White Kids Need Black History, Too

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It’s Black History Month.

 

That means your local public school is pulling out all the stops.

 

We’re making murals of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. We’re jamming to jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. We’re reading excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” We’re writing journals about what it means to be the people we are and to come from wherever we come from.

 

In short, we’re having a lot of fun.

 

But each child responds differently to the siren call of Black History – especially when the person making the call is a white teacher, like me.

 

Today I asked my classes of 7th grade students – most of whom are impoverished and/or minorities – “Would you like to talk about some Black History?”

 

And the responses I got were all over the place.

 

Some of the children enthusiastically took to their feet with a robust “Yeah!”

 

Others nodded. Some were merely quiet as if they didn’t think I were asking a real question. And some honestly ventured “No.”

 

In one class, a white student got so upset at the suggestion we spend valuable class time on Black History that he fell to the floor and almost hide under the table.

 

I’ll admit I was somewhat shocked by that.

 

What was he so reticent about? I mean I know the kid. He loves black culture. We all do. What does he have against learning about black people?

 

He’s a big heavy metal fan. What’s heavy metal without Jimi Hendrix?

 

He loves standup comedy. What’s standup comedy without Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or – heck – even Steve Harvey?

 

And didn’t I see him the other day watching the preview to Marvel’s “Black Panther” with baited breath?

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked him on the floor.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really don’t want to learn about Black History.”

 

And it was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it – “Dude, if anyone needs to learn Black History, it’s you.”

 

I patted him on the back and told him he’d survive. But I let him stay on the floor.

 

Then we moved on.

 

We watched the video for the song “Glory” by Common and John Legend just to set the mood.

 

The kids were almost hypnotized. I’m not sure if it was the images from the movie “Selma,” the gorgeous singing and piano playing or the unexpected joy of hearing someone rapping in class.

 

When it was over, most of them couldn’t wait to talk about a few well-chosen people of color.

 

We started with the black power fist from the 1968 Olympics, talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, why they did what they did and even how it related to modern day protests like those initiated by Colin Kaepernick.

 

This got kids asking all kinds of questions. We talked about the origin of the slave trade, the science behind melanin and skin color, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and (in one class) we even took a deep dive into the lyrics of the National Anthem to discover why some people find it to be racist.

 

In short, it would be difficult to find a more productive 20-30 minutes. Kids were engaged and thoughtful, many looking up further details on their iPads as the bell rang and they left the room.

 

All except the white child on the floor.

 

He had participated in the discussion – reluctantly. But he hadn’t moved from his cave.

 

“Can I talk to you, Mr. Singer?” he said.

 

I told him, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me the kinds of things his grandparents say about black people.

 

He told me about their virulent opposition to Kaepernick, how they though black people were just whining about nothing and that racism had been over for fifty years.

 

It’s a hard position to be put in by a student.

 

You don’t want to contradict their folks, but you can’t let untruths pass by either.

 

I asked him what he thought about it. He wasn’t so sure.

 

So I told him just to think about what we had said. I asked him to keep an open mind.

 

For instance, I said, if Kaepernick shouldn’t take a knee during the National Anthem, when should he protest?

 

“How about with a sign in the street?” he said.

 

To which I responded that black people have done that and been told that was just as unacceptable.

 

By this time another student came back into the room and walked up to us. She was a white girl who’s usually very quiet.

 

“Mr. Singer, thank you for talking with us about all that stuff today,” she said.

 

I told her she was welcome and asked her what she thought about it.

 

“I just wish all this stuff wasn’t happening,” she said.

 

I asked her to elaborate.

 

“I mean that black power fist thing you showed us, that was like a hundred years ago.”

 

“Fifty years,” I corrected and she repeated me.

 

“And it’s still happening,” she said. “I just don’t understand why. Why can’t we all just live in peace?”

 

I smiled at her and the boy who had been quietly listening.

 

We spoke a bit further and they walked off together in deep conversation.

 

There are many great reasons to talk about Black History.

 

For children of color, it shows them that this nation wasn’t built entirely by white people, that they too are a part of America, that they have much to be proud of and to aspire to.

 

But that’s not the only reason to teach it.

 

Black History is important for white kids, too.

 

It teaches them that the world isn’t just about them, that we’re stronger together, that our differences aren’t something to be ashamed of but something to be celebrated.

 

But especially white children need to learn about their responsibilities as white people.

 

They didn’t start racism. Neither did I. But it has been practiced in our names and we have benefited from it.

 

If we don’t want to be a part of it, we need to recognize that and take a stand against it.

