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.

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The Racists Roots and Racist Indoctrination of School Choice

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“Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”
-President John F. Kennedy

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Billionaires and far right policymakers are pushing for school choice.

I say they’re pushing for it because voters always turn it down.

Every single referendum held on school choice in the United States has been defeated despite billions of dollars in spending to convince people to vote for it.

But advocates aren’t discouraged that the public isn’t on their side. They have money, and in America that translates to speech.

The Donald Trump administration is dedicated to making our public schools accept this policy whether people want it or not.

But don’t think that’s some huge change in policy. The previous administration championed a lighter version of these market-driven plans. The main difference goes like this: Democrats are for charter schools and tax credits for private and parochial schools. Republicans are for anything that calls itself a school getting your tax dollars – charter schools, private schools, religious schools – if some charlatan opens a stand on the side of the road with the word “school”in the title, they get tax dollars.

In all this rush to give away federal and state money, no political party really champions traditional public schools. Ninety percent of children attend them. In opinion polls, a majority of Americans like their local community schools. But like most things Americans want, politics goes the other way. Universal healthcare? Have Romneycare. Universal background checks on all gun sales? Nah. That sort of thing.

However, what often gets lost in the rush of politicians cashing in on this policy is its racist roots.

You read that right. School choice was invented as a mechanism of white flight. Before the federal government forced schools to desegregate, no one was all that interested in having an alternative to traditional public schools. But once whites got wind that the Supreme Court might make their kids go to school with black kids, lots of white parents started clamoring for “choice.”

It was intended as a way to get around Brown vs. Board. In 1953, a year before that landmark decision, many white southerners felt it was vitally important to continue a segregated education. They deeply desired to continue having “separate but equal” schools for the races, yet the US Supreme Court seemed ready to strike that down.

Enter Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge who created what became known as the “private-school plan.” Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision,” Talmadge said.

The plan goes like this. If the Supreme Court mandates desegregation (as it did), the state would close the schools and issue vouchers allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.

Fortunately, Talmadge’s plan was never implemented in Georgia. But it became the model for segregationists everywhere.

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the plan actually came to fruition – sort of.

Two years before the 1959 federal desegregation deadline, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall explained what county leaders were planning:

“We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with ’em.”

Ultimately the county refused to sell the public school buildings. However, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years, from 1959 to 1964. During that time, taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge.

The federal government struck down the program as a misuse of taxpayer funds after only a year, but even so whites benefited and blacks lost. Since there were no local taxes collected to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county were left to fend for themselves. Since they were unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools, many black children were simply shut out of school for multiple years.

In other states, segregationists enacted “freedom of choice” plans that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Any black students that tried to do the same had to clear numerous administrative hurdles. Moreover, entering formerly all-white schools would subject them to harassment from teachers and students. Anything to keep the races apart in the classroom – and usually the entire building.

Eventually, segregationists began to realize that separate black and white schools would no longer be tolerated by the courts, so they had to devise other means to eliminate these “undesirables.”

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned:

“Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.”

Mays turned out to be somewhat prescient. Though desegregation efforts largely succeeded at first, in the last 20-30 years whites accomplished through housing and neighborhood segregation what they couldn’t legally enforce through outright school segregation. District lines were drawn to minimize the number of blacks at predominantly white schools and vice versa. Moreover, since funding was often tied to local property taxes, whites could legally ensure black schools got less resources than white schools. And with standardized tests constantly showing students at these schools as failing, policymakers could just blame the school instead of what they’d done to set the school up for failure.

Today racist policies undermine much of the structure of our public schools. We should acknowledge this and work to peel it back. We need to ensure all schools are equitably funded, that class sizes are under control, that all students get a broad curriculum and the services they need. But in the absence of a new, robust desegregation policy, our schools will always be in danger of racist programs that can easily select which students to benefit and which to ignore.

Instead of doing this hard work, we’re engaged in resurrecting the school choice policies of the deep South and universalizing them across the country. School vouchers are extremely similar to Talmadge’s private school plan. The main difference is that vouchers don’t close public schools outright, they simply allow them to be defunded and ignored. With universal school vouchers, public schools often become the de facto holding area for whichever group of children the private schools refuse to accept or who can’t afford private school tuition even with the vouchers.

Charter schools are built on the Prince Edward County model. They’re administered as private institutions yet claim to be somehow public. As a result, they’re allowed to bypass many of the rules that protect students at public schools from discrimination and fraud. In effect, they’re largely unregulated. In the modern age, that means they can be incredibly substandard for long periods of time and no one knows or intervenes. The kinds of scandals perpetrated at some charter schools are simply not possible at traditional public schools. Some charters close without notice, have facilities used as nightclubs, involve taxpayer funds used for non-school purposes such as apartments for mistresses, the purchase of yachts, etc.

In both cases, charters and voucher schools often cater to mostly one race rather than another. That increases segregation at both these facilities and traditional public schools. But voucher schools can go a step further. They can even put racism on the curriculum.

Supporting the racial order is often what’s actually being taught at private and religious schools. They are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

The American Christian Education (ACE) group provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks.  A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

These books include the following gobsmackers:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

“God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.”
—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994

“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 1991

“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise.  Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin. By first giving them their spiritual freedom, God prepared the slaves for their coming physical freedom. ”
-Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History:  Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1996), p. 219.

“Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel…Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write. In some areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have taken over the government.”
—Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed., A Beka Book, 2004

Gay people “have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.”
—Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

Brown v. Board of Education is described as social activism by the Supreme Court: “While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome… liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”
-Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998 – 1999 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 34

These are claims that are uncritically being taught to children at many voucher schools. If this were happening only at private schools, it would be troubling that racists were indoctrinating their children in the same hatred and bigotry of their parents. However, that we’re actually using public money – and planning to expand the amount of public money – to increase the racism and prejudice of the next generation is beyond troubling! It’s infuriating!

School choice does not enhance civil rights. It is inimical to them. It is part of a blatant policy to make America racist again. We cannot allow the Trump administration and any neoliberal Democrats who quietly support his ends to undo all the progress we’ve made in the last 60 years.

The bottom line is this – voters don’t want school choice. It does nothing to better childrens’ educations. It is a product of segregation and racism and even in its modern guise it continues to foster segregation and racism.

If we care about civil rights, social equality and democratic rule, school choice is something that should be relegated to the dust heap of history. It’s time to move forward, not look back fondly on the Confederacy, Jim Crow and segregationism.