Structural Inequality and the Law: part I

K. Sabeel Rahman 

In the 2007 school desegregation case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court struck down the voluntary school desegregation efforts by Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington for employing an overly aggressive mode of racial balancing. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that de jure segregation—of the sort that marked the Jim Crow South—had been officially eliminated as in the case of Louisville, and had never been employed in Seattle. Thus whatever racial disparities existed in these regions were not the product of law. For such schools, Roberts wrote, “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The systematic racial segregation of modern metro areas, long documented by urban scholars as a result of economic inequalities, racial wealth disparities, and deliberate policies of zoning and urban planning, did not factor into Roberts’ analysis.

A relative lack of concern for what might be termed “structural” inequality has characterized the Roberts Court’s voting rights jurisprudence as well. In Citizens’ United v. FEC, which upheld corporate campaign contributions as political speech, the Court ignored how disparities in economic wealth could skew the otherwise free-flowing marketplace of ideas or the dynamics of political competition. In Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts suggested that the preclearance regime established by the Voting Rights Act of 1964 to oversee voting regulations in many Southern states was no longer needed. In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg castigated Roberts’ argument as, among other things, exhibiting a blindness to more subtle “second-generation” barriers preventing minority groups from exercising their voting rights in full.

These glimpses point to a larger challenge for legal scholarship, analysis, and policymaking. The question of structural inequalities often stump courts and lawmakers alike. What does it mean for inequality to be “systemic”? Can any single actor be held responsible for such systemic or structural disparities? If these disparities are so diffuse, so baked into the background patterns of social and economic activity, how would they even be redressed or counteracted? This two-part series offers a means of conceptualizing both structural inequality and its means of redress.

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