The most salient feature of the United States Public School System – both yesterday and today – is naked, unapologetic segregation.
Whether it be in 1954 when the Supreme Court with Brown v. Board made it illegal in word or today when our schools have continued to practice it in deed. In many places, our schools at this very moment are more segregated than they were before the Civil Rights movement.
That’s just a fact.
But what’s worse is that we don’t seem to care.
And what’s worse than that is we just finished two terms under our first African American President – and HE didn’t care. Barack Obama didn’t make desegregation a priority. In fact, he supported legislation to make it worse.
Charter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing, strategic disinvestment – all go hand-in-hand to keep America Separate and Unequal.
In this article, I’m going to try to explain in the most simple terms I know the reality of segregation in our schools, how it got there and the various forms it takes.
I do this not because I am against public education. On the contrary, I am a public school teacher and consider myself a champion of what our system strives to be but has never yet realized. I do this because until we recognize what we are doing and what many in power are working hard to ensure we will continue doing and in fact exacerbate doing, we will never be able to rid ourselves of a racist, classist disease we are inflicting on ourselves and on our posterity.
America, the Segregated
It’s never been one monolithic program. It’s always been several co-existing parallel social structures functioning together in tandem that create the society in which we live.
Social segregation leads to institutional segregation which leads to generational, systematic white supremacy.
This is as true today as it was 50 years ago.
I’m reminded of possibly the best description of American segregation on record, the words of the late great African American author James Baldwin who said the following on the Dick Cavett Show in 1968:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
“Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
As Baldwin states, there are many different ways to keep black people segregated. There are many different flavors of the same dish, many different strains of the same disease.
We can say we’re against it, but what we say doesn’t matter unless it is tied to action.
You can say you’re in favor of equity between black and white people all day long, but if the policies you support don’t accomplish these things, you might as well wear a white hood and burn a cross on a black person’s lawn. It would at least be more honest.
In terms of public education, which is the area I know most about and am most concerned with here, our schools are indeed set up to be segregated.
If there is one unstated axiom of our American Public School System it is this: the worst thing in the world would be black and white children learning together side-by-side.
I’m not saying that anyone goes around saying this. As Baldwin might say, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we act, and judging by our laws and practices, this is the evidence.
The sentiment seems to be: Black kids should learn here, white kids should learn there, and never the two should meet.
Our laws are explicitly structured to allow such practices. And that’s exactly what we do in almost every instance.
It’s just who we are.
So, you may ask, how can a public school teacher like myself support such a system.
The answer is that I don’t.
I support the ideals behind the system. I support the idea of a public system that treats everyone equitably.
That’s what it means to have a public system and not a private one. And that’s an ideal we would be wise to keep – even if we’ve never yet lived up to it.
Many people today are trying to destroy those ideals by attacking what exists. And they’re trying to do it, by acts of sabotage.
They point to inequalities they, themselves, helped create and use them to push for a system that would create even worse inequality. They point to the segregation that they, themselves, helped install and use it as an excuse to push even more segregation.
And they do so by controlling the media and the narrative. They call themselves reformers when they’re really vandals and obstructionists looking to subvert the best in our system in order to maximize the worst.
School Segregation Today
Sure we don’t have very many all white or all black schools like we did before Brown v. Board. Instead we have schools that are just predominantly one race or another.
ALL kids are not divided by race. Just MOST of them.
Legally and morally absolute segregation has become repugnant and impracticable. We can’t say segregation is the law of the land and then segregate. But we can set up the dominoes that spell S-E-G-R-E-G-A-T-I-O-N and then shrug when that just happens to be the result.
Partially it has to do with housing.
White people and black people tend to live in different neighborhoods. Some of this is a choice. After a history of white oppression and racial strife, people on both sides of the divide would rather live among those with whom they identify.
Black people don’t want to deal with the possibility of further deprivations. White people fear retaliation.
However, white people generally enjoy a higher socio-economic status than black people, so there is some push back from black folks who can afford to live in whiter neighborhoods and thus enjoy the benefits of integration – bigger homes, less crowding, less crime, access to more green spaces, etc. But even when there is a desire, moving to a white neighborhood can be almost impossible.
