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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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‘Divided We Fail’: The limits of desegregation

Sarah Garland’s book “Divided We Fail” tells the story of African-American parents in Louisville, Ky., who decided that desegregation didn’t work for their children. Their court case would eventually affect school assignment in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Divided We Fail: The Story of the African American Community That Ended the Era of School Desegregation”

by Sarah Garland

Beacon Press, 256 pp., $26.95

On June 28, 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Seattle school district could not assign students to high schools based on their racial identity. In one of its ideologically based five-to-four splits, the justices overturned two lower court rulings upholding the Seattle plan.

But Seattle readers might no longer recall that the Supreme Court ruling covered two cases that had been consolidated. The other affected school district was far, far away from Seattle — in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the home of Louisville. What made that lawsuit especially unusual: the parents opposing the Louisville desegregation plan were African American. They had decided busing to achieve desegregation led to more negative impacts than all-black neighborhood schools minus the busing.

Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”

As Garland studied the litigation leading to the Supreme Court ruling, she learned that the African-American parents in Louisville dissatisfied with the results of busing held a special attachment to the county district’s Central High School. Yes, it had been racially segregated when they attended. But it built a fierce tradition of high-quality academics, so became a point of pride for neighborhood residents. Why mess with that? Why force Caucasian students who did not want to attend Central High School to attend anyway? Why force African-American students who did want to attend Central High School to ride buses to other destinations?

The African-American litigants did not oppose integration, Garland realized. “What they opposed was how desegregation had so often worked as a one-way exchange, and the lack of concern about how the loss of their schools and their voice might affect their community. They wanted equal outcomes for black children and they also wanted equal power over the schools and over the content and trajectory of their children’s education — something they argued that racial integration in the schools never produced. “

Garland’s narrative works well at the macro level, and works even better on the micro level. The text is filled with interesting and sometimes unpredictable individuals, such as the nearly anonymous Caucasian lawyer who represented the African-American plaintiffs.

Today, Garland says, concern exists in many neighborhoods that school choice is being dictated from the top. “Once again,” she comments, “it seems that those in power are treating black schools as they did black neighborhoods during urban renewal — with an imperious sense of what is good for the community, regardless of what the people who live there want. The focus is on tearing out dysfunction and blight, instead of finding existing strengths and building on what people value and what is working well.”

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.

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