Gary Orfield is a decent man, scholarly, competent and committed, intellectually and practically, to racial justice. I like him. But I do wish he could learn not to see blackness as a disease and dilution as the only conceivable cure.
What brings the University of Chicago political science professor to mind is his latest report, done for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, in which he describes Washington's as "the most segregated" of America's big-city school systems.
Maybe what we need is a better definition of segregation, which Orfield does not offer, except by implication. Washington attains its "most segregated" status by virtue of the fact 94 percent of its school population is black. We are "segregated" not because of gerrymandering, not because of pupil-assignment schedules that send black kids here and white kids there, nor even because of racial housing patterns, but because nearly all of the city's public school students (and the overwhelming majority of its residents) are black. That's a disease? Well, Orfield proposes to cure it.
What is confusing is that predominantly single- race schools are segregated, by what I take to be the Orfield definition, only if that single race is black. Would he propose to cure segregation in the schools of, say, Bingham County, Idaho? Well, why not? I don't have the data for the schools there, but according to the newest Census Bureau figures, only 12 of the county's 69,659 residents are black. I would guess, as a result, that Bingham County has a fair number of schools with no significant black enrollment.
Is that a problem? Is it a cure to merge the Bingham County school district with that of neighboring Bannock County which, thanks to Pocatello, has nearly 1,400 blacks?
No? But Orfield proposes just that sort of cure for what he imagines ails the District of Columbia schools. He is urging Congress to supply the money to allow D.C. school students to attend suburban schools without paying tuition. He would also seek federal funds for specialized schools in the District designed to attract surburban students.
It seems inescapable that, in Orfield's mind, the problem with the D.C. schools is that they are too black. It seems of no account that the benign reason is that most of the city's children are black.
I wouldn't argue with Washington's superintendent, Floretta McKenzie, that the sort of exchange Orfield has in mind "would make the children of this city less isolated and let the children of the suburbs know that cities are exciting, wonderful places," except to note that "exciting" covers a lot of territory. But school board vice president Nathaniel Bush comes a lot closer to what I really believe: that "our responsibility is to provide the best education we can for the students we have."
If that goal calls for "specialized schools" or more money or whatever, then let's have specialized schools, more money and whatever--but to educate the city's children, not to attract the suburban children.
Orfield is not alone in seeing clearly the psychological damage done to black children when they are barred from attending "white" schools. The Supreme Court took note of that fact in 1954. But Orfield and too many others pays too little attention to the psychological damage that can result when well-meaning reformers say to our children: the trouble with your school is that it has too many children like you.