I was a white 5-year old when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that separate schools for black and white Americans were unconstitutional. Last week, a federal court ordered the school system that my two African-American grandsons attend to desegregate.
Our three-generation family is a microcosm of the topsy-turvy history of race in American schools. A federal policy that has not worked is being forced on my grandkids. I, a white liberal from the North, once favored it. They, black students at a Mississippi public high school now don’t.
They’re two exceptionally talented young men, the oldest children of my son – who, during a two-year tour of duty with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta, married a brilliant black woman.
One is class president. Both play on sports teams. When they showed me pictures of the teams, I see them flanked by kids of all skin colors smiling, their arms around each others’ shoulders.
Their school, Cleveland High School, is fairly evenly split between black and white. The other high school in town, East Side High School, is almost 100 percent black, which I assumed was the cause of the court order. As I understand it, the federal court wants their city – Cleveland, Miss. – to merge or mix the two schools so that they both have a statistically similar multiracial student body.
During a recent visit, I learned that my grandsons like their school and they don’t want it to be forced to merge with another school. They fear that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will disrupt their education and achieve nothing except more bureaucracy and years of chaos. When I asked them about the view of others, they said that their friends, both white and black, were opposed to the court’s interference.
Still not convinced, I inquired further and learned that they and their fellow students are free to choose between either high school. For some, the all-black school is the more compelling choice; it has higher test scores in some key subject areas than does the integrated school my grandsons attend.
After my visit with my grandkids, I remained puzzled. So I sought one one of the most highly respected scholars who has spent his professional life studying this issue: Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a distinguished professor of Education, Law, Political Science, and Urban Planning.
As Professor Orfield explained it, the southern states had laws and regulations, sanctioned by their state or local governments, which officially ordered the schools to be racially segregated. That was how the Supreme Court defined the problem: government-mandated racial segregation.
In most of the North, however, the segregation was often not officially mandated. It was de facto segregation, the product of social and economic exclusion. So, from the Supreme Court’s perspective, communities in North just “happened” to be divided. In the South, it was on purpose.
According to Orfield, many schools across the north — from New York to Illinois to California — are overwhelmingly segregated, yet there are not being subjected to court orders mandating that they change. As a citizen as well as a grandfather, I wanted to know: was the Department of Justice unfairly picking on this Mississippi Delta town — and if so, why?
Then I remembered a clue from my own past. I had first experienced the paradox of desegregation in 1994. At that time, I was leading a community action project of the Rockefeller Foundation which took me on a fact-finding trip to the city on which the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education ruling was based: Topeka, Kan. During the four decades since the highest court in the land had specifically instructed that city to desegregate its schools, segregation had gotten worse, not better. The policy had failed.
When I interviewed various officials in Topeka — the mayor, the head of the NAACP, local businessmen and real estate officials — they all pointed to the same set of variables: employment, income inequality, the economics of housing, formal and informal exclusionary real estate practices, etc. Together, these factors ensured that, no matter what the Supreme Court decided, the city of Topeka grew over those forty years along racial lines. So even though the city was officially desegregating, it was unofficially segregating.
What I could not understand was why this failed policy was now being imposed on my grandsons’ school. Even though I have always worked for social justice and believed strongly in equality in education, the heavy-handed and rigid intrusion by the federal government into Cleveland, Miss.,in 2016 now makes no sense to me. Even my African-American grandsons, the supposed beneficiaries of such intrusion, don’t want it.
As Professor Orfield points out, what is needed to achieve equality in education today is adequate funding and support for a new coalition of local officials in education and housing and employment. This multi-pronged approach would also take into consideration the simple fact that more than 25 percent of the children in America’s public schools are neither black nor white, but Latino and a Technicolor range of ethnicities from all over the world.
So for the sake of my grandkids, and all school children in America, let’s wake up from our trance. We are not less segregated now in America; in many places, we are more segregated.
It is time to let go of conventional liberal and conservative positions that are, frankly, obsolete. If we want equal educational opportunity, let’s stop trying to enforce sixty-year-old, one-dimensional policies that don’t work and start designing, systemic 21st century strategies that do.
Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.