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Choosing a school in a segregated city

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  1. kfwyre
    (edited )
    The first school I taught at was 100% students of color. In January of that year, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was coming up, a student asked why we got that day off from school (MLK Day is a...
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    The first school I taught at was 100% students of color.

    In January of that year, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was coming up, a student asked why we got that day off from school (MLK Day is a holiday in the United States). I gave a bit of an impromptu rundown of MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, and with it, I mentioned the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and the integration of schools in America.

    In my white and very naive mind, I was talking about history -- a history that we were over and done with. My extemporaneous civil rights speech was very positive, optimistic, and, well, whitewashed. Integration of schools! No longer separate but equal! Anyone can now go to any school! Equal opportunity! This is what justice looks like! Decades ago we fought that battle and won!

    My first year of teaching was long enough ago that I don't remember a lot from it, but I do remember this: after I talked about integration as, effectively, the "end" of racism in American schools, a student asked me the following:

    "So, if anyone can go to any school now, why don't any white kids go to this school?"

    The question was meant in earnest; the student legitimately wanted to know. It wasn't meant as a challenge, or used to make a rhetorical point, but it did so anyway, with full force, because of how clearly it highlighted an unexamined truth. I remember not knowing how to answer, and I don't even remember what I said -- likely some platitudinal bullshit -- but I remember thinking about the question long after the kid asked it: why didn't white kids go to our school?

    There were easy answers -- "it's in a black neighborhood", for example -- but each of those lead to more questions: "but why was it a black neighborhood?" All my life I had been taught (and genuinely believed) that integration in the 1950s was a unilateral good. But I had also been taught that the fight was over -- that schools got integrated and the Civil Rights Movement happened and we moved on and that's all fine now, settled decades ago. That student's question prompted me to think about, in earnest, for the first time, what it really meant that the school I was teaching at in the 2000s, over fifty years later, was completely un-integrated.

    Brown v. Board, in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, taught us that "separate but equal" is "inherently unequal", and my understanding of that narrative stopped at de jure segregation. It didn't take de facto segregation into account at all, to the point that I wasn't even aware of it at the very school I was teaching at. Of course I "knew" it at a surface level -- at a demographic one -- but I didn't "know" it at anything beyond that -- in the things that live in the realm of explanation or implication.

    At the time I started teaching there was a lot of attention given to the "achievement gap". Standardized testing was the new name of the game, and that meant looking at student performance in the cold and (presumably) impartial light of data. The achievement gap was the name given to the phenomenon revealed by this data that students of color, particularly black and Latino students, performed worse across the board than their white counterparts.

    The common explanation for this was that it represented a failure of educational opportunity on the part of schools and teachers. Black and Latino students tended to attend "worse" schools with "worse" teachers, which meant that they were being systematically denied opportunities on account of the inferior educations they received. The correct solution, then, was to improve those schools and the quality of teachers at those schools, and then their scores would rise and they would achieve educational parity.

    This made sense for me, because I believed in a framework that said that the evils of segregation went away after Brown v. Board. Educational equality had been achieved, so any lingering inequality must have been the result of the schools or the teachers. This was a very uninformed and very white perspective, but it was my honest truth. In fact, part of what drove me to become a teacher in the first place was that I smugly assumed I would do a better job than the people who were teaching in those schools, as if they were the problem.

    Admitting to this sucks. I hate what it says about me, and I want to go back in time and smack myself in the face for being such a dick. If there is a face of white arrogance, it was me: I believed my white self could do a better job educating a community of color than the people that were already doing it -- people who knew that community and were part of that community and had been building expertise and experience in their teaching craft for years and sometimes decades. I entered teaching with a naive and destructive missionary spirit: a textbook definition of "white savior".

    I say all of this not as an act of self-flagellation or some attempt at a post-hoc racial piety. I am no longer the person I was when I started teaching, and I have learned a lot since then about a lot of different things, the least of which is that my understanding of race in America and particularly as it applies to education was mostly a fiction. The reason I say all of this is because I think there are many people out there like me who haven't had their where-are-the-white-kids? moment. They still believe a lot of the convenient lies about educational equality in the US, or divorce it from other pertinent factors, like zoning and redlining and generational wealth and whose voices and advocacy get heard and respected, for example. They believe that segregation is "over" because a landmark Supreme Court case from the last century says it is.

    If this sounds accusatory, I don't mean it to. I think the truths within these topics are invisible to many people -- I know they certainly were to me. I don't want to begrudge anyone for not seeing them. Instead, I want to highlight them so that they can be seen. I want people to feel what I felt when that student asked me that pertinent question all those years ago -- a "shit, I genuinely don't know how to answer that" kind of feeling. It's the feeling of realizing that living in an ideal has shielded you from a reality -- in my case, of thinking segregation was no longer a thing despite staring it in the face across 32 desks for six hours a day, five days a week.

    This whole story and preamble is ultimately a roundabout way of me, weirdly enough, downplaying my own voice. I'm not someone who's an authority on this, but in the time I've been teaching I've learned and experienced enough to know an authority on these issues when I see one, and this author absolutely is one. I ultimately want to lift this article up high and point to it and yell to anyone who can hear me: don't listen to me; listen to her. This article is one of the best I have ever read about education in the United States. If I could mark topics exemplary, I would absolutely do so for this one. Hannah-Jones's words and story capture the reality of schools and segregation and systemic racism far better than I ever could. She is deeply insightful and powerfully illuminating.

    She also does an incredible job of mixing high-level discussions about abstract things like demographics with down-to-earth, lived experiences. If you take away nothing else from the article, I want you to focus on the author's struggle and her disagreements with her husband as the parents of a child of color forced to incorporate her, somehow, into a racist system:

    There was no margin for error, and we had to use our relative status to fight to give Najya every advantage. Hadn’t we worked hard, [Faraji] asked, frustration building in his voice, precisely so that she would not have to go to the types of schools that trapped so many black children?

    This is a struggle that parents of color go through nationwide. Do they work to give their own children as much advantage as possible, knowing that to do so they are buying into and even possibly upholding a racist system that disadvantages people like them? Or do they choose to go against the system, refusing to play along with its racism but thereby putting their own children at a disadvantage?

    We will know we have educational equality in this country when parents aren't forced to make this choice -- when they don't have to select against a "bad school" because there aren't any bad schools. We are not there. We are so far from there it's honestly depressing. The school I started teaching in, with 100% students of color, didn't have enough money for copier paper. What parent would genuinely want to send their child to a school that can't even afford the most basic of school supplies for its teachers? How many students didn't I have because their parents used their means or power to get their kids somewhere better? And what does it say about the value of a community when the most reliable means of success available to the people in it comes from leaving it?

    But again, don't listen to me. Listen to the author. Her words run circles around mine:

    This sense of helplessness in the face of such entrenched segregation is what makes so alluring the notion, embraced by liberals and conservatives, that we can address school inequality not with integration but by giving poor, segregated schools more resources and demanding of them more accountability. True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural. Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. “My children,” he said, “only have one life.” But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregated schools. They have only one life, too.

    9 votes