04/25/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

Because Race Still Matters

Why should we care if colleges in Michigan -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- are prohibited from using racial criteria to admit students?

Because race still matters.

That's the message of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's stinging rebuke of the court's ruling that Michigan can ban consideration of race in college admissions decisions. Michigan voters approved the ban in 2006. Before that time, public universities took race into account, to boost minority ranks in higher education. The 2006 ban has made an impact. At the University of Michigan, blacks now comprise 4.6 percent of undergraduates, down from 8.9 percent in 1995 and 7 percent in 2006.

Said Sotomayor:

"[The] refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."

Segregation is a growing problem in the United States. Given recent Supreme Court decisions and stalled legislation in Congress, our weapons against it are few. Go into any urban school and many suburban school districts, and it is clear that, 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision integrated public education in this country, our schools still are largely segregated, giving rise to what some call "apartheid schooling."

Segregated schools exist throughout our country, from the Deep South to New York. The U.S Department of Education reported recently that 70 percent of white schoolchildren attend schools where at least 75 percent of the students are white, and more than half of all black children in industrial states attend schools where more than 90 percent are members of minority groups.

It's as if we are returning to the "separate but [unequal]" Supreme Court philosophy of another case, Plessy v Ferguson (1898), which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities.

So where is the outrage? Where is the outcry from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Education? Have we chosen to bury our heads in the sands of disbelief? Sadly, the answer seems to be a resounding "yes." All this, as the US Census Bureau estimates we will be a majority-minority country by 2042.

And yet, there are pockets of hope.

Take Robbinsdale, Minnesota, a community that celebrates diversity and rejects academic tracking due to the lowering of standards for some schoolchildren and youth while raising for others, or the practice of grouping students for instruction according to past academic performance. Led by Dr. Aldo Sicoli, a dynamic superintendent, and supported by an equally dynamic and progressive board of education, the district went from 63.9 percent white in 2004, to presently 47.3 percent white, 30.3 percent black, and 12.6 percent Hispanic.

Given the demographic shift, Robbinsdale worked to develop a unified district vision for all students where race, culture, ethnicity, national origin and socioeconomic status were viewed as strengths to build on so that students learned to bridge the gaps between what they knew and did not know relative to subject-matter and higher-ordering thinking. It is at this juncture where the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education, worked with administrators and teachers to enable concept development in students, which facilitated the construction of meaning while connecting to each student's individual cultural frame of reference.

Social science extolls the benefits of integrated schools. Robbinsdale embodies it. The NUA has worked with the district's West Metro Education Program's (WMEP) desegregation initiative, using the culturally relevant teaching and personalized learning for all students reflected in "The Pedagogy of Confidence," by Dr. Yvette Jackson; as well as engaging and empowering students through NUA's "Student Voices" project. WMEP data has indicated that students in grades 3 to 7 who were bused to suburban schools have made three times the progress in reading and math as similar students who did not.

Participation in ACT pre-college testing is equally impressive. The percentage of students taking the full battery of core courses to prepare them for college indicated that Robbinsdale had gone from 39 percent in 2007, to 89 percent participation in 2013, which places it above statewide and national averages, despite it becoming majority-minority.

We know students from diverse circumstances are highly valued in today's marketplace. Of 321 global companies with at least $500 million in annual revenue, 85 percent agreed or strongly agreed that diversity is crucial to fostering innovation in the workplace.

Every school can have the success Robbinsdale has had. NUA works with schools to educate teachers to celebrate and embrace the strengths that diversity brings to so many facets of life. We understand the hard work it takes to make equal opportunity a reality. School districts must redouble their efforts, even if a Supreme Court majority chooses to bury its head in the sand.