Schooling Blacks in Segregationist Thinking

(NOTE: Last week was the 58th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court; on May 17, 1954 the High Court unanimously decided that its “separate but equal” doctrine no longer applied in the field of public education. But in the fifty-eight years since the Brown ruling public schools, especially in the urban North, are more racially segregated than ever. So, a debate is raging as to the continued relevance and viability of school integration as a strategy for overcoming educational inequality.

On the occasion of the latest anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education there have been news articles–including features in The New York Times–about segregated urban schools–that reprise the decades-old argument over whether racially segregated schooling harms the psychological development of minority group children–and others–in ways “unlikely ever to be undone”. For our own perspective about the harms of segregation, we have posted below our executive director’s Huffington Post op-ed: )


By Michael Meyers

A public high school in Lancaster, PA is rebelling against the nation’s avowed commitment to color-blindness. It is functionally repealing the civil rights laws by intentionally segregating its black students. The principal of Lancaster’s McCaskey East HS, Bill Jimenez, is actually gloating about separating out his black students and placing them in separate homerooms. The school, furthermore, separates black boys from black girls in these homerooms, a separation that last six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month. The school also separates black boys from black girls–and assigns black male teachers to mentor the black boys and black female teachers to do likewise for black girls.

The justification for this scheme of formal race segregation is school authorities’ perverse reading of “the data” that they insist suggests that academic achievement–for blacks–depends on the provision of strong (black) mentors. This color-coded and single-gender mentoring and instruction is sheer lunacy, of course, but it comes at a time many school officials are wringing their hands and shrugging their shoulders in frustration over what to do to “save” black boys and (to a lesser extent) black girls from persistently low academic achievement and high dropout rates. The educational authorities in Lancaster have proudly concluded that reintroducing separate schooling–in the guise of mentoring minority boys and girls–will be a benefit that blacks actually want and, therefore, won’t object to as illegal. Indeed, the mainline civil rights watchdogs haven’t yet yelped with outrage. Even federal civil rights enforcement agencies have been slow and reticent to challenge such segregation on the theory that the segregation is desired by the black students and their black adult “mentors.” These adults’ reasoning is simple if not simplistic–the civil rights laws were passed to foster blacks’ equality and ergo said laws should not be read or applied in ways that block what many blacks now demand–a reversion to segregated, all-black classes, if not one-race schools.

This governmental compromise with “voluntary” segregation has been a long time in the making. Dating back to at least the 1990s federal education authorities were openly searching for ways to approve all-black, all-male programs in public schools. President Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, Michael Williams, for instance, in 1992, told a Heritage Foundation audience that he supported racially-identifiable educational arrangements despite federal civil rights laws that, he knew, prohibited them and which at the time also disfavored single-sex public schooling and classrooms. Williams’ Education Department and the prior and subsequent Assistant Secretaries there flat out refused to decide a complaint that we brought challenging New York City’s first single-sex public school since the adoption of Title IX in 1972. It is still pending 15 years later. Eventually, the US Education Department itself led the effort to change Title IX regulations to allow for single-sex programs and one-gender public schools, a retreat from integrated education that was heralded by urban educators and parents alike as panaceas to the educational malaise impacting minority group children. The rationale was plain–separate black boys from black girls, and vice versa, and teach the boys to “man up.” At the East Harlem public school for girls the students were fed tea and crumpets, true to the spirit of educating girls differently from the boys. And, a decade later, the “Black Male Initiative” of the City University of New York–the target of another complaint we brought that the Feds have refused to decide much less declare illegal–also vouched for “the data” about the importance of black male role models for black boys. At its pilot program for black males at the mostly black Medgar Evers College, the black president of the college taught a separate class for black men. He, too, bragged about the separate class and the value of his black male bonding with the black male students, at least until we lodged our civil rights complaint.

Now that identical “collegiate” and “data” driven rationale is offered as the compelling reason to separate black boys from their other peers, and from black girls, in Lancaster’s high school. Indeed, as we had warned, single-sex school programs in urban settings laid the groundwork for a full-scale retreat from color-blindness, too, inasmuch as there exists stubborn societal prejudices and stereotypes that black boys are oversexed and boys and girls in the same classrooms are ergo distractions to each gender’s learning. The other stereotype of these children, both black boys and black girls, is that they are “culturally deprived” and “at risk.” These children, we are told, and are to assume, all come from “broken homes” and communities where men are disproportionately imprisoned, and, therefore, they have been deprived of strong black male role models. That is the gravamen of the school as surrogate parent, and for the provision of black men in the classrooms to teach black male students how to behave “like men” and to instruct black girls how to behave like “proud black women.” It is a racial and sexist drum that is played loudly and effectively in the black community and especially in many a black church, which reflexively if not religiously separates men and women in programs and instruction of their faith.

