Racial Liberalism and School Desegregation: The Connecticut Case of Sheff v. O'Neill

OCT 19, 2017 | 4:30 PM TO 6:30 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




October 19, 2017: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM





Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC)


ARC Seminar: Michael Paris: Racial Liberalism and School Desegregation: The Curious Connecticut Case of Sheff v. O’Neill

I am working on a book about the history and possible futures of school desegregation in the United States. For the past several decades, observers from across the political spectrum have agreed that this cause is dead. The main purpose of the book is to explore new possibilities for revival.  Unlike other treatments of the demise of school desegregation, this book focuses on the role of the ideas, arguments, and strategies of liberal proponents of desegregation, both over time and currently. Part I reviews the history of school desegregation advocacy, law, and policy.  I focus on the neglected role of post-WW II racial liberalism and the significance of this ideology in shaping both liberal reformers’ arguments and federal equal protection doctrine. In light of this alternative history, Part II explores alternative reform arguments as well as alternative political and institutional strategies for revival.
In this presentation, I summarize my research on Sheff v. O’Neill (1996), a little-known, ongoing school desegregation case in the Connecticut state courts. The Sheff case study is one chapter in Part II of the book.
In Sheff, the state high court held that the state constitution “require[d] the legislature to take affirmative responsibility to remedy segregation in our public schools, regardless of whether that segregation has occurred de jure or de facto.” The court did not say that there was a right to racial integration, but only that there was a right to substantially equal educational opportunity that was not “substantially impaired” by racial isolation and concentrated poverty. Finally, the court remained silent on the question of remedies. It simply asked the other branches of government to put de facto segregation at the top of their respective agendas. The ensuing twenty years have witnessed several reform laws, five trips back to court, four consent agreements, and, slowly but surely, new policies producing significant school desegregation in the Hartford metropolitan region. Sheff stands as the only currently valid case in the United States in which a court has dispensed with the de jure—de facto distinction. In Connecticut, and in no other state, there exists an affirmative state constitutional obligation for government to care about and pursue inter-district school desegregation. Because the Sheff reformers built their legal argument on a positive state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity established in prior school finance litigation, and because some such affirmative right exists in some twenty-five states, Sheff is, in theory, replicable in many other places.
This presentation provides an interpretive account of legal and political mobilization in Sheff, based on extensive document analysis and interviews. My approach is informed by Derrick Bell’s critical commentary on past school desegregation efforts. Bell’s commentary yields a useful template for evaluating the Sheff project and pondering its implications for the future of school desegregation. This template allows us to perceive substantial innovations in the Sheff reformers’ legal and political arguments and strategies and also to place these in dialogue with alternative, more radical possibilities. I argue that state constitutionalism and state courts offer untapped potential as institutional sites for the revival of this seemingly lost cause and, more generally, for the assertion of positive rights claims and the expansion of the obligations of governments to respond to structural inequalities.

Michael Paris is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of Staten Island (CUNY), where he teaches courses in constitutional law, civil liberties, and race and public policy. He is the author of Framing Equal Opportunity: Law and the Politics of School Finance Reform (Stanford University Press, 2010), which received an honorable mention for the 2011 C. Herman Pritchett Award, given annually by the American Political Science Association’s Law and Courts Section for the best book in the field published by a political scientist during the previous year. Paris’s other publications include “Racial Liberalism and School Desegregation Jurisprudence: Notes Toward a Usable Past,” in Anne R. Oakes, Ed., Controversies in Equal Protection (Ashgate Publishers, 2015), and “The Politics of Rights: Then and Now,” Law and Social Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Fall 2006). He is currently working on a book about the history and future of school desegregation in the United States.