03/06/2013 09:00 am ET

Reclaiming Integration and Opportunity in the Era of Multiracial Democracy

When Opportunity Nation approached Wayne County Community College District in Detroit to propose a partnership aimed at addressing the crippling lack of opportunity afflicting middle-and- lower income communities in our area, we welcomed the organization's support. We focused our efforts on what we consider the central cause of economic inequality between Detroit and its suburban counties as well as the nation at large: the persistence of racial segregation in our public schools.

To highlight this issue, we hosted a national conference, "Towards New Geographies of Opportunity in Education," that explored what integration scholars such as Gary Orfield, John Powell, Andrew Grant-Thomas, Erica Frankenberg and others have long identified as the re-segregation of America's public schools over the past several decades as well as recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court that threaten to overturn one of the most important cases in its modern history, Brown v. Board of Education. The 1954 landmark decision ruled as unconstitutional state laws that established separate schools for black and white students.

Apart from a few notable exceptions of successful integration efforts, the public school system in the United States has reverted to a two-tiered institution, effectively segregated by race and class. In many states, white students often attend schools with resources that serve majority white populations, while black and Latino students, many of whom live in low-income neighborhoods, attend schools that have far fewer financial and educational resources.

Nowhere during the last decade has this disparity been more visible than in Detroit, which has long had the nation's highest level of between-district racial segregation coupled with high schools where nearly 40 percent of students do not graduate. Compound this with glaring funding inequalities in which Detroit's public school students receive, on average, about three-fifths of the resources of their suburban counterparts, and there can be no rationalization of the significant barriers to opportunity confronting Detroit's black and Latino youth. More information can be found via Opportunity Nation's the Opportunity Index, which analyzes the impact of geographic place on economic mobility.

Despite these continuing trends of racial isolation in public education, the Supreme Court has likely ensured that segregation in the nation's schools will only worsen with its shameful and under-reported June 2007 ruling against voluntary integration programs adopted by Seattle and Kentucky public school districts. Against the widespread support of these programs by the school districts and their respective communities, the Court determined that without state-sponsored segregation, the districts' efforts to use race for the purposes of integration were unconstitutional and approximately no different (!) than in 1954 when race was used for the opposite goal -- legal segregation. This point was emphatically made in Justice Thomas's concurring opinion on the case. "What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today," he wrote.

What is most puzzling is that integration in our public schools has long since ceased to be a project of national interest, even as it is clear that racial segregation in education exacerbates social and economic inequality. This confirms what critical race scholars have identified as the ascendance of "color-blind" and "post-racial" ideologies that promote the erroneous idea that racial identity no longer has any meaningful influence on one's access to opportunity in the United States. Though premised on principles of equality, the fallacy of color-blind and post-racial approaches is that they are wholly untethered to the lived reality of race and the structures of racialization that produce racial inequalities in wealth, education, health care, incarceration and other dimensions of American life (see our book for more analysis, America's Urban Crisis and the Advent of Color-blind Politics, Rowman&Littlfield, 2011).

Even as we enter what Lani Guinier and many other civil rights figures have defined as the era of "multiracial democracy," in which the U.S. will become, for the first time in its history, a majority multiracial nation, we will not fulfill the intentions of our nation's founding until we return to the kind of activism that gave rise to the great 1950s and 1960s civil rights movements. These collective efforts were driven by the moral imperative that it is not possible to achieve democracy without integration.

This post is part of the ongoing coverage co-produced by The Huffington Post and Opportunity Nation highlighting solutions to the country's growing opportunity gap. The coverage utilizes the latter's OpportunityIndex, the nation's first - and only - tool that measures the impact a geographic place has on each individual's economic mobility. It identifies a comprehensive set of indicators that, when taken together, measure the amount of opportunities available in communities. To see all the coverage so far, click here.