Still Separate But Not Necessarily Unequal

Nearly a half century after the Supreme Court knocked out school segregation in its Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, black and white students at Taylor County High School in Central Georgia made brief national news when they agreed to end their racially separate proms. The Taylor County school is not the only public school district that acted as if the Supreme Court had never spoken. Other high schools in Central Georgia still hold separate proms for blacks and whites. And there is no indication that they will end the practice.

While separate but equal social practices at the Georgia schools is an aberration, racial segregation in America’s public schools is not. A recent ABC News report noted that the nation’s big city public schools are more racially segregated than a decade ago. The students in black schools are poorer than students in predominantly, or exclusively white schools, and they do far worse in reading and math tests than non-black or black students at racially mixed schools. A recent documentary that tracked the thirty-year integration battle in the Arlington, Virginia public schools found the schools there have largely resegregated, and the test scores for black students are 15 to 40 percent lower than whites. The backslide to segregation and lower test scores in the Arlington schools is the norm for dozens of other urban school districts nationally.

The black and Latino students who attend racially isolated schools are not in the schools because of Jim Crow segregationist laws, or failed school bussing policies. In fact, two decades of pro-integration court decisions, limited bussing programs, civil rights legislation, and the election and the appointment of soaring numbers of blacks, and Latinos to boards of education have racially remade public education.

Black and Latino public school superintendents and top administrators are now fixtures in most urban school districts. And, President Bush’s Education Secretary, Rod Paige, is an African-American. This should have rendered public school segregation, like Taylor County High’s racially separate proms, an historic oddity.

But the deep persistence of housing discrimination, poverty, the near universal refusal of federal and state courts to get involved in any more school desegregation cases, and the continuing flight of white, as well as black and Latino middle-income persons, to the suburbs insure that even more poor black and Latino students will be perpetually trapped in segregated schools. The hodge-podge of panaceas Bush, politicians and educators ladle out to raise minority achievement levels include school vouchers, fracturing urban districts, a wholesale dump of incompetent teachers and bureaucrats, magnet schools, and annual testing. Some districts advocate scrapping race altogether and using income and student interest as the criteria to achieve racially balanced schools.

But these remedies help only a small number of black and Latino students. The bitter truth is that while segregated public schools are not the law of the land they remain a fact of the land, and the overwhelming majority of black and Latino students will be stuck in them. These schools, however, can be transformed from permanent monuments to educational failure to models of success if school officials do things. The first is to admit that segregated schools are the long-term reality and initiate an emergency crash program to upgrade the texts and facilities, purchase more computers, and to place the highest caliber teachers, counselors, and administrators possible at these schools. This also requires teacher organizations to actively work to enforce strict professional standards that hold teachers at failing inner city public schools accountable for the performance of their students.

Secondly, they must bury the myth that black and Latino students can’t or won’t learn. During the nightmare years of legal segregation, polls showed that blacks prized education above everything else, and regarded it as their children’s passport out of poverty and segregation. Generations of black and Latino students attended de-facto segregated inner city schools and legally segregated schools in the South. Most graduated, went on to college, and became successful in business and the professions.

Teachers who were dedicated and determined that they attain excellence in their studies taught them. The teachers expected and demanded that their students perform up to the same level as white students. They challenged the students to learn, set specific goals, demanded their full participation in classroom work, gave them positive and continual direction and reinforcement. The news that racial segregation in schools has worsened does not mean an automatic educational death sentence for black and Latino students. If provided resources and support, black and Latino students in urban segregated schools can learn, master standard English, and score high on performance tests. Racially separate schools may remain separate, but they don’t have to be unequal.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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