State and federal laws, local ordinances, banking policies and persistent prejudice stand in the way.
In short, red lining still exists.
Real estate agents and landlords still divide up communities based on whom they’re willing to sell or rent to.
And this is just how white people want it.
They’re socialized to fear and despise blackness and to cherish a certain level of white privilege for themselves and their families.
And if we live apart, it follows that we learn apart.
The system is set up to make this easy. Yet it is not uncomplicated. There is more than one way to sort and separate children along racial and class lines in a school system.
There are several ways to accomplish school segregation. It comes in multiple varieties, a diversity of flavors, all of which achieve the same ends, just in different ways.
By my reckoning, there are at least three distinct paths to effectively segregate students. We shall look at each in turn:
1) Segregated Districts and Schools
When you draw district lines, you have the power to determine their racial makeup.
Put the white neighborhoods in District A and the black ones in District B. It’s kind of like gerrymandering, but instead of hording political power for partisan lawmakers, you’re putting your finger on the scale to enable academic inequality.
However, sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes you don’t have the power to determine the makeup for entire districts. Instead, you can do almost the same thing for schools within a single district.
You just send most of the black kids to School A and most of the white kids to School B. This is easy to justify if they’re already stratified by neighborhood. In this way, geographical segregation becomes the determination for the academic variety.
In fact, this is what we usually think of when we think of school segregation. And it has certain benefits for white students and costs for black ones.
Foremost, it allows white students to horde resources.
In the first case where you have segregated districts, legislation including explicit funding formulas can be devised to make sure the whiter districts get more financial support than the blacker ones. The state provides more support and the higher socio-economics of the whiter neighborhoods provides a more robust tax base to meet the needs of white children.
That means the whiter districts get higher paid and more experienced teachers. It means they have broader curriculum, more extracurricular activities, a more robust library, more well-trained nursing staff, more advanced placement courses, etc.
And – this is important – the blacker districts don’t.
Fewer funds mean fewer resources, fewer opportunities, more challenges to achieve at the same level that white students take for granted. A budget is often the strongest support for white supremacy in a given community or society as a whole. In fact, if you want to know how racist your community is, read its school budget. You want accountability? Start there.
The same holds even when segregation is instituted not at the district level but at the level of the school building.
When the people making the decisions are mostly white, they tend to steer resources to their own kids at the expense of others. Appointed state recovery bureaucrats, school boards, and administrators can provide more resources to the white schools than the black ones.
It may sound ridiculous but this is exactly what happens much of the time. You have gorgeous new buildings with first class facilities in the suburban areas and run down crumbling facilities in the urban ones – even if the two are only separated geographically by a few miles.
This is not accidental. It’s by choice.
2) Charter and Voucher Schools
And speaking of choice, we come to one of the most pernicious euphemisms in the public school arena – school choice.
It’s not really about academics or options. It’s about permitting racism.
It’s funny. When schools are properly funded and include an overabundance of resources, few people want another alternative. But when schools are underfunded and there is a black majority, that’s when white parents look for an escape for their children.
Like any parasite, charter and voucher schools only survive in the proper environment. It usually looks like this.
Sometimes no matter how you draw the district lines or how you appropriate the buildings, you end up with a black majority and a white minority. That’s a situation white parents find simply intolerable.
White children must be kept separate and given all the best opportunities even if that means taking away the same for black children.
That’s where “school choice” comes in.
It’s not a pedagogical philosophy of how to best provide an education. It’s big business meeting the demand for parental prejudice and white supremacy.
In summary, charter and voucher schools are the mechanisms of white flight. Period.
This is why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Movement for Black Lives have condemned school privatization. It is racism as a business model. It increases segregation and destroys even the possibility of integration.
This works in two ways.
First, it allows white kids to enter new learning environments where they can be in the majority and get all the resources they need.
White parents look for any opportunity to remove their children from the black majority public school. This creates a market for charter or voucher schools to suck up the white kids and leave the black kids in their neighborhood schools.
Once again, this creates the opportunity for a resource gap. The charter and voucher schools suck away needed funds from the public schools and then are subsidized even further by white parents.
