Point of View: Position Papers

Open Letter on Ujamaa Institute
May 18, 1993

Norma Cantu
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights
400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20202-1100

Paula D. Kuebler
Region Civil Rights Director
Region II
U.S. Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights
26 Federal Plaza
New York, NY 10278

Dear Ms. Cantu and Ms. Kuebler:

I write to report and to seek your immediate investigation of actions taken by the New York City Board of Education that either deliberately set out to segregate or will have the effect of segregating students by race and ethnicity in at least two public high schools that will open in September. It is imperative that the Office for Civil Rights conducts an inquiry into this matter promptly in order to avert a denial of equal educational opportunity to all students without regard to their race, color or ethnicity — because of the imminent actions of New York City school officials in conjunction with their implementation of decisions by the City’s Board of Education.

On March 17, 1993 the New York City Board of Education, a public entity which is responsible for public education in the City of New York, approved unanimously a resolution authorizing the establishment of a “Middle College High School” on the campus of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Medgar Evers College is a predominantly black college. The Middle College High School to be established at Medgar Evers, beginning fall 1993, is to contain the “Ujamaa Institute,” grades 9-12, “with admissions on a city-wide educational option basis.” A copy of the authorizing resolution is attached. The resolution’s explanatory note states that the Ujamaa Institute will be co-educational and “open” to students of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Ujamaa, according to the draft curriculum about the high school, means in Swahili “familyhood.” An “underlying principle” of the Ujamaa Institute, according to its curriculum abstract, is that “African-American, Latino and Asian parents must become actively involved in the educational process.” (emphasis added) The high school will have a “non-Western” curriculum, in that the school’s teaching will place an “emphasis on the cultural representation of students in the school.” (emphasis added) Languages to be offered at the Ujamaa Institute are Haitian/Creole, Spanish, and “African languages such as Yoruba and Swahili.”

The current version of the Ujamaa Institute is a change from a 1991 proposal that would have established an Ujamaa Institute for minority (i.e. black and Latino) boys. While the resolution drops all exclusionary language based on sex, it makes no similar commitment to racial diversity. It is a school that will be “open” to “students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Also at its March 17, 1993 meeting, the New York City Board of Education, by unanimous vote, authorized the September, 1993 opening of a Latino Leadership Secondary School in District One, Manhattan. The origin of this school dates back to a proposal last spring of a 35-member “Latino Commission on Educational Reform,” comprised of only Hispanic members, chaired by New York City Board of Education member Luis Reyes. The Board of Education’s Latino Commission on Educational Reform proposed the creation of a special public high school for “700 seventh through 12th graders,” which would be targeted for Latinos, although “any student in the city would be able to apply to the Latino high school.” (New York Daily News, May 26, 1992.) Mr. Reyes was quoted at the time in the press as saying that the site of the new school should be a Manhattan neighborhood “with a large concentration of Latinos.” I have read the entire Report of the Latino Commission on Educational Reform and have concluded that the above quotes represent fairly the intent and proposals of the Commission.

According to the original resolution before the Board of Education to authorize this special school in District One — which is, in fact, a district with a large concentration of Latinos — “the Latino Leadership Secondary School will provide students with a continuous grade six through grade twelve educational experience…The design of the school is the result of the development of a proposal by the Latino Leadership School Collaborative in 1992…,” which included representatives from The Latino Commission and the Puerto Rican Latino Education Roundtable. Board member Luis Reyes, at the March 17 meeting, introduced a substitute resolution that merely deleted the word “Latino” so that the record reflects only the authorization of a Leadership Secondary School in District One, thereby, in effect, camouflaging on paper the true intent and resolve of the proposal. However, all the back-up papers to the substitute resolution supplied by the Board of Education refer to “The Latino Leadership School.” Admission to the Latino Leadership School will be “drawn from collaborative linkages with school districts, community-based organizations, and respondents to English and Spanish language media.” The staff of the school “will be responsible for selecting 100% of the students entering the first,…6th-7th grade groups, as well as subsequent classes to the 12th grade level. Linguistic background and interest will be determined by previous school records, an interview, or an essay.” The back-up papers indicate that the school’s model of leadership training will be that of ASPIRA’s and “other culturally relevant…transformative approaches…” According to materials supplied by the Board of Education, ASPIRA is a community-based organization “that has developed Latino leaders for the past 30 years.” And the Puerto Rican Latino Education Roundtable is “a coalition of eleven community-based organizations. Through their active participation in the Roundtable, these organizations have had a strong voice in the planning process for the School, and will continue to participate in the work of the Collaborative.”*

Last-minute sanitizing and editorial adjustments notwithstanding, I believe that the New York City Board of Education, through its actions to authorize the establishment of the Ujamaa Institute on a predominantly black college campus in a Brooklyn ghetto, along the lines of a curriculum that is designed to attract a certain racial population, and to establish The Latino Leadership Secondary School in District One, in an area “with a large concentration of Latinos,” violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits segregation on the basis of race, color, national origin or ethnicity. In both instances it appears that the New York City Board of Education has approved a special program for a population that is likely to be segregated by race, or by ethnicity. And in both instances, the promise of “open” enrollment appears to be mere pretext to accomplish the kind of segregation which the federal civil rights laws prohibit.

