June 6, 2020

About that integration thing, not so much

It always happens. Strike up a conversation about the woes of public schools and some fatalistically misguided person will mention “segregation.” We’ll all pretend we agree on the concept and we’ll act as if achieving integration is the only road to academic proficiency for children of color.

Tsk. Tsk. If only we can address racialized housing patterns then our schools could teach black kids to read.

Full disclosure: I once was an integrationist. I might still be one at heart. That said, a stint on a Wobegon school board taught me not to be an integration fundamentalist. When we tried to send 14 black kids to a few oversubscribed white schools all hell broke loose. In a Northern American city known for its liberal, educated, moneyed, good natured people it was problematic to integrate a few schools.


I’ll admit that diversity is a good thing. It’s a noble aim. The world won’t be at peace until all human beings are capable of seeing the unsurpassable worth of each other, and that begins in the kinder years.

Sadly, we’re not closing in on that exquisite vision of human perfection and children of color can’t wait for racial peace to break out so they can gain the hard skills schools should be able to impart to all students.

It’s time to be open and bold about the fact that integration is not a high enough aim to suspend expectation that black children learn in their current environments. Segregated or not, we know they can achieve.

Can’t we just call the question? Can’t we just observe the trends and realize what several decades of white flight tells us? These people just aren’t that into inclusive schools regardless of all their bumper stickers to the contrary.

In 1990 42 percent of black families had white neighbors. In 2009 that dropped to 40 percent. We keep talking about the “resegregation” of America when good old fashion white flight never really ended. Non-white families move in, white homeowners and renters move on. The schools – using residence as a primary enrollment device – succumb to the housing patterns.

Shall we wait for another 20 years to see what happens next?

Doubtful. Instead, it’s time to acknowledge the fact that many “segregated” schools have done better for children of color than those schools high on cosmetic diversity, but low on cultural affirmation and black achievement.

It’s not like this would be a new debate. Maybe we should check in with Malcolm and Martin all these year later about this schooling conundrum.

Malcolm X said “you don’t integrate with a sinking ship.” His point was that white America was dying a moral death from its own injustice. Far from curing us, integration into that mess would only corrupt us.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an indefatigable champion who aided white America in dreaming of a guilt-free Beloved Community. But even the idealized Dr. King my contemporaries conjure to blunt radicalism had second thoughts about public school integration.

He questioned the ability of workers within a racist power structure to educate young black minds without first undergoing a paradigm change that deconstructed the white power ideology embedded in the public system.

He reportedly said:

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel. ‘I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual-the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.’

The late Professor Derrick Bell shared Dr. King’s assessment, but took it further. He unbraided the legal strategy and motivations of the NAACP and civil rights litigators who focused on school integration as a primary means to black advancement.

He questioned their role which – he said – assumed “a perpetual retainer authorizing a lifelong effort to obtain racially balanced schools” long after black support for that goal shifted from a time when “virtually all black assumed that integration was the best means of achieving a quality education for black children” to a time “when many black parents are disenfranchised with the education results of integration.”

Here’s a pop quiz, who said this:

The interests and desires of white middle-class parents, and the interests of the increasingly powerful teachers’ federations and professional supervisory associations are invariably given priority over the desire of Negro parents for nonsegregated quality education for their children. The interests of the white parents, teachers, and supervisors are often perceived by them as inimical to the desires of the Negro parents. Furthermore, the capture and control of the public schools by the white middle-class parents and teachers provided the climate within which the system of racially segregated and inferior schools could be developed, expanded and reinforced and within which the public schools became instruments for blocking rather than facilitating the upward mobility of Negroes and other lower-status groups.

That was Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, famous for his studies of racism’s effects on children. You’ll remember him also has a psychologist whose research influenced Brown v. Board of Education.

If even he recognized the folly of waiting for integration to happen before addressing the ineffectiveness of black schooling, shouldn’t we all?

As we keep chasing some illusive form of togetherness that might never come about, black children suffer academically, economically, and spiritually. No one who loves them will advocate anything but urgency in designing systems where they can thrive.

A serious reading of their needs tells me “reform” of the system is too light a concept. Only revolution will do.

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