 

I acknowledge that’s an uncomfortable truth for middle school students. And it’s something I can’t simply sit my kids down and discursively tell them.

 

But in generating these conversations between children of different backgrounds, ethnicities and upbringings, I think it provides the chance for them to come to their own conclusions.

 

It’s a dangerous place to be.

 

Allowing kids to think for themselves means allowing them to come to conclusions you might not agree with.

 

The boy from my class might come in next week further convinced of his grandparents’ prejudice. Or he might not. But I suspect he will have thought about it some.

 

That’s all I can do.

 

As a group, white people could use more of that honest reflection. As adults, we become fixed in our thinking and rarely have the bravery of giving something a second thought.

 

But children’s characters are still being formed.

 

Conversations like this one give me hope for the future.

 

Black History is not just about the past. It’s about where we’ll go in the future.

 

Moreover, it’s not just important for black people. White people need exposure to it, too.

 

I know I do.

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Crippled Puerto Rico Offered School Privatization as Quick Fix for Woes

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You’re Puerto Rico’s school system.

 

More than five months since a devastating hurricane hit the island’s shores, some 270 schools are still without power.

 

Roughly 25,000 students are leaving with that number expected to swell to 54,000 in four years. And that’s after an 11-year recession already sent 78,000 students  seeking refuge elsewhere.

 

So what do you do to stop the flow of refugees fleeing the island? What do you do to fix your storm damaged schools? What do you do to ensure all your precious children are safe and have the opportunity to learn?

 

If you’re Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello, you sell off your entire system of public education.

 

After an economic history of being pillaged and raped by corporate vultures from the mainland, Rossello is suggesting the U.S. Territory offer itself for another round of abuse.

 

He wants to close 300 more schools and change the majority of those remaining into charter and voucher schools.

 

That means no elected school boards.

 

That means no public meetings determining how these schools are run.

 

It means no transparency in terms of how the money is spent.

 

It means public funding can become private profit.

 

And it means fewer choices for children who will have to apply at schools all over the island and hope one accepts them. Unlike public schools, charter and voucher schools pick and choose whom to enroll.

 

Make no mistake. This has nothing to do with serving the needs of children. It is about selling off public property because it belongs to poor, brown people.

 

Something similar happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

 

A district that served mostly black and poor children was swiped by private interests and turned almost exclusively into charter schools.

 

The results have been an abysmal academic record, the loss of black teachers, black neighborhoods, cultural heritage and in its place support for a status quo that just doesn’t care to provide the proper resources to students of color.

 

If the Governor and his wealthy backers have their way, Puerto Rico will be yet another ghettoized colony gobbled up by industry.

 

However, the people aren’t going to let this happen without a fight.

 

Mercedes Martinez, President of the Federacion de Maestros of Puerto Rico, an island teacher’s union, released the following statement:

 

“Dear comrades in the diaspora, now more than ever we need your unconditional solidarity.

 

Governor Roselló just announced his plan to shut down 307 schools, implement charter schools and vouchers. Disaster capitalism at its best. Added to the announcement of the privatization of PREPA. [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority]

 

The way to victory is already paved, organized and militant resistance, concrete proposals to improve the public goods that we have, unity and organization. Be our voice in the states and let the world know that corporate reformers want to make PR the next New Orleans as they did after Katrina.

 

The hurricane has been the perfect storm and excuse for them to advance their plans. Today the so called “educational reform” will be sent to the legislature.

 

We will give the hardest fight of our lives, and we will triumph. Send letters and videos of support with our struggle. Teachers United, will never be defeated!

 

Lucha sí”

 

I don’t know about you, but I stand with these brave teachers, parents and their students.

 

I may live in Pennsylvania, my skin may be white, but I do not support the theft of Puerto Rico’s schools.

 

These children have just as much right as mine to a free and appropriate education. Their parents deserve the right to control their districts. They deserve transparency and self-rule.

 

They deserve the choice to guide their own destinies.

 

Teachers’ opposition to the move comes even though the Governor is proposing a $1,500 raise for all educators. Martinez says it could come to a general strike.

 

Their cause has hope on its side – especially in blocking the proposed school vouchers.

 

The Governor’s voucher proposal wouldn’t go into effect until the 2019-20 school year. However, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court struck down a similar program in 1994 when the current governor’s father, Pedro Rossello – himself a former governor – tried to push it through. The court ruled the island’s constitution forbids public money being used to fund privately run schools.

