughters in a better public school outside of their neighborhood. After spending nine days behind bars charged with grand theft, the single mother was convicted of two felony counts."

Never mind that the school where you are supposed to send your child isn't doing so well. Never mind that your child could get a better education in the next school over. The law is the law: and the law says that you are supposed to send your child to the local school.

"From California to Massachusetts, districts are hiring special investigators to follow children from school to their homes to determine their true residences and decide if they 'belong' at high-achieving public schools. School districts in Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey all boasted recently about new address-verification programs designed to pull up their drawbridges and keep 'illegal students' from entering their gates."

Many of these laws were written in order to preserve human dignity and freedom. When the laws cease to serve that purpose, isn't it time for them to be overturned?

"Only in a world where irony is dead could people not marvel at concerned parents being prosecuted for stealing a free public education for their children."

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