As my first post-doc post, I want to throw my hat into the ring regarding the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka KS (1954). "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Those words spoken by the newly inaugurated Governor Wallace of Alabama in 1963 could not ring more true today. However, those who are...articulating a false narrative concerning “resegregation” or lamenting that charters or other school reforms equal the “new segregation” are misrepresenting history.
Let me be as explicit as I have ever been about anything…In regards to local public high schools, School segregation NEVER took place. Let me say that again, school segregation, as intended by Brown NEVER took place in the United States of America.
What did happen?
In the North, and places where there is more than one local high school, we have seen very few instances of positive examples of integration in America. What occurred is that in areas where school buildings were integrated, much of the population of White students were placed into honors or advanced placement courses and Black and Brown students were placed in remedial courses and vocational education courses. From the early 1960s until it became a policy non grata, segregation within the school building was primarily done through tracking and other tactical means of keeping “those students” away from their white counterparts.
Another example of what happened was that in the wake of Brown, especially in the cities with strong ethnic neighborhoods such as Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, white flight occurred. The feeling was, you want to integrate the school, fine, I’m moving to the suburbs. In response, school districts tried to “force” integration by demanding students be bused from one school to another [see Eyes on the Prize volume 2 regarding South Boston v Roxbury, 1974]. This vain attempt to integrate schools beyond neighborhood boundaries was extremely problematic and even dangerous as the first and second wave of integration took place post-Brown. The resentment from this failed attempt could arguably be considered to still be prevalent today.
Why is this historical recollection important? It is important, no, essential, because without the knowledge of the historical events which occurred in the wake of the historic Brown decision there is a tendency to fall prey to the false narrative that Brown integrated schools and even worse, that racial “progress” that was made in those years, has dissipated and we are now fraught with segregated schools, some worse than before the momentous decision.
I have argued that the Brown decision did more to integrate every other aspect of American life EXCEPT public education for a long time. That statement is usually met with disdain or contempt. But let’s look at the realities of our surroundings. As long as we cannot force people to live in integrated communities, and as long as cities previously mentioned and others, want to insist on the antiquated notion of “local, neighborhood schools” we are going to be fraught with racial (and class) isolationism.
Hence scholars and pundits who wish to use the term “resegregation” or segregation do so knowing it is a loaded term filled with visions of women and men spitting, hitting and cursing young Black boys and girls on their way to enter the school house gates. It is a term which denotes racial animus, and legal and moral acceptance of the purposeful separation of the races. It is a term which hearkens back to a day when people such as Ruby Bridges and others were constantly under death threats because of their social justice actions. It is a term which has zero place in the discourse surrounding public education today, except in the context of trying to create hyperbole and misrepresent the current educational landscape. It is also grounded in the notion that segregation has been used as a mechanism of inequality, and that integration should not be the goal in and of itself. Instead, we should aim towards dismantling the systems which have created racial and class-based inequality in too many areas of this country for decades if not centuries. Thus I cannot see how we, knowing the history, can continue to use this term to describe the current state of public education.
In his work, Freeden Oeur who focuses on single-sex schools, notes that separation does not always equal segregation. Further, it seems to me as if it those who insist on using the term to articulate today’s public school backdrop are using the term to incite the public into action. The question is what action, and at what costs?
The way I see it, it is unfortunate that many progressives are coming from a position in which their implicit bias is that if it is Black (or Brown) it is wrong. Very rarely is this notion is expressed explicitly , but usually this “truth” hides under the veil of progressive educators and scholars articulating a vision of creating a public school system which is equitable and just. While these altruistic goals are highly desirable, to achieve them, one does not have to believe that simply by integrating public schools will solve all their ills. While some research does demonstrate positive effects of school integration, and as one who went to a fairly integrated public school in Cambridge in the mid-1970s, I can attest that there is tremendous cultural and social capital gained from being raised in a diverse population. In contrast, I also strongly believe that an all-Black, all-male, or all-Latino environment can also achieve positive academic gains for their students. Thus the question remains whether or not we are arguing the need to dismantle the 2nd wave or segregation based on race or class?
It is duplicitous and disingenuous to lay the “blame” on charter schools or other schools of choice as being “resegregated” when we should not only look at the racial and socio-economic make-up of the neighborhoods in which they reside, but also their academic outcomes. Are they graduating their students and sending them to college? Are they providing them with opportunities to engage in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities that allow them to be exposed to things that are not the “normative” behavior in their neighborhoods? Are these students allowed to travel both around the country and the globe to see how others live? In short, are they allowed to break out of the dominant paradigm and low expectations placed upon them because of their race, SES, gender or other bias? We need to shift this discussion from the pervasive negative, deficit lens to one of a more positive lens.
In short, the discourse should not focus exclusively on a schools racial disposition (although I do understand that "urban" equals less than in terms of funding), but rather how can we make ALL schools, regardless of their structures economically viable, safe, trustworthy, highly engaging, high expectations based and outcome centers of positive academic and social learning?