 

From this day forward, let us always remember what they did to New Orleans. Let us remember what they are trying to do to Puerto Rico.

 

Corporate school reform is not about making better schools. If it was, you would see plans like this being proposed in Beverly Hills and rich white neighborhoods across the country.

 

But somehow that never happens.

 

These schemes only show up in poor communities populated predominantly by people of color.

 

While the rest of our public schools are celebrating Black History Month, the children of Puerto Rico are reliving the struggle for their civil rights.

 

They are still the victims of colonization and brutality.

 

But they are not alone.

 

I stand with the people of Puerto Rico.

 

Will you stand, too?

 

Will you speak out for Puerto Rico?


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Nationwide Charter School Expansion Slowing Down

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Charter schools used to be seen as the hot new concept in education.

 

But that fad seems to have jumped the shark.

 

For two decades since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota, they’ve grown at about 6 to 7 percent nationally.

 

But for the last three years, that growth has dropped each year – from 7 to 5 to 2 percent.

 

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Even states that historically boasted the most growth are falling behind. Of charter powerhouses Texas, Florida, Ohio and California – only Texas has shown a significant upward trend.

 

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So what happened?

 

How did the hippest new thing to hit education since the chalk board suddenly hit such a wall? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that every celebrity from Magic Johnson to Andre Agassi to Deion Sanders to Sean “Puffy” Combs to Pitt Bull had their own charter school. Even Oprah Winfrey, the queen of multimedia, donated millions to charter networks in Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and her home state of Illinois.

 

How could something with so much high profile support be running out of gas?

 

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has a theory.

 

The charter school funded think tank (read: propaganda network) released a report boiling the issue down to three factors: real estate costs, a teacher shortage and political backlash.

 

Real estate costs? Yes, few public schools want to offer you public property to put your privately run school that will inevitably gobble up a good portion of its funding and turn a portion of that into profit for private investors.

 

Teacher shortage? Yes, when you pay your educators the least, don’t allow your employees to unionize, and demand high hours without remuneration, you tend to find it harder than most educational institutions to find people willing to work for you.

 

Political backlash? DING! DING! DING!

 

Of course, most people who aren’t paid by the charter school industry – as those working for CRPE are – would simply call this a charter school backlash – not political, at all.

 

This isn’t one political party seeking advantage over another. It’s concerned citizens from both sides of the aisle worried about the practices of the charter school industry.

 

The general public is starting to understand exactly what charter schools are and why they are a bad idea for children and society.

 

For instance:
-Charter schools are rarely controlled by elected school boards – they’re run by appointed bureaucrats.

 

-They are often run for profit –which means they can reduce services for students and pocket the savings.

 

-They cherry pick which students to enroll and how long to keep them enrolled – they only let in the easiest to teach and give the boot to any that are struggling before standardized testing time.

 

-And they very often close unexpectedly and/or are the site of monetary scandals where unscrupulous charter school operators take the money and run.

 

Moreover, it’s no accident that much of the criticism of charter schools comes from people of color. About one quarter of all charter school students are black, whereas black students make up only 15 percent of enrollment at traditional public schools.

 

To put that in perspective, approximately 837,000 black students were enrolled at charter schools during the 2016-17 school year. Yet civil rights organizations are concerned that this over-representation is having negative consequences on students of color.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has issued numerous criticisms of charter schools most recently calling for a moratorium on them. So has the Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance.

 

In addition to the concerns already mentioned, civil rights advocates are concerned with the tendency of charter schools to increase racial segregation.

 

Seventy percent of black charter school students have few white classmates, according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

 

But some charters are even worse. More than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had student bodies made up of at least 99% minority students, according to an Associated Press analysis from three years ago. And it’s getting worse!

 

Certainly increasing segregation is a problem even at traditional public schools, but nothing like the numbers we’re seeing in the charter school sector.

 

Civil rights leaders know that “separate but equal” schools don’t work because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

 

For instance, charter schools suspend students at a much higher rate than traditional public schools. Some charters suspend more than 70% of those enrolled, according to an analysis from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

 

 

Researchers found the situation is even more dire for minorities. Black students are four times more likely to be suspended than white students, and students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as non-disabled students.

 

With all these problems dogging their heels, it’s no wonder that the charter school juggernaut is starting to lose momentum.

 

Instead of concentrating solely on why these schools are losing popularity, we should also ask what set them shooting off into the stratosphere in the first place.

 

After all, no one was really crying out for private schools run with public money.

 

No one, that is, except big business and greedy investors looking for a quick buck.

