When good policies expire
This is a perfect example of what you could call “freezing difference.” MSNBC explains:
Following an uproar over a policy it said was designed 30 years ago to achieve racial equality, a school district board in a Mississippi town on Friday scrapped a system of student elections where race determined whether a candidate could run for some class positions, including president.
The policy designated on a rotating basis the race of each position. So, for example, one year the class secretary had to be white, the next year black, and so on. There were four total class officer positions up for grabs. The school dropped the policy this year in response to a parent complaint after a 12-year-old girl was considered ineligible to run for one of the officer positions because of her race.
From where we stand, this feels wrong. The story writes itself: “Precocious black student prevented from running for class office due to her race. School stands by 30-year-old policy.”
But take a look at what the district superintendent said when he revoked the policy, making every officer position equal opportunity:
“It is the belief of the current administration that these procedures were implemented to help ensure minority representation and involvement in the student body,” the statement said. “It is our hope and desire that these practices and procedures are no longer needed.”
This antiquated policy is intriguing precisely because, while it was attacked by the NAACP (which called for a federal investigation), it demonstrates the most powerful argument for intervention and affirmative action. When the race-limits on office were first instituted at the school, they existed precisely because newly integrated black students had almost no shot at representation in student government. School officials clearly recognized that the power of the ballot box had to be overturned, or the black minority would be voiceless and invisible.
While in this case we’re dealing with race relations between elementary-aged students, we see similar problems cropping up worldwide in ethically divided states. This is because a representative democracy only works if the chance you will be in the minority is random. But the possibility that some specific group will always be in the minority is a significant problem for democracies, particularly when there is real ethnic strife. When some group is always in the minority on decisions that have genuine consequences for them, they have effectively been excluded.
In response, many governments have chosen to give special voting power or representation to persistent minorities, lest they come out on the losing end of every vote.
Of course, the idea behind these policies is that they will eventually be unnecessary. Either the minority will flourish, eliminating the numerical imbalance that threatened their livelihood, or ethnic tensions will dissipate. This latter outcome in a sense erases the “meaning” of being an ethnic minority. If you don’t have any trouble with the ethnic majority, there’s less of a need to fear what will shake out in the legislative process.
In this case, school officials followed an approach that, while extremely progressive when it was implemented, far outlived its usefulness. Their mistake was not in having the policy, but in continuing to observe it decades after school integration. The school “froze” the state of race relations among students, rather than adopting an approach that was flexible and could respond to the changing times.
There were other problems, too. The policy only concerned “black” and “white” students and did not take into account the rise in Hispanic and mixed-ethnic children. In this way, it also froze an obsolete vision of America and its racial and ethnic diversity.
This episode is an important reminder for all of us. It reminds us that no racial or ethnic policy is absolutely good or bad, but that our interventions should be judged by how they respond to their circumstances. And it reminds us that failure to be vigilant, to assume that we’ve “solved” a problem, can prevent us from recognizing policies in desperate need of revision.
In this case, failure to renew the terms of fair representation had the opposite of their intended effect and prevented a young child from enjoying our country’s opportunities.
Image used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user woodleywonderworks.