Public school districts across the nation, from Washington to Virginia, are assigning children to schools based on race and family income. They claim to oppose segregation, a practice that was outlawed in the 1950s. Perversely, however, these districts are reviving it.
For example, in Howard County, Maryland—the third-highest-income county in the United States—the government pushes integration efforts while using a backward definition of “segregation” that would perpetuate racial segregation instead of ending it.
A majority of the county government urges the Board of Education to redraw school boundaries because of “socioeconomic and racial segregation in the school system.” At the same time, they claim segregated schools are “defined as schools where less than 40 percent of the student population is white,” a definition borrowed from the federal government’s National Center on Education Statistics.
Under this definition, racial integration is mathematically impossible and segregation becomes the only way to solve it. That is because Howard County’s schools serve a majority-minority population. The elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are 34 percent white, 36 percent white, and 39 percent white, respectively. So, even if every school were perfectly matched to their neighborhood distribution of racial groups, all of them would be deemed “segregated” just because each of them would be less than 40 percent white.
The only way to reduce segregation, according to the government’s definition of the problem, would be to concentrate non-white students into the lowest possible number of schools and maximize the number of schools that are more than 40 percent white. This describes actual segregation—and it has been illegal for 65 years, ever since the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Compounding its grotesque implications, the government’s definition of “segregation” also implies the absence of white people is a problem, while white people’s presence is a cure. One can hardly imagine a better real-life example of the white savior complex.
Of course, to any reasonable observer, ethnic differences within a school system are the best evidence of integration, not segregation. Using the percentage of white people as the metric for integration is a standard rigged against school districts like Howard County.
But government is not just a “reasonable observer.” Government is a problem solver. If there is no problem to solve, then there is no need for a government official tasked with solving it. So, to the government, a rigged standard defining “segregation” on mathematically impossible terms is a feature, not a bug: if segregation will always be a problem, then government will always be empowered to solve it.
Economists describe this conflict of interest—wherein the problem-solver has an incentive to perpetuate the problem—as The Agency Problem. It is a common ethical failure in government.
Howard County represents the agency problem in action. As if on cue, the superintendent of the school system now plans to manipulate the number of low-income families at each school in pursuit of “equity.” His plan discriminates against families on the basis of income so there are fewer low-income families at some schools and more low-income families at other schools.
Naturally, there is no end in sight for this plan: there isn’t an “equity finish line” that would spare people from the cost and disruption of additional plans justified on this exact same basis. The county has already calendared the next round of redistricting for two years after this one takes effect.
The endless pursuit of equity will keep the government busy, but it will also discourage people from moving into the county while hurting the families who already live in it: rich families as well as poor families.
Warping the definition of “segregation” is a useful tactic for some outside the government, too. In addition to government officials, grassroots and professional advocates also suffer a conflict of interest toward defining discrimination as indiscriminately as possible. They, too, must justify their professions and ideologies, and inventing an unsolvable problem guarantees they’ll be occupied with it.
Predictably, this semantic abuse seeps into our policy discourse, and toxifies it. By exploiting average Americans’ moral sensibilities, policy advocates try winning the debate on semantic terms instead of substance. Hence framing a wide variety of issues—from school redistricting to immigration to religious liberties to abortion—with terms like segregation, racism, sexism, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia, and so on.
When somebody sells an idea by advertising it with these labels, just remember: buyer beware.