 

Since the Clinton administration, charter school investments get automatic tax credits that allow investors to double their money in as little as 7 years. Lobbying at the state and federal level by charter schools and their investors and contractors have enabled a monetary scam to enrich private industry at public expense.

 

Put simply, charters are not subject to the same instructional, operational, fiscal, accounting or conflict of interest rules as traditional public schools. Therefore, in most states it’s perfectly legal for a charter school operator to give his brother the instructional contract, his sister the maintenance contract and his uncle the textbook contract. He can replace the teachers with computer programs and apps, while his own privately held company rents and leases the school building at a hefty markup – all with public money.

 

And somehow that’s still called a “public” school.

 

We have to face this simple fact: Charters took off not because they were a good idea to help kids learn, but because they were an excellent way to make a lot of money off of the government. It was a way to steal money meant to help children.

 

What we’re seeing in terms of a backlash is just a more common realization of the motives behind charter schools echoed in the negative consequences these schools leave behind.

 

And in the Trump era, charter schools can’t hide behind a friendly face like Barack Obama.

 

The neoliberal agenda is as fervently being pushed by the right wing as the left – more so.

 

This slowdown may signal that people have gone beyond politics.

 

We don’t care what the left and the right wish to sell us. We’re not willing to buy the charter school boloney anymore. If our policymakers want to continue getting our votes, they may need to give in to what the people actually want and stop trying to lead us over the cliff and feed us to the sharks.

Public Schools Best Fulfill Dr. King’s “Purpose of Education”

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What is the purpose of education?

 

Is it to train the next generation of workers?

 

Or is it to empower the next generation of citizens?

 

Is it to give children the skills necessary to meet the needs of business and industry?

 

Or is it to provide them the tools to self-actualize and become the best people they can be?

 

In today’s world, our leaders continue to insist that the answer to the question is the former corporate training model. Knowledge is only valuable if it translates to a job and thus a salary.

 

But we didn’t always think that way.

 

As another Martin Luther King Day is about to dawn this week, I’m reminded of the man behind the myth, a person who clearly would deny this materialistic view of learning.

 

When we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually think of the towering figure of the Civil Rights Movement who gave the “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

 

However, as a teacher, I find myself turning to something he wrote in 1947 when he was just an 18-year-old student at Morehouse College.

 

While finishing his undergraduate studies in sociology, he published an essay in the student paper called “The Purpose of Education.”

 

Two sections immediately jump off the page. The first is this:

 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

 

So for King it wasn’t enough for schools to teach facts. It wasn’t enough to teach skills, math, writing, reading, history and science. The schools are also responsible for teaching children character – how to be good people, how to get along with each other.

 

It’s a worthy goal.

 

But 2018 contains a far different educational landscape than 1947.

 

When King wrote, there were basically two kinds of school – public and private. Today there is a whole spectrum of public and private each with its own degree of self-governance, fiscal accountability and academic freedom.

 

On the one side we have traditional public schools. On the other we have fully private schools. And in the middle we have charter, voucher and home schools.

 

So which schools today are best equipped to meet King’s ideal?

 

Private schools are by their very nature exclusionary. They attract and accept only certain students. These may be those with the highest academics, parental legacies, religious beliefs, or – most often – families that can afford the high tuition. As such, their student bodies are mostly white and affluent.

 

That is not King’s ideal. That is not the best environment to form character, the best environment in which to learn about people who are different than you and to develop mutual understanding.

 

Voucher schools are the same. They are, in fact, nothing but private schools that are subsidized in part by public tax dollars.

 

Charter schools model themselves on private schools so they are likewise discriminatory. The businesses who run these institutions – often for a profit – don’t have to enroll whoever applies. Even though they are fully funded by public tax dollars, they can choose who to let in and who to turn away. Often this is done behind the cloak of a lottery, but with no transparency and no one checking to ensure it is done fairly, there is no reason to believe operators are doing anything but selecting the easiest (read: cheapest) students to educate.

 

Charter schools have been shown to increase segregation having student bodies that are more monochrome than those districts from which they cherry pick students. This is clearly not King’s ideal.

 

Homeschooling is hard to generalize. There is such a wide variety of experiences that can be described under this moniker. However, they often include this feature – children are taught at home by their parent or parents. They may or may not interact with their academic peers and the degree to which they meet and understand different cultures is variable to say the least. They may meet King’s ideal, but frankly the majority of them probably do not.

 

So we’re left with traditional public schools. Do they instill “intelligence plus character”?

 

Answer: it depends.