Title VI Violations

As you know, Title VI (Sc. 601) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides: “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 42 US 2000d (1988) (A school district that violates this law faces the loss of all its federal funds.) Title VI and the regulations that govern its application to federally-supported educational institutions prohibit recipients of federal funds to take actions that either intentionally segregate or which have the effect of bringing about indirectly the segregation of the races. The use of non-discriminatory words does not satisfy the duty of recipients of federal funds to refrain from promoting or facilitating racial/ethnic segregation. And because Title VI regulations also cover policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact (Guardians Association vs. Civil Service Commission, 463 US 582 (1983)), school boards are prohibited from taking actions that foreseeably would lead to impermissible segregation. Thus, Title VI regulations prohibit procedures such as the use of vague admissions policies or other subjective or arbitrary criteria that have the effect of disproportionately excluding persons of a particular race, color or ethnicity from a program supported by federal funds.

The New York City Board of Education, in responding to this complaint, has the burden of demonstrating that any criteria that have the effect of segregating students have been validated as essential for them to participate in a given program and that the alternative equally valid criteria that do not have such a disproportionate adverse effect are unavailable. Moreover, it has long been understood that program offerings that have traditionally been selected predominantly by members of one race would be given strict scrutiny because of the likelihood that such policies will lead to segregation.

Without a doubt, several local groups in New York City have become involved in the demands for de jure or de facto segregated public schools. This segregation is to be accomplished through the means of discriminatory attendance decision making, i.e. subjective admissions criteria and practices; segregated curricula; suspect classifications of targeted student populations; and site location of new schools in areas with heavy concentrations of certain racial groups. The New York City Board of Education has, through its policy decisions, initiated and ratified such segregative practices with respect to both the Ujamaa Institute and The Latino Leadership Secondary School.

The establishment of the Ujamaa Institute on Medgar Evers College’s campus, at a minimum,

1 — has the clear intent and will have the effect of undermining efforts to promote desegregation, the purported policy of New York State;*

2 — allows school authorities to design and use curriculum as a basis for facilitating racial segregation;

3 — reflects growing community-wide resistance to desegregation; indeed, some of the putative representatives of community groups that have supported these proposals assert that since the majority population of New York City’s public schools is non-white, desegregated education either isn’t possible or feasible; although both inferences are false, the New York City Board of Education has pulled back from its duty to foster desegregation, emphasizing, instead, the establishment of this community-based high school in a predominantly minority, segregated neighborhood.

4 — conveys the idea, through its designated title/name, and through its emphasis on a curriculum that attracts non-whites — and blacks in particular, as well as through the School’s placement on a traditionally black college campus in a largely black community, that the school is intended only for persons who are non-white. The appellation “Ujamaa” — which is synonymous with the African-American immersion school concept, i.e., identification with black African languages, traditions and customs — raises substantial prima facie problems.

Similarly, the establishment of “The Latino Leadership Secondary School” in a district with a large concentration of Hispanics,

1 — has the clear intent and will have the effect of segregating students by ethnicity;

2 — allows school authorities to design and use curriculum as a basis for facilitating segregation, in accordance with ethnicity; and

3 — conveys to the majority, i.e., non-Latino population, that this special school, with its “special” mission of training Latino leaders, is not for them or suited to their qualifications, thereby nullifying stated assurances that admission to the school is “open to all” without regard to race or ethnicity. (Again, the New York City Board of Education’s invocation of non-discriminatory language appears to be mere subterfuge; it is the kind of doubletalk that is pretext for impermissible segregation);

4 — facilitates the stated objective of achieving an admissions “balance” (i.e. quota) between Latino (“Spanish-dominant”) and English-dominant (non-Latinos and English- dominant Latinos) which evinces ethnicity as the basis for selecting the student body, rather than racially-neutral, educational qualifications.

In filing this complaint I do not want it to appear that we are objecting to either smaller schools or to multi-cultural curricula. Neither would be a basis for a Title VI complaint and investigation. We do, however, object to the use of a multi-cultural curriculum as the means for attracting a predominantly non-white student population to a new public school that has the intent and the impact of causing or exacerbating segregation. Multi-cultural education and curricula may (and should be) placed in every high school, for the benefit of all students. Moreover, challenges to policies and schemes that have a segregative purpose or effect are equally applicable to “majority minority” school systems as well as to those where integration of minorities with whites is possible. Any school curriculum or program which separates minorities from other minorities, e.g. separates blacks from Puerto Ricans, or vice versa, must be scrutinized with the same rigor as segregative schemes that separate non-whites from whites or vice versa. The principle to be affirmed in such circumstances is that segregation by race/ethnicity burdens the freedom and individuality of the pupils, and through the institutionalization of stereotypes, generalizations and categorization, tracks or treats students differently because of their race or ethnicity.

It is not enough in the circumstances of segregative pressures and local resistance to desegregation for school authorities to stand behind the smokescreen that the educational program or school is “open” to all without regard to race or ethnicity. The New York City Board of Education’s determination to treat students differently on the basis of their race or ethnicity for purposes of segregation, through establishing new high schools in ways that lead to segregated instruction and that fortify the racial isolation of minority groups must be construed as violative of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It is imperative that the New York City Board of Education be held accountable, and not be allowed to avoid responsibility for its policy decisions to isolate minority group children in the manner described in this complaint.

Through its actions, the New York City Board of Education has endorsed and is perpetrating a system of “separate but equal” facilities through its authorization of the Ujamaa Institute and Latino Leadership Secondary School and, in so doing, has bowed to parochial community pressures for the racial organization of the public schools. An investigation by your Office is warranted prior to the opening of these two schools in September. Therefore, I ask that you give this complaint your immediate attention.


Michael Meyers Executive Director