Education for Democracy: "We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Us"

A child looks out the rear of a school bus as a police officer at right, checks the identification of motorists outside a sub
A child looks out the rear of a school bus as a police officer at right, checks the identification of motorists outside a subdivision Wednesday, May 16, 2012, in Hampton, Ga. Police in an Atlanta suburb are escorting school buses and guarding students at bus stops after a man aimed a rifle at a bus with children on board and dropped a notebook that listed bus numbers. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Education for Democracy: "We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Us" -- "Legal" Segregation

As an educator who began my career when "busing" was the most controversial means of establishing integrated schools, I felt very self-righteous about white opposition to having their children bused from predominantly white neighborhoods into black and Latino schools and vice versa. Then some twenty years later when we lived in Charlotte, N.C. my own children were bussed some distance from their neighborhood schools in the interests of integrating the school system in what has been among the most progressive cities in the state.

Although I found the instruction and general education my children got in their second grade and middle school classes quite satisfactory, my colleagues at UNC-Charlotte were surprised that I hadn't enrolled my children in a "day school" which was basically an all-white school, many of which were established in white communities as a way to evade school integration. Moreover, my daughter, then seven, told me at the end of the school year that of the twenty-four children originally in her class, half white and half black, she was the only white child who stayed at the school through the year. She didn't seem to mind and my son, at middle school, recently indicated that he never had problems with his fellow students.

I have wondered over the years of observing the different, often futile as well as destructive attempts to "improve," learning and I still come to the same, uncomfortable conclusion: although they are important factors it is not poorly trained, overwhelmed teachers, or inadequate funding, or students from dysfunctional homes, or poorly thought out curricular "initiatives" that have shown to be the most significant element in determining the success or failure of students in their studies: it's the zip codes. But that leads me to a more profound question: why has it been Federal policy to promote segregation in its housing practices, once called 'red-lining.?"

Richard Rothstein in an article published last year in an Economic Policy Institute study states:

We cannot substantially improve the performance of the poorest African American students -- the "truly disadvantaged," in William Julius Wilson's phrase -- by school reform alone. It must be addressed primarily by improving the social and economic conditions that bring too many children to school unprepared to take advantage of what even the best schools have to offer.

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Rothstein traces this practice back to the New Deal!

From its New Deal inception and especially during and after World War II, federally funded public housing was explicitly racially segregated, both by federal and local governments. Not only in the South, but in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, projects were officially and publicly designated either for whites or for blacks. Some projects were "integrated" with separate buildings designated for whites or for blacks. Later, as white families left the projects for the suburbs, public housing became overwhelmingly black and in most cities was placed only in black neighborhoods, explicitly so. This policy continued one originating in the New Deal, when Harold Ickes, President Roosevelt's first public housing director, established the "neighborhood composition rule" that public housing should not disturb the pre-existing racial composition of neighborhoods where it was placed.

This policy encouraged "red lining" which restricted the areas in which blacks could buy homes, get loans for businesses, and do anything else that white applicants were free to do: choose where they wanted to live within their means. The excuse that was given for red-lining was that such neighborhoods, since they were designated as "impoverished," would be less secure in terms of investment than the "whiter" ones thus perpetuating the conditions that contributed to impoverishment in the first place. "Gentrification" has proven this racist policy dead wrong.
A colleague of mine had a motto he put on his door: "The flogging will stop when morale improves." This policy of restrictive housing, often done covertly or through "legal" zoning in many white communities, brings up, at least for me an existential question: Why are white people paranoid about darker-skinned people? Prejudice against Asians has declined since World War ll but prejudice against Latinos, most recently manifested in Donald Trump's "Declaration of Ignorance" and the positive response to it, augurs ominous ethnic disharmony fomented through the anti-immigration policies of the Republican party.

As the availability of good-paying jobs seems to continue to shrink, and more Americans are finding the middle-class lifestyle many grew up in unaffordable, the resentment of "the Other" may continue to escalate as the notion seems to be accepted by many whites that "They (mostly blacks)" and the government are taking everything away from "Us." Yet, according to Rothstein:"Today (2010), median black family income is 61 percent of the white median, but black median family wealth (net worth, or assets minus debts) is an astonishingly low 5 percent of the white median." But prejudice and racism are never bothered by facts: they just deny they are real.

Instead of putting a lot of time and energy into discussing the issue of the Confederate Flag, the people of South Carolina and the rest of the Nation should be discussing why it seems so difficult for people to accept each other by what they do rather than what others say about them. Why is the social, political and economic structure of this country still tied up in an issue that should have been ameliorated, if not solved, one hundred and fifty years ago? The answer should be found not just in discussions, and press conferences, and blogs like this one, but within ourselves.