Point of View: Op-Ed Articles

The Shameful Resegregation of New York City Schools

Michael Meyers
Friday, May 15 2009, 5:00 PM

Today marks 55 years since the Supreme Court outlawed intentionally racially segregated public schools, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Back then, blacks welcomed the news that we would never again have to “prove” that segregation harms black children in ways unlikely ever to be undone – as demonstrated persuasively by my mentor Kenneth Clark’s breakthrough experiments using black and white dolls.

All that is yesterday’s headline. Today liberals of all skin colors cheer all-black schools and separate classes for boys and girls as the means to the end of raising these children’s “self-esteem” in their “race” (race is a term I don’t believe in) and gender.

This has given rise to a new era of acceptable Balkanization of our public schools, as other minority groups – Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Jews – rush to organize schools around their group’s culture or language or ethnic identity.

It is tragic that in New York City, the nation’s epicenter of ethnic commingling and cross-pollination, such schools have proliferated on Mayor Bloomberg’s watch.

Examples abound:

Opportunity Charter School is 92% black and 8% Hispanic. Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem is 92% black and 8% Hispanic; Luis Munoz Marin Bilingual School is 92% Hispanic and 7% black. Harlem Day Charter School is 94% black and 6% Hispanic. Harriet Tubman Charter School is 94% black and 6% Hispanic.

Some of these schools instruct their students well. But doesn’t it trouble anyone that they are happily, practically by design, segregated along racial or ethnic lines? Nobody at the federal level seems to care – not even Barack Obama, who never would have been born if not for racial integration. The Clinton and Bush administrations both bent over backward to legally allow public schools and classes serving just one race or gender, beginning in 1996 with the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. The feds at best looked the other way and at worst encourage the new “separate but equal” regime.

Apparently, they think that blacks and whites and others have changed their minds about integration. As a political reality, maybe they’re right; many Americans rationalize that plenty of public schools are already “majority” minority – so, why not just allow blacks their own schools, and the same for others?

Here’s one “why not”: because Kenneth Clark’s research, which in 1954 helped sway the Supreme Court by demonstrating the damage that segregation does to the development of children – even when separate is “equal” – hasn’t changed. He proved that egos and individuality are bruised, deeply, when children are taught to exaggerate their ethnic and racial identities and to undervalue others’. Yes, this is true even if, for instance, students in an all-black school are incessantly taught to be proud of themselves. Positive or negative, stereotyping is pernicious.

And often, the ingrained prejudice isn’t so innocuous. Some of the new segregated schools actually claim that black boys and girls learn differently from one another, and differently from all other ethnic groups. Ditto for Hispanics. That’s the way the overachievement of some groups, and the underachievement of others, is explained.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s eyes gleam every time he assures me that children are learning in these segregated classrooms. His boss, Bloomberg, agrees.

While they deserve some credit for working relentlessly to close the achievement gap between children of different backgrounds, they’re failing to see the forest for the trees. As a central part of their education, kids’ horizons must be broadened beyond their families’ ethnic heritages and cultural traditions. Our public schools’ core mission is to extirpate, not to reinforce, prejudice, parochialism and nativism.

When educators exclaim that separatist education is for the kids’ own good – or that neighborhoods are segregated and we must accept that schools will be, too – what they’re really saying is that we do not have the brain power, or the guts, to stamp out ethnic clustering. Fifty-five years after Brown, this is the cowardly new consensus.

Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition