Chris Stewart publishes Citizen Education, a weekly education reader focused on improving educational options for communities of color. He is also the director of external affairs for the nonprofit publication Education Post.
Yet two of the biggest school integration supporters I have met — one in journalism, and one in research — have both admitted to selecting segregated schools for their own kids. One of them is white, the other is black, and both are preaching one thing while doing another.
They aren’t alone. They are a parental cliche. The truth is, if the American majority wanted integrated schools, we would already have them. Instead, many white families select schools in ways that create social distance between their children and other races. This leaves people of color who love our children to wonder how long we can chase them and continue to further the insulting delusion that black student achievement can only be had in proximity to whiteness.
Most black parents are realists. There is no evidence that perfect integration will occur soon, but our kids need an education today. With this in mind, it is unnerving to see integration fundamentalists criticizing policies aimed at educating our kids where they are. To them, reforms that assist marginalized communities are a consolation prize for our failure to achieve an idealized picture of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream community. To us, they’re an imperfect but ultimately useful pathway helping us to navigate our kids through a racist society.
What if the supposed beneficiaries of public school integration aren’t actually pining for it? There is a long line of black intellectual thought that questions the primacy of integration as an educational goal and as a means of cultural health for black children.
W.E.B. Dubois said: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad.”
King himself expressed reservations about integration, too. Black educators from his church recall him saying of white schools and white teachers: “People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”
Kenneth Clark, the famed psychologist whose scientific evidence about the deleterious effects of discrimination bolstered Brown v. Board of Education, expressed disappointment with its aftermath. Years later he conceded that civil rights leaders may have underestimated institutional racism, writing a paper for the Harvard Educational Review that called for “realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors” for the traditional public schools. His vision is not significantly different from today’s school reform efforts.
Research continues to tell us black children mostly attend public schools where they are more likely to be suspended than white students and are less likely to be placed in gifted classes even when they qualify. Traditional school districts crowd the least effective, least prepared and lowest-paid teachers in schools with the most low-income children of color, and just as King feared, those teachers hold low opinions of their students’ potential. Taken together, you can see why black parents are the fastest-growing demographic of home-schoolers, and when culturally affirming charter schools open up, waiting lists quickly develop.
Given all the evidence, the safest things parents of color can do is support new schools that get results. The fundamentalists can work on persuading the American majority to close the gap between what they say about integration and what they do when it’s time to enroll their children in schools.