On School Integration and New Year’s Resolutions: A Goal Without A Plan Is Just A Wish

Written on 1 January 2015, 08:39pm under Homegrown

The first day of the New Year. Having surveyed the previous year, we set out to make a change, sincere in our commitment on January 1 that this time will be different. New Year’s resolutions bear a striking resemblance to school integration: a worthy goal that quickly fizzles without willpower and a plan of action.Too often lost in the gushing idealism of Brown v. Board of Education and the kumbaya of integrated schools are the many under-told histories and stories of racialized hardship – for Black teachers and Black students. Like the account of Dorothy Counts.In 1957, Dorothy Counts was the first Black student to integrate Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. By now we know the drill. She was not a welcome transfer student.

Counts, only 15 at the time, encountered a mob on the sidewalk. White boys and girls, encouraged by their parents, jeered and spat on her. She endured the harassment stoically and marched proudly into a classroom, where other students hissed, mocked and threw garbage at her and where the teachers ignored her.
Dorothy Counts withstood this brutal racist treatment for a week before her parents, fearful for her safety, pulled her out of Charlotte schools and sent her to live with a relative to attend school in Pennsylvania. Like most of these integration tales, her story ends better than it began. Still I’m left to wonder: this brave teenager endured this barbarity for what?Almost 60 years later, segregation remains widespread in public schools and there is no political will to do a damn thing about it. A  landmark piece on public schools in Alabama exposed segregation that mirrors schools in the 1950s. But that’s the Deep South, we say. Until you discover the nation’s largest city – a diverse urban Northeast metropolis – has the most segregated schools in the country.The isolation of Black students continues unabated. White families trying to outrun integration — affectionately known as “white flight” – continues unabated. And the hyperventilating about segregated schools doesn’t seem to last any longer than the news headlines and PBS specials. There’s not an education policymaker or education reformer that puts school integration on the top of any education policy agenda.

As Dana Goldstein outlines in The Teacher Wars: “Since 1980 the federal government has done almost nothing to encourage local school districts to create racially and socioeconomically mixed schools, even as billions of dollars are sent to states and districts that agree to tie teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores and to open new charter schools, most of which are as racially and socioeconomically homogenous as the schools the civil rights crusaders fought to reform.”

In an interesting twist, Dorothy Counts hometown of Charlotte subsequently became a model case for desegregation. By the mid-1970s Charlotte was being hailed for its successful busing plan and the “impact of integration was visible almost immediately…When whites arrived, the facilities were upgraded. A gravel parking lot was paved, and the football stadium and the gymnasium were renovated.”

The emphasis on the former part of “separate but equal” was a tactical decision necessary at the time because “the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.” But now we have experience as our teacher.

Research shows that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools benefit Black students (“more likely to succeed, in areas like graduating…and attending college”) and white students (“more likely to understand issues of social injustice and exhibit lower levels of racial prejudice”). Public opinion surveys support “integrated schools”. And no one is willing to expend political or other capital to accomplish diverse, integrated schools, rendering it meaningless and worthless.

So can this be the year we make integration a policy priority or just give up the ghost. Put our singular focus on equitable school resources and improved conditions in Black schools and abandon the idyllic scene of Black and white children seated side-by-side.

Racially segregated schools remain the norm because school integration is the New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds: we want to do it, we know we should do it, but we’re not willing to do what’s necessary to actually accomplish the goal. No pain, no gain.

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