By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
This American Life aired two shows about school segregation, what they call, as the title of the episodes, “The problem we all live with.” I am very glad these hit the airways. I hope they are shared wildly and widely and people listen to them. Then, I wonder what the questions might be. I find myself in such a quizzical state, I need to write two posts to probe the issues.
My posts will be written in reverse order to the airing of the shows because I firmly believe that, contrary to the premise of the shows, Part II is not an “answer” to the problem, but actually showcases the root causes of it in its most brutal fashion; despite Part I ability to make one yell at the iPhone in disgust about the overt racism and disregard for black children’s lives that white parents showcased, openly, without remorse or shame.
The overall premise of the programs is that we have disregarded callously and prematurely the only educational strategy that has proven to be effective in closing the famous and famously pervasive achievement gap between black and white children: school integration. The programs discuss how school desegregation has worked to improve the educational gains across the board for black and white children and the results have been consistent everywhere it has been tried.
Part I discusses the Normandy School District in Normandy, Missouri. Normandy is on the border of Ferguson, Missouri, and the district includes the high school that Michael Brown, the black 18 year old killed by a police officer, attended. A district that lost its accreditation, after being in a provisional accreditation – a warning of sorts – for…15 years.
Part II goes into, I guess, a successful school integration effort in Hartford, Connecticut. The inner city schools there were so bad that a civil rights lawyer, John Brittain, sued the school system and won. But he knew mandated integration wouldn’t succeed long term and decided that the strategy had to be that people wanted to integrate, that every day, every school year “parents continue to opt into integration over and over again.”
Doesn’t that sound lovely? The problem is that the adjective is missing. It is not that “parents” continue to opt into integration, but that “white parents” choose to integrate over and over again. And things go downhill from there.
There is a whole marketing strategy and a host of resources has been put in place to convince suburban parents to send their kids to the schools in the inner city. This, scandalously, includes providing free preschool to white suburban parents who send their kids to magnet schools in the inner city.
No, the people doing this in Hartford are not stupid. They see this clearly. They also are so convinced this is the only choice they have to provide a good chance of improving the schools of the inner city so that, one day, they may benefit a majority of the black kids, that they are willing to settle for this monstrosity.
Just look at this exchange:
Enid Rey, a lawyer and the person leading the effort to integrate Hartford schools:
“You know, some of our suburban families come because they get free preschool. I mean, think about it. They could afford to pay. But if you get a magnet seat, you are going to get free preschool. And I think a factor is that in the back of their head is also, if it doesn't work I'll just go back to my neighborhood school. Right? If this whole thing just doesn't work out for my child, or I don't feel comfortable, I always have another option, right?”
Chana Joffe, the reporter:
“It's an experiment.”
“Right. And they can experiment, quite frankly. Not so much the case for Hartford resident families. This is it. This is their shot at quality.”
Bottom line is the entire effort aims to ensure that each inner city school has 25 percent of white children. That is considered an integrated school.
Remember I said that the causes of the outright racism reported in Part I were apparent in Part II? So, let’s unpack this.
We now know full well that integration does work. We also know that (white) people cannot be forced to integrate – notice how, for instance, suburban schools in the area can and indeed do decide to limit the number of black kids from the city they will accept in the schools – or they basically riot and flight away. Isn’t it interesting how in America the word “force” comes into play really quickly when whites are told to do the right thing? In this case, the right thing would be to take some responsibility for the conditions they managed to create for the inner city schools and to proceed accordingly.
Then, the solution is to ensure voluntary integration. So, people of color have to go around begging and courting white parents to send their kids to schools that are better than the ones they have around their suburban houses – although, granted, their schools are not bad, but here we are talking about building state of the art schools to attract white people.
Yes, we know integration work, but the main reason it does – beyond the side benefits of educating people for equality and exposing them to difference which we must assume, lest we commit collective suicide, that is a vehicle for improving this world of ours in the very long haul – is that otherwise black kids would be going to miserably messed up schools, with bad teachers and no resources. Schools where the roof comes down and “pigeon carcasses came tumbling into the building. Pigeon carcasses.” This is not a metaphor, in case you were wondering.
No, it is not, as a friend put it, that magic white people’s pixie dust rubs off on the kids of color. Just seeing white people having good lives doesn’t change anything, because poverty is not an attitude problem. Dead pigeons don’t shower down from a roof that caves in because black kids don’t believe they can achieve. Opportunities and resources is what need to change.
The truth is if we build those great schools in the black communities, with those great teachers and the magnets and all the niceties needed to attract whites, I can assure you, black people will do just fine!
But apparently, the only way we get resources to build those great schools in black communities is if we have the excuse that we are trying to attract white children from suburban neighborhoods. This is so to such an extent that the people leading the integration effort are plainly terrified that they may not have the resources around much longer if they don't get more people worthy of them, i.e., white people.
It is a sort of trickle down good education, if you will. Because, if the resources are there, they will be able to build more good schools/programs inside schools, hence, expanding the opportunity more black kids from the neighborhood could attend a good school.
The bottom line here couldn't be any plainer if they had spelled it out: black kids ain't worth the resources just for themselves.
We should not be surprised. It has been blatant for a very long time that this very wealthy country unquestioningly tolerates insane levels of poverty because it has been studiously associated with black people. The unworthy poor.
By the way, it is patent in the reports that black parents don’t care about their children’s education…that’s why they are begging and demanding and complaining to get them into those separate and unequal great schools right there in their ‘hoods but as out of reach as if they were on the other site of the tracks in the 1940s.
The marketing efforts targeting white parents cater to the known white fragility. They cannot be told they are a bunch of racist pricks – even if unconsciously so:
“Enid, who is selling them on magnet schools, which exist to promote integration, also does not mention integration. The long history of segregated schooling doesn't come up. The current reality of segregated housing is irrelevant. No one here is being moved by a sense of collective responsibility. It is as if John Brittain never happened.“Instead, the experience Enid is curating is for comfort. All the details she considers, like making sure there are white kids in the brochures. Or if parents do tour a school, Enid does her best to have their child shadow a white student. That way they can see they won't be the only one.”
I can only hope that children of any color do not listen to these shows.
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This American Life
DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.