 

There are many public schools where children of different races, nationalities, religions, and creeds meet, interact and learn together side-by-side.

 

Students wearing hajibs learn next to those wearing yarmulkes. Students with black skin and white skin partner with each other to complete class projects. Students with parents who emigrated to this country as refugees become friends with those whose parents can trace their ancestors back to the Revolutionary War.

 

These schools are true melting pots where children learn to become adults who value each other because of their differences not fear each other due to them. These are children who not only learn their academics as well – if not often better – than those at competing kinds of schools, but they also learn the true face of America and they learn to cherish it.

 

This is the true purpose of education. This is the realization of King’s academic ideal and his civil rights dream.

 

However, this is not the case at every public school.

 

While there are many like this, there are too many that are increasingly segregated. In fact, in some areas our schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Dr. King’s assassination.

 

These are schools that get the lion’s share of resources, that have the newest facilities, the widest curriculum, the most affluent clientele.

 

So, no, not even all public schools meet this ideal. But those that don’t at least contain the possibility of change.

 

We could integrate all public schools. We could never integrate our charter, voucher and private schools. That goes against their essential mission. They are schools made to discriminate. Public schools are meant to be all inclusive. Every one could meet King’s ideal, if we only cared enough to do it.

 

Which brings me to the second section of King’s early essay that pops off the page:

 

“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

 

Seventy one years ago, King was warning us about the situation we suffer today.

 

When we allow academics to be distinct from character and understanding, we put ourselves at the mercy of leaders with “reason, but with no morals.”

 

We put ourselves and our posterity in the hands of those like President Donald Trump, the fruit of a fully private education.

 

Racism and privilege become the defining characteristics of a class without character, in King’s sense.

 

If we want to reclaim what it means to be an American, if we want to redefine ourselves as those who celebrate difference and defend civil rights, that begins with understanding the purpose of education.

 

It demands we defend public schools against privatization. And it demands that we transform our public schools into the integrated, equitable institutions we dreamed they could all be.

Funny How School Closings Are Merely Accidental Racism. Never Intentional.

Students Protest School Closings At Chicago Public Schools Headquarters

 

It’s funny. When you close schools serving minority students, they tend to move away.

 

That’s what’s happening in Chicago.

 

In the last seven years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 schools serving mostly students of color. And from 2015 to 2016, alone, the city lost 12,000 black residents.

 

Huh.

 

Who would have ever thought that cutting funding to services for minorities might make them get up and leave?

 

But God forbid you suggest this is intentional!

 

These are just disparate facts. There is no conceivable causal link between making life intolerable for people and their leaving.

 

When has that ever happened before?

 

The Great Migration (1919-1950) when hundreds of thousands of blacks moved from the deep south to the shores of Lake Michigan looking for better opportunities?

 

Well, sure, but when else has that ever happened?

 

You can’t connect one dot to another.

 

That would just be rude.

 

Yet that’s just what Chris Kennedy, a candidate vying to run against Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner on the Democratic ticket, did this week.

 

He said that Emanuel is running a “strategic gentrification plan” to intentionally push black residents out of the city.

 

“My belief is they’re being pushed out. This is involuntary. That we’re cutting off funding for schools, cutting off funding for police, allowing people to be forced to live in food deserts, closing hospitals, closing access to mental health facilities. What choice do people have but to move, to leave?” Kennedy said at a press conference.

 

“And I think that’s part of a strategic gentrification plan being implemented by the city of Chicago to push people of color out of the city. The city is becoming smaller and as it becomes smaller, it’s become whiter.”

 

 

The establishment immediately pushed back against him.

 

The Chicago Sun-Times couldn’t find any fault with Kennedy’s facts, but they called his interpretation “irresponsible.”

 

Emanuel’s office likewise issued a press release likening Kennedy’s claims with those of Republicans like Rauner and President Donald Trump, even though both of those individuals would be more likely to champion a plan to kick blacks out of Chicago than criticize it.

 

Kennedy’s remarks simply echo what black Chicagoans have been saying for years.

 

FACT: Since 2001, 72 Chicago schools have been closed or phased out. Ninety percent of the students affected are black.

 

And now Emanuel is suggesting closing four additional schools – all from the predominantly African American Englewood community.

 

Sure, eventually they’ll be replaced by one new school, but only after at least a year without any high school in the area.

 

When the new school finally opens, the neighborhood will be less black and better suited to what? Gentrification!

 

Jitu Brown, National Director for a broad based collective of civil rights organizations called Journey 4 Justice, estimates that more than 30,000 people of color have fled Chicago since Emanuel took office.

