Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks got on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and made history by sitting where she damn well pleased. Already a trained organizer and expert investigator of sexual violence against black woman in the South, Parks was executing a personal mission to magnify the indignity of state-sanctioned segregation.
Six decades later we still wrestle with social proximity between the races. We struggle with how close we will live together, work together, party together, and be intimate as friends, family, and lovers.
Our social apartheid can seem like the result of casual choices we make, but public schools are stark examples of institutional segregation. Today the average black child attends school with fewer white students than in 1980.
I fear that 60 years after Montgomery we are no smarter about segregation, desegregation, or integration than before. That’s a problem because integration is a sticking point for many education advocates. For them, we can’t talk about improving schooling without offering solutions to mixing students by race in the same buildings. In that way the integration imperative holds honest debate about school improvement hostage to a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
We Tried Integration
I take issue with today’s facile understanding of what constitutes segregation. It obsesses more about inducting people of color into white spaces than about building self-determination—and the power of choice—in marginalized communities.
Do we really agree that the reason poor black children are not achieving at high levels is because they have too few white people in their lives? Do we accept the idea that a school with mostly black students is a problem, but schools with mostly white students, as is often the case, are superior?
If that was ever our conviction we should revisit it now with history and modern context.
When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark Brown vs. Board case, Chief Justice Earl Warren said:
To separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.
That opinion was influenced by the work of psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, an expert on the effects of discrimination on black children.
While many see Brown vs. Board as a final word on the need for integration, few remember that by 1968 Dr. Clark’s views had changed. He still believed in the goal of an integrated society, but he thought Brown vs. Board strategists had underestimated the strength of white resistance to integration.
By 1978 James Coleman (known for his famous Coleman Report in 1966) had also gained some nuance about desegregation. He argued that desegregation schemes had led to some positive effects in the South, but destructive effects elsewhere. Citing 41 studies of desegregation in the South, Coleman pointed out that 19 showed positive effects on student achievement, while the rest (22 studies) showed either no effects, or negative effects.
In the forward-thinking North, things were worse. Of the 26 studies done there only nine showed positive effects.
A Charter of Our Own
I want an integrated society as much as anyone. I’m just not hopeful it’s coming soon. That means we have to educate kids where they are, now.
The good thing is we don’t have to wait for some future date when black and brown students have been reshuffled into schools where there is equal representation of each group. There are schools today where black and brown children in poverty are doing well. I have seen it myself in private and traditional schools, but most often in charter schools. That’s a problem because charter schools are not an apolitical school model. Ideological wars rage over these schools. There are divisive battles between coalitions of politically powerful advocates who threaten the existence of some of the best schools I’ve seen.
The dangerous claim that charters are segregated is partially the basis of a lawsuit recently filed in Minnesota, the birthplace of charter schools. The suit says charter schools use culturally-specific curricula to attract one racial group (e.g. Hmong or Afrocentric), and, as a consequence, those schools end up with high populations of black or brown students.
I see that as stretching the meaning of “segregation,” almost to the point of dishonesty.
When families from historically and purposefully marginalized communities enroll their children into small, controlled, safe, culturally-affirming schools, is that the same thing as state-enforced educational redlining of families into inferior schools with scant resources?
Does it matter to political people that charter schools are popular with black parents, and are seen as an additional option for communities that generally have too few options?
Does it matter that these schools are producing gains for black students without having to wait for the dream of integration in the era of Donald Trump and #BlackLivesMatter?
When I think of Rosa Parks I think of schools like Madison Prep in Baton Rouge, Edna Karr in New Orleans, Harvest Prep in Minneapolis, Ile Omode in Oakland. These schools support the long tradition of black school leaders educating black children without waiting for permission. I think the historic Montgomery fight was more about self-determination than the mandate that we sit next to white people.
You might be interested to know that Rosa Parks, the woman who has become symbolic of civil rights activism and racial integration, was among the first applicants approved to open a charter school in Detroit. More of us might know that if we were in schools that taught us our own story rather than the one approved for mixed company.