Trading Places: A North/South Reversal on Civil Rights

Today in Raleigh, North Carolina, protesters have raised a ruckus against the actions of the newly-elected school board. Certain members, supported by local Republicans, want to separate schools into racially distinct enclaves of rich and poor by killing a long-standing diversity policy. There have been lawsuits, candlelight vigils, news conferences, and arrests. A month before the rally, NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber was hauled to jail from a sit-in. He's on the steps of the capital today along with church groups and other citizens determined not to roll back the clock on desegregation.

Sounds like a throw-back, right? Until you realize that 4 of the 5 members of the board's controlling bloc are from the North. These northern transplants, it seems, want to do things the way they do them back home. They say they want to give children the advantage of attending neighborhood schools, rather than uphold Wake County's long-standing commitment to ensuring socioeconomic parity through its busing policy. In an ironic reversal, drawling southerners are trying to convince Yankees to be sensitive to the Jim Crow-shadowed past, while white school board members are giving the NAACP lessons on Brown v. Board of Education.

What is going on?

I grew up in Raleigh during the 70s and 80s, and I have lived in New York for most of my adult life. Whenever the subject of race comes up, I get treated to a lot of piousness from my northern friends. They talk a good game (in politely lowered voices) about the need to heal racial wounds and overcome prejudice. But most of these folks went to school at places where people looked and talked just exactly like them. So their attitudes have a certain theoretical quality.

This is how it went down in my town: between kindergarten and high school graduation I attended seven different public schools. I was yanked out of one, plopped into another, bused all over creation, and dumped into classrooms with people whose accents, skin color, and background were radically different from my own. My parents didn't like having me shipped across town into unfamiliar places, any more than the parents of my northern friends would have liked it. But they put up with it because it was the right thing to do. Southern liberals wanted to see the school system integrated so that all the children -- not just their own -- would have a shot at a decent education. There was often hell to pay for this perspective. My father nearly lost his job as a college professor for daring to protest racial injustice in education. But they fought it out, took the heat, and helped their communities come out in a better place. They didn't just talk about the need to sacrifice for their beliefs. They lived it.

On the way to my middle-class subdivision, the elementary school bus I rode stopped at the housing projects where the city's poorest black kids lived. Occasionally there was tension of a very bad kind. My school books were knocked to the ground. Ugly slurs were whispered in my ears. I remember rumors of knives drawn in racial clashes at football games. But I also recall my black friend Tijuana from 5th grade, who showed me how to make elaborate corn-rows in my hair. And I remember going to parties in the housing projects with the high school basketball players, listening to rap music and learning to diffuse tension with a good belly laugh.

Growing up in the desegregation era wasn't easy. But the busing policy tuned me into a broader range of human channels than those available to kids who attended school in bastions of northern white privilege. I find myself more at ease talking about racial issues because I have lived through some of their consequences. I don't, for example, lower my voice when I say the word "black." And I can joke about things that would alarm my northern friends of both races - like the fact that a black southern pal with ancestors of a similar Virginia surname habitually calls me "Cuz." This ease of communication comes from a lifetime of talking, sharing, and listening to people who sat beside me in the classroom and shared my seat on the bus. It's one of the privileges that a torpsy-turvey background in a southern public school system gave me. The black kids from the projects got better schools and better teachers, and I got a sense of belonging to a human family bigger my own small neighborhood.

What the northern transplants on the Wake County school board don't realize is that they will be doing their own children a disservice by narrowing the range of their experience and leaving them awkward and fearful in the presence of those who are different.

Reverend Nancy Petty of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, who presides over the congregation I belonged to as a child, has stood up in support of today's protest, vowing to "stand together as people of faith and make a statement that we are here for justice."

Stand together, learning together, eating together and laughing together. The Wake Country public school system allowed me to experience these things as I grew up. And I sure wouldn't trade places with anyone denied them.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.