 

Brown led a group of community members to sit in at the Chicago Board of Education today to protest the proposed closings.

 

“Rahm wants to close successful black grammar school to make room for upper income families! We have proof! That’s why we sit-in,” he tweeted.

 

Back in 2013, Brown broke down his argument at a hearing before the US Department of Education:

 

“To deny us the right to improve our schools as community institutions is a violation of our human rights. To destabilize schools in our community is a violation of our human rights. To have communities with no neighborhood schools is a violation of our human rights.  . . . We are America’s mirror. Do you have the courage to accept what you see?”

 

Kennedy really isn’t saying anything different. He’s just echoing the concerns of the community he wants to represent.

 

“I don’t know what you can say when the strategic plan for Chicago Public Schools suggest that the entire community of Englewood can go an entire year without access to a high school,” Kennedy said this week.

 

“What are you saying to the people there? No one’s going to move there who’s got a high school kid. And anybody with a high school kid has to think about what they’re going to do. It’s just a device to empty out the community.”

 

The problem is not limited to Chicago. It’s emblematic of public school policy nationwide.

 

From 2003-2012, in New York City, 117 schools were closed. Sixty-three percent of the students affected were black.

 

In 2008, 23 schools were closed in Washington, DC. Ninety-nine percent of the students affected were black, Latino or Hispanic.

 

Since 2005, in Detroit, 130 schools have been closed. Ninety-three percent of the students affected were children of color.

 

And one and on.

 

We intentionally segregate students based on race and class, then allocate funds accordingly. Richer whiter students get all the resources they need. Poorer blacker students get crumbling schools, narrowed curriculum until their schools are shuttered and they’re forced to either move away or put up with fly by night charter schools.

 

Look at what happened in New Orleans.

 

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state took over 107 of the city’s then-128 public schools, removing them from local control of the residents. The majority of these schools were turned into charters, closed or simply never reopened – a move affecting 90 percent of black students and only 1 percent of white students.

 

Karran Harper-Royal, a New Orleans parent and cofounder of the national group Parents Across America, argued at the same hearing in 2013 before the US Department of Education that the result was racist.

 

They call it school choice, but parents don’t have choice when 80 percent attend charter schools – some of which run a lottery enrollment process, she said. As a result, parents are forced to apply to multiple charter schools to ensure their children have somewhere to go to learn.

 

Your choice is between charter schools – 79 percent of which are rated “D” or “F” – and 15 state run public schools that are all rated “D” or “F,” she said.

 

“African-American students are more likely than their white counterparts to experience schools that are at risk of being closed down, phased-out, turned around or co-located,” Harper-Royal said. “To guarantee me a seat in a failing school system is not ‘choice.’ It’s racist is what it is.”

 

This is the reality for poor and minority students across the country.

 

It’s refreshing to hear a Democrat brave enough to actually speak the truth about it – especially since Democrats have been as apt to preside over these corporate education reform policies as Republicans.

 

Closing black schools and keeping white ones open is not an accident.

 

Neither is continuing school segregation, the proliferation of charter and voucher schools and the continued insistence that the only way to hold educators accountable for actually educating is high stakes standardized testing.

 

These are all choices that result in winners and losers.

 

It’s time we recognized that. If we really want to champion civil rights and equity for all, we need to stop promoting racism as school policy and pretending to be surprised at the results.

The Different Flavors of School Segregation

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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.

 

 

Segregated Schools

 

 

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.

 

The reason?

 

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.

 

 

3) Tracking

 

 

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.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

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.

White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

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This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

 

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

 

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

 

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

 

Hold up. I teach English.

 

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

 

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

 

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

 

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

 

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

 

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

 

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

 

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

 

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

 

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

 

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

 

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

 

And a difficult one.

 

 

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

 

 

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

 

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

 

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

 

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

 

She didn’t.

 

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

 

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

 

Even that didn’t work.

 

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

 

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

 

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

 

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

 

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

 

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

 

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

 

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

 

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

 

It just seemed so unfair.

 

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

 

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

 

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

 

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

 

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

 

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

 

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

 

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

 

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

 

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

 

I say again – I don’t know.

 

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

 

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

 

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

 

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

 

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

 

 

But this kind of thing happens all the time.

 

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

 

And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.

 

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

 

It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.

 

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

 

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

 

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

 

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

 

 

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

 

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

 

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

 

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

 

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

 

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

 

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

 

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

 

Especially when the norm is whiteness.

 

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

 

I mean how white can you get?