CUNY Professor, Michael Paris, came to common hour on Thursday, April 18 to present his lecture “Serving Two Masters Revisited: Cause Lawyering and Legal Mobilization in Sheff v. O’Neill“. During the lecture, Paris presented some critiques of the means by which Sheff v. O’Neill sought to remedy the demographical isolation of Hartford public school students. Paris was knowledgeable and engaging. He spoke quickly and passionately about the Sheff case and educational equality. He is brilliant and well-spoken. He spoke of the importance of center cities, like Hartford, and how they should be a resource to the surrounding communities instead of economic wastelands. It was clear throughout his presentation that he is quite fond of the late Derrick Bell. He refers to Bell’s work to make a case against some of the implications that can be drawn about race from the Sheff lawsuit. For instance, Paris points out that the racial isolation was cited as the cause for unequal educational opportunities. This is problematic because one could infer that there is something wrong with a school setting that has black and brown children in the majority. Is the education received of any better quality simply because that black child is able to sit next to a white one? Paris says no. He also examines the argument for using socio-economic status as a tool for desegregation in lieu of race. He finds that to negate race would be to “roll up history like a rug” and push aside other important factors (the history of wealth, housing, policy) that contribute to the current climate in public school education. He also asserts that socio-economic based desegregation would work well in some settling, but not in all. Paris says that race and space are tied. He states that poverty cannot be easily eliminated, but all schools can be middle class.
This lecture was interesting to me, because I am analyzing a metro integration plan from the late nineties that proposes steps to provide quality education for all students. Paris said the Sheff victory is sometimes viewed as an expensive remedy with little reform. The lecture gave me a new perspective on the work that has been done in the local fight for school equality and the work that is still left to do. Entering into the third phase of Sheff, it may very well be time for a new direction.