THE ROLE OF THE COURTS

As in the late nineteenth century, the Supreme Court in the last years of the twentieth century little by little retreated from the civil rights revolution. The justices made it increasingly difficult for victims of discrimination to win lawsuits and proved increasingly sympathetic to the pleas of whites that affirmative action plans discriminated against them. In Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989), the Court barred a black employee who suffered racial harassment while working from suing for damages under the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That law, the justices maintained, only prohibited discrimination at the moment of signing a contract, not on the job.

In the same year, the Court overturned a Richmond law reserving 30 percent of city construction contracts for minority businesses. Less than і percent of such contracts had gone to black-owned companies in the five years before the city council enacted the new law. But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the opinion, insisted that in the absence of clear statements of racism by government officials (hardly a likely occurrence), one could not prove the existence of discrimination. Blacks, she speculated, may have been “attracted to other industries than construction,” as if their distribution among the occupations had historically been a matter of free choice.

Figure 27.5 INSTITUTIONAL INMATES AS A PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION BY SEX AND RACE, 1850-1990

Despite the nation’s growing racial diversity, school segregation—now resulting from housing patterns and the divide between urban and suburban school districts rather than laws requiring racial separation—was on the rise. Most city public school systems consisted overwhelmingly of minority students, large numbers of whom failed to receive an adequate education. The courts released more and more districts from desegregation orders. By 2000, the nation’s black and Latino students were more isolated from white pupils than in 1970. Nearly 80 percent of white students attended schools where they encountered few if any pupils of another race. Since school funding rested on property taxes, poor communities continued to have less to spend on education than wealthy ones.

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