The quality of education provided at these institutions is sometimes better – it’s often worse. But that’s beside the point. It’s not about quality. It’s about kind. It’s about keeping the white kids separate and privileged. It’s about saving them from the taint of black culture and too close of an association with black people.
Second, the situation can work in reverse. Instead of dividing the whites from the blacks, it divides the blacks from the whites.
This happens most often in districts where the divide is closer to equal – let’s say 60% one race and 40% another. Charter and voucher schools often end up gobbling up the minority students and leaving the white ones in the public school. So instead of white privatized and black public schools, you get the opposite.
And make no mistake – this is a precarious position for minority students to be in. Well meaning black parents looking to escape an underfunded public school system jump to an even more underfunded privatized system that is just waiting to prey on their children.
Unlike public schools, charter and voucher institutions are allowed to pocket some of their funding as profit. That means they can reduce services and spending on children anytime they like and to any degree. Moreover, as businesses, their motives are not student centered but economically driven. They cherry pick only the best and brightest students because they cost less to educate. They often enact zero tolerance discipline policies and run themselves more like prisons than schools. And at any time unscrupulous administrators who are under much less scrutiny than those at public schools can more easily steal student funding, close the school and run, leaving children with no where to turn but the public school they fled from in the first place and weakened by letting privatized schools gobble up the money.
The result is a public school system unnaturally bleached of color and a privatized system where minority parents are tricked into putting their children at the mercy of big business.
But that’s not all. There is still another way to racially segregate children. Instead of putting them in different districts or different schools, you can just ensure they’ll be in different classes in the same school.
It’s called tracking – a controversial pedagogical practice of separating the highest achieving students from the lowest so that teachers can better meet their needs.
However, it most often results in further stratifying students socially, economically and racially.
Here’s how it works.
Often times when you have a large enough black minority in your school or district, the white majority does things to further horde resources even within an individual school building or academic department.
In such cases, the majority of the white population is miraculously given a “gifted” designation and enrolled in the advanced placement classes while the black children are left in the academic or remedial track.
This is not because of any inherent academic deficit among black students, nor is it because of a racial intellectual superiority among white students. It’s because the game has been rigged to favor white students over black ones.
Often the excuse given is test scores. Standardized tests have always been biased assessments that tend to select white and affluent students over poor black ones. Using them as the basis for class placement increases segregation in school buildings.
It enables bleaching the advanced courses and melanin-izing the others. This means administration can justify giving more resources to white students than blacks – more field trips, more speakers, more STEAM programs, more extracurriculars, etc.
And if a white parent complains to the principal that her child has not been included in the gifted program, if her child has even a modicum of ability in the given subject, more often than not that white child is advanced forward to the preferential class.
Segregation is a deep problem in our public school system. But it cannot be solved by privatization.
In fact, privatization exacerbates it.
Nor is public education, itself, a panacea. Like any democratic practice, it requires participation and the economic and social mobility to be able to participate as equals.
Schools are the product of the societies that create them. An inequitable society will create inequitable schools.
Segregation has haunted us since before the foundation of our nation.
The only way to solve it is by first calling it out and recognizing it in all its forms. Then white people have to own their role in spreading it and take steps to end it.
Segregation doesn’t just happen. It exists because white people – especially white parents – want it to exist.
They don’t want their children to be educated among black students – maybe SOME black students, maybe the best of the best black students, but certainly not the average run of the mill brown-skinned child.
This has to stop.
There are plenty of benefits even for white students in an integrated education. It provides them a more accurate world-view and helps them become empathetic and prize difference.
Moreover, nothing helps inoculate a child against racism more than a truly integrated education.
If we want our children to be better people, we should provide them with this kind of school environment.
But instead, too many of us would rather give them an unfair edge so they can do better than those around them.
Racism is not just ideological; it is economic. In a dog-eat-dog-world, we want our kids to be the wolves with their teeth in the weaker pups necks.
We need to dispel this ideal.
Our society does not need to be a zero-sum game.
We can all flourish together. We can achieve a better world for all our children when we not only realize that but prize it.
As Baldwin put it in 1989’s “The Price of a Ticket”:
“It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.”
When that becomes a shared vision of our best selves, only then will segregation be completely vanquished.