Has Integration In Schools Done More Harm Than Good for Black Learners?

Even as there are numerous advantages in having as diverse a classrooms, for some learners benefit from culturally affirming environments and being surrounded by others who look like them.
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For years I have openly pondered whether integration in education might have been a hindrance for black learners. Admittedly, for me to even pose this question comes with an entire troth of ironies. First, I'm a civil rights attorney by trade and I have dedicated my life toward the pursuit of equal access to institutions regardless of one's race. Second, my mother was born and raised in Memphis, TN, the very heart of the South, at the height of Jim Crow and the fight for integrated schools during the civil rights era. Third, I am a proud graduate of Howard University School of Law which was literally the incubator for the legal strategy that would become the blueprint for Brown v. Board of Education. At the same, however, my pedigree is also balanced by having spent both middle school and high school in a predominately white prep school where I was a 5-day boarder in the suburbs. I've seen this picture from a host of different perspectives, and I'm not entirely convinced that integration was the most helpful thing for black students.

To understand this, we have to consider the argument(s) for integration at the time as well as the manner in which integration occurred. Separate but equal had been proven anything but, because it was clear that regardless of the law, predominately white schools were receiving the lion's share of available resources while black schools were getting left overs while if not altogether being left out. It wasn't so much the "separate" but the "equal" portion that proved troublesome. Truly distributing resources equally to allow for quality educational choices in black neighborhoods for black families might have made a huge difference in how children in our communities experienced school.

Additionally, once the Supreme Court finally outlawed segregation in schools, the history of resistance is well-documented. Scores of black students were bussed to neighboring school districts and thrown into schools that were filled with unwelcoming administrators, contemptuous teachers, and hateful classmates. Not just that but after years of not having up to date text books, facilities, or instruction, these same students were immediately forced to compete with classmates who had, for years, enjoyed a massive head start in the same race. On its own, school is hard enough for a young person. Imagine having to deal with the myriad issues created by taking black children--many of them unprepared by no fault of their own, if not by actual design--and dumping them in environments ranging from unsupportive to flat out toxic without any real planning around how to facilitate a real transition. Even as a young person who underwent a rigorous 14-month academic enrichment program in preparation for transitioning into an all-white prep school, I still experienced a host of educational and cultural challenges once I got there. But, imagine how lost I would have been without any of the preparation, like my parents' generation. For as well intended as the Brown decision may have been in 1954, the lack of thought paid on a local level to how to bring about true integration for new students makes all of the court's efforts for naught.

Fast forwarding to the present and, believe it or not, some 50 years after Brown there are still remnants of this disjointed transition that can still be seen today in America's schools. Even with overall high school graduation numbers up, Black and Latino learners continue to lag behind in actual K-12 education achievement as well as overall college readiness. Part of why this persists is that there is not enough attention paid to cultural competence in curriculum, instruction, discipline, and outcomes. Despite their being research suggesting America's schools remain highly segregated now, the problems we are seeing today are, in many ways, an evolution of ills that have their roots in decades past. The shortage of black male teachers in America's classrooms has reached a crisis level and the effect has been generations of students taught by teachers who do not fully understand them. The result here has been a severe psychological effect on self-image and self-confidence that sours students on school altogether. This carries with it an unfortunate irony: even as we are aware of the psychological damage that resulted from the segregation of blacks into inferior and underfunded schools, school integration resulted in the firing of a significant portion of black teachers who were not permitted to work in newly integrated schools. This left black students to be instructed by white teachers who did not understand them or care to try, resulting in even greater psychological issues. Many of our children who need it most are not seeing teachers who look like them, or interacting with teachers they believe have their best interest at heart. The lack of understanding results in excessive discipline that has a terribly disparate impact on them as compared to their white counterparts. They become labeled and sooner than later, the school to prison pipeline continues to go forward.

Beyond that, however, the preference toward universally integrated schools carries with it a dangerous falsehood: specifically, that the most important measure of "quality" in education is its proximity to whiteness. As a person who unceasingly (and unsuccessfully) tries to avoid HBCU v. PWI discussions, I can never escape comments that all reflect the troubling notion of white as the standard. This, conceptually, only serves to further chip away at much of what is already lacking in terms of self-image. The idea that black students cannot be educated unless they are somehow in the mix with whites is not only patently untrue, but also ahistorical for black people.

It's true that individual blacks who get "integrated" into white schools make connections into white networks, yet, at the same time, black networks suffer. This means the black economy sees it's dollar recycle 1 time in the black community before exiting for white pockets. For whites and Asians, because of their networks, their money travels several times in their own community before going out into the broader community. Integration shouldn't demand the disintegration of black power to work. My experience at Howard University as an undergraduate underscored this brilliantly. On the heels of having spent 6 years in an environment where I was constantly reminded that I was "different" I was revitalized and encouraged to be surrounded by the diversity and black brilliance I found at the Mecca. If anything, the question of value in a segregated school model is one that turns on the allocation of resources to recruit and retain quality instructors while also making real investments in creating learning environments that are supportive and culturally competent for our young people. Not simply separate but equal, but more so separate and fair.

There can be little debate that integration has come with a host of its own advantages. However, there are downsides that came with integration that are seldom discussed. We lost a population of black teachers during integration and have continued to struggle to get them back. We also watched educationally sound black schools close when we shipped them out of neighborhoods rather than deciding to provide them with appropriate funding to allow them to compete where they were.

Even as there are numerous advantages in having as diverse a classrooms, for some learners benefit from culturally affirming environments and being surrounded by others who look like them. This is a conversation that boils down to a student's individual needs but not one that we should summarily reject simply because of the farce that an education that doesn't involve the influence of whiteness is somehow inferior.

Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former NY prosecutor. He has also served as an adjunct professor of justice studies in New York at Berkeley College. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr

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