But our public schools are not black churches, and they are not the proper vehicles for racial or gender indoctrination. Black kids don’t learn English or math or science or a foreign language differently from others because of their skin color. They are, however, saddled with and their education is stunted and impacted by the stereotypes about them that adults bring into the schools. “The Black Male Initiative” of CUNY actually supposes racial differences in learning styles and the like. And no doubt high school principal Jimenez was schooled by the thinking and speech that Assistant Secretary of Education Williams offered some ten years ago in which he said: “There could very well be a benefit [for black boys]… to being isolated for a temporary period of time, or for special purposes.” Williams then added “There is something in the relationship between a black man and a black kid that could very well work to the benefit of those youngsters.” Williams could have cared less about his duty as a lawyer to faithfully execute the federal civil rights laws, including the US Supreme Court declaration that when it comes to intentional racial segregation in our schools–in any official form or however beneficent its guise–separate schooling on the basis of students’ race is inherently unequal. But well-meaning and block-headed educators have never bought that separate is unequal dicta; they insist that a little segregation can and will be helpful to black students and other underachievers “of color” such as “Hispanics” but not Asians. Asian students are differently stereotyped; all of them are widely regarded as the model, smart minority. Except on college campuses Asians too are segregated into special orientation and affinity groupings and dorms for “students of color.” There is no escaping racial idiocy in vast sectors of our mosaic nation.

Hence, this impulse for separating blacks from whites, and Hispanics from whites and Asians, and minorities from the so-called “majority” students–peers of similar age and qualifications–for no other reason than skin color has become commonplace, endemic and fashionable. if you need remedial education, and you’re black, there will be a separate program created for you. A program for black males. Another program for black girls. And the school authorities will insist on color-coding your teachers because good teachers are not enough; they want black children to have black role models. The “data,” they say, prove racial steering necessary and appropriate. Color-blindness as a national and legal standard is obliterated on the mantle of political correctness and racial expediency.

This resurgence of segregationist thinking in educational policy is as ironic as it is intense. Some black and white champions of “equality” both endorse black segregation as the best chance for overcoming blacks’ sense of group inferiority. Surely, these throwback voices to a bygone era don’t understand the lesson that legal segregation taught and passed on to successive generations of post-racial Americans–namely, there is never equality whenever kids can be placed into separate classrooms and be treated differently for services and teaching based solely on assumptions about their skin color. Our laws for four decades have commanded absolutely equality before the law regardless of one’s race because we discovered that separating children from others of their age and qualifications based on their race instilled in children of all colors moral confusion about democracy and individual merit. There has been no ambiguity about that in the law since the mid-1960s, only studied indifference to fulfilling Martin L. King, Jr.’s dream through recanting on promises of equal treatment. Shockingly, this new era of legal segregation has come into existence because the previous victims of racial segregation have been persuaded that being behind the eight ball of segregation is good for their kids. How horrible and cruel a hoax is such racial idiocy.

All our children, of every color, need to be saved from the damaging effects on their personality of segregationist practices, and from the policies and attitudes that stereotype, defame, and scapegoat isolate human beings “because” of their skin color. If local and Federal education officials succeed with their tactics of obfuscation and skirting of basic egalitarian principles embedded in our civil rights laws then they will have found the formula for reversing the public policy that once set our nation on the course away from a dual society. Racial segregation is the disease, and the symptoms include the itch to keep placing our children into color-coded boxes and judging their merits or lack of individual success on their disadvantaged backgrounds, broken homes, and on their “race” rather than on ineffective teaching and bad individual study and library habits. This disease of racial idiocy afflicts adults as well as children, who carry the badge of group inferiority or group entitlement and blame their “race” for their ghettoization and marginalization. This mindset negatively affects the hearts and minds of school children in ways unlikely ever to be undone by mentors of their racial caste.

The author is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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