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What Will We Do to Actually Desegregate Our Schools?

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I know the answer to the above question will be “nothing.” People who can, largely white people, will continue to move to the suburbs or send their kids to private schools while people of color will attend tax-starved public schools, continuing the long cycle of racial discrimination in this country. Every white person benefits from this today and many of us contribute to it, even unintentionally. But the problem is real and more people are articulating responses to it. Matt Delmont has a new book out on the busing controversies in the North and notes how much of the busing controversy was created by the media, who reported on southern civil rights problems as a moral issue but sided with whites on northern civil rights issues. Jake Blumgart interviewed Delmont.

Q: Do you think part of the reason Northern racism was harder to expose was that it was subtler and less dramatic? There’s this whole edifice of tightly drawn school district lines where residents are able to pull down the portcullis behind them with zoning regulations. Segregation in the North relies on incredibly complex policies that were just harder to make interesting and accessible.

A: The way racism functioned in the North was much subtler. In the South it’s easy to picture how racism operated—colored drinking fountains and white drinking fountains. The system of Jim Crow segregation was so visible. It was still incredibly difficult to overturn that system, but it was easier to visualize. For Northern white citizens and white politicians, the way their schools and neighborhoods were structured was just normal, they didn’t know or chose not to understand that it wasn’t just a matter of white families choosing to live in white neighborhoods and black families in black neighborhoods. There was a whole history of mortgage redlining, zoning decisions, public housing discrimination, and real estate discrimination that created those separate neighborhoods. But the subtlety of that allowed white people to just see it as common sense, just how our neighborhood and schools should be.

It’s easier for them to say, and mean, well, these are our neighborhood schools, this is our property, and we want to protect those things and lobby for zoning restrictions that reflect that. It made it easier because it they believed it to be an innocent thing that just happened and it gave them a language to be able to argue against school desegregation that resonated powerfully and didn’t seem racist.

Delmont concludes:

One of the goals in my book is to get people to think about the fact that schools are still segregated many decades after Brown v. Board because of intentional choices that politicians and parents and school officials made. In regards to school zoning, school financing, and student assignment, those were intentional things that happened. If we want to have a different set of outcomes in the future and have meaningful school integration in terms of race and socioeconomic status we have to make different choices. It wasn’t inevitable that Brown was going fail as it did and it wasn’t inevitable that schools were going to be segregated the way they are now. Those were choices that people made and continue to make. To have different outcomes, we need to have different choices.

We do have to make different choices. One of those choices may well mean committing to contributing to the solution of de facto segregation and then acting on it. Another solution may be a return to busing. That’s what Sean Riley, who was a bused student as a child and now teaches in the Seattle public schools calls for in response to the growing segregation of the city’s schools. He notes that busing worked in many ways, even though white people of course took advantage of it to dominate it for their own purposes. It led to better test scores for minority students, created a more inclusive city, and spawned a greater desire for integration throughout other facets of urban life. But that era ended, Seattle got rich, and the age of testing took over. That’s helped destroy what was good about diversified education in Seattle.

We must prioritize getting different kinds of young people working and learning together again. Therefore, we must prioritize reintegration.

First off, the Seattle Public School District—a district that currently disciplines black kids four times more often than whites—must immediately increase professional development around culturally responsive and socially just instruction. When schools resegregate, staff stagnate. We must ensure that classrooms use all students’ identities and knowledge as entry points. It takes incredible skill and openness to develop these abilities, and Seattle needs to commit serious resources to the work.

Seattle teachers should also blaze the trail on creating cross-district and inter-district collaborations. There is evidence, from groups such as Narrative 4 in New York City, that writing projects between disparate groups of students generate radical empathy, develop cultural flexibility, and nurture authentic writing skills. Writers in the Schools (WITS) and I are currently developing a collaborative writing project between Blaine and South End middle schools. As Seattle continues to segregate, these projects should extend beyond our district’s borders. Seattle Public Schools should look into applying for federal grant money to facilitate this work.

In the long-term, I propose something called the Seattle Civics Academy. Pulling students from all over the district, this would be a semester-long program that all Seattle high-school students would participate in at some point in their school careers. They would get to choose when, but no student could opt out—the overwhelming flaw in Seattle’s integration plan. Five days a week, all day long, students from across the city would attend completely inclusive classes that examine race, class, and gender through the lenses of math, language arts, and other disciplines. Teachers highly trained in socially just and culturally responsive teaching would emphasize and promote communicating across differences and fighting for a more just city and society. Each semester’s cohort would create an activism project to improve the city and its citizens’ lives. Such work would break down isolation, facilitate access to power, and promote harmony and empathy. Frankly, I also believe it would be fucking awesome.

Of course, Riley also understands the class dimensions of this–that Seattle can talk all it wants to about racial inclusiveness and support bringing in Syrian refugees but they will all end up in south King County because they can’t afford to live in Seattle. But we have to move forward to creating more integrated schools in very real ways. When wealthy people move to the suburbs or stay in the cities and find ways to put their kids in all (or almost) white private schools or push black students out of their schools because their parents can’t afford to live in a gentrified city any longer, they contribute to racial discrimination. This may not be intentional, but that’s how white privilege works. White privilege must be fought, including and especially by ensuring that all students have equality of opportunity at school. Separate but “equal” is a terrible thing, whether that is the de jure schools of 1954 the de facto schools of 2016.

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