For several years, I have been showing Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later in both my introductory education course and an interim educational documentaries course at the selective private university where I teach.
Two scenes address the contemporary realities of lingering segregation within the walls of historic Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas: the school principal announcing mix-up day over the intercom and Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, speaking to a class of students and asking them to identify why the room upsets her.
These moments from the documentary lead to my students discussing the segregated dynamics of our university, attended disproportionately by affluent and white students (also overwhelmingly female). The dining hall is the most stark example of the segregation on campus with tables of mostly African American athletes and then an assortment of less overt self-segregation by a number of characteristics easily identified by the students themselves.
Race, social class, and the inherent overlap of race with social class all still shuffle the university into distinct and separate groups that are the result of far more than simple shared interests or the seemingly natural human habit of forming cliques.
Throughout May of 2014, numerous media events and publications have been exploring where we stand as a people in the U.S. 60 years after the court-ordered end to racial segregation in public schools. The messages have consisted of somewhat idealized celebrations of the 1954 Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court judgement and confrontations of the current state of segregation in schools and communities throughout the U.S.—notably that segregation is not only a lingering scar in the South, but a reality of the entire country.
When I published Racial segregation returns to US schools, 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it at The Conversation (UK) and then AlterNet reposted the piece, I noticed several trends in the responses that warrant some clarification.
First, it appears that many who are confronted with the facts of segregation misunderstand that large phenomenon in ways similar to how we misread poverty.
Segregation and poverty are, in fact, manageable terms for extremely complex and unwieldy conditions—terms that comprise a number of interrelated but smaller conditions that may exist in an unpredictable array of combinations.
Segregation presents several complicating factors for understanding the phenomenon. One is that racial segregation is overt, relatively easy to identify. Social class segregation is less overt, but racial and class segregation are so closely interrelated that confronting one often allows the other to be ignored or marginalized.
This first trend—misreading and misunderstanding the condition of segregation—leads to a second: Many who acknowledge the fact of segregation immediately express something between skepticism and cynicism about the ability of a people or the government to do anything about it.
Since segregation is a complex condition and an abstraction of many shifting but related conditions, the sheer enormity of doing something about segregation does appear overwhelming. But fatalism seems to spring from both a blindness to how laws, policies, and grassroots activism have created change and a lack of individual and community agency among the public in the U.S.
A third and important trend is almost as enormous to confront as eradicating segregation itself: the profound misunderstanding of just why we continue to seek integration.
A typical misunderstanding of acknowledging a need to end segregation is couched in this comment from the AlterNet posting: “Will a black child develop better reading skills or be more proficient at math because he sat next to a white child.”
If we focus for a moment on racial segregation among schools or within schools, this comment provides a powerful entrance into addressing all three trends noted above.
To answer the question, then, is to begin to see how we might address segregation in ways that can eradicate the root causes of segregation.
The answer involves recognizing that race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. Thus, African American children may in fact learn better if sitting beside a white child, but not because of the proximity of one child to another but because that African American child would then likely be afforded proximity to the opportunity that white child enjoys as a result of that child’s privilege.
In other words, segregation is result of racism, the momentum of poverty and privilege, sexism, classism, and public policy. If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice but the consequence of mostly harmless human socialization.
To put a sharp point on what we are supposed to do about segregation, let’s focus on just education.
Segregation among schools and within schools represents a measurable inequity of opportunity by race and class among students.
Currently, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students experience both segregation in the schools they attend as well as within schools that are racially balanced (schools-within-schools created by selective tracks such as Advanced Placement [AP] and International Baccalaureate [IB]; again, see Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later for students confronting that reality). These examples of segregation are markers for seminal problems: Inequitable school funding, inequitable teacher assignments, school facilities in disrepair, lower access to technology and materials, teacher churn, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, etc.
So we are now faced in 2014 with the opportunity to reconsider how we have exposed and then addressed segregation for 60 years.
Yes, some policies and practices have proven futile—especially those that created tensions, bussing to force integration, and ultimately targeted the consequences without addressing root causes.
It seems that we need now to make a better case that seeking integration is a commitment to equity for all. The problem is not segregation itself because segregation is the large phenomenon that serves as a marker for the facts of systemic and institutional inequity correlated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and native language (for examples).
Sixty years from now if we look up to see our communities and schools are still often segregated by race, we may be able to declare success if we can also show the conditions among those segregated communities and schools are no longer inequitable in terms of anyone’s or any child’s access to opportunities.
Ending segregation, then, is not about forcing African American children to sit beside white children, is not about forcing African American families to live beside white families—as if racial proximity is what ultimately matters.
Doing something about segregation—whether we mean public policy or public activism—must be doing something about equity, and not continuing the mistake of reading segregation as a problem of simple proximity.
For Further Reading
“So That’s Just One Of My Losses,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
Last year, I went to visit the home of Clyde Ross in North Lawndale. I was there to research an argument for reparations. Clyde Ross had just turned 90. I asked Mr. Ross why he’d come from Mississippi to Chicago. He told me he came because he was seeking “the protection of the law.” I didn’t understand what he meant. He told me there were no black judges, no black police, no black prosecutors in his hometown of Clarksdale. For a black man living in that town it effectively meant that there was “no law.”
This was a particularly illustrative example of why it is always important to report. Talking to Ross clarified something I’d been thinking about–specifically that being black was not a matter of white people thinking you had cooties. It was something deeper and more mature. It was the branding of black people as outside of American society, outside of American law, and outside of the American social contract. And this branding was done even as black people pledged fealty to the state, paid taxes to the state, and died for the state. This was high tech robbery, plunder at the systemic level. White Supremacy was not about getting black and white people to sit at the same lunch table, it was about getting white people to stop stealing shit from black people–labor, bodies, children, taxes, lives.