Integration. The idea brought well deserved cheers with Brown vs Board of Education. Many likely assumed that 60+ years later, deeply segregated schools would only serve as a relic of the past and a sharp pivot in the road for equity and justice for communities of color.
Today, there is another push for integration because student achievement in Black and Brown neighborhoods has languished. For the record, although I never attended one, I am not against integrated schools. I do wonder, with all of the energy devoted to it, how will it actually happen, look like, and to what end?
As a kid, what I remember most about attempts to integrate were bricks being thrown at school bus windows. Through the windows, white hurlers could plainly see Black children. Public regard for “separation is inherently unequal” was damned-we saw it in housing, the creation of suburbia, distribution of school funding, and resistance to Affirmative Action.
As most schools remain segregated today, even without Jim Crow laws, one has to wonder: 1) Does America really want integration and 2) How will it improve life outcomes for those who are left behind?
A One-Way Street
Yesteryear, many conscious Black folks were concerned about integrated schools because of the impact it would have on the slowly growing Black middle class. They knew, with certainty, that even if some Black kids were sent to a predominantly white school, their parents would not be able to “ride the bus” with them to work in same schools.
We saw something similar with integrated dollars. Black folks were not allowed to shop in certain stores. As a kid, although Woolworth’s was downtown and looked like a great place to eat, my Mama would never go in there because of how she said it used to be segregated.
Once Black people were able to use their purchasing power in Macy’s, for example, the smaller, Black-owned shops lost business. There wasn’t a major push from white folks to patronize the Black owned stores (besides entertainment) and so, when integration came about, Macy’s benefited, not the Black community’s entrepreneurs.
American integration tends to be like a one-way street, heading in one direction. It tends to mean “join us or continue to perish.” Black folks also know that, with white students, schools will get resources. America will make sure of that. There doesn’t appear to be a great push to integrate school funding. Pennsylvania, for example, has some of the worst examples of school funding inequities in the country.
My Biggest Concern
My biggest concern about integration can be read in-between the lines of Chief Justice Warren in his brief about Brown vs the Board of Education:
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group…Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
I used to read this and wonder, why is there even a term of “separate but equal”? Where exactly are the separate but equal Black/Brown and White schools? Is injustice only damaging to Black and Latino kids, or does it damage white children’s character and life outlook too? How much of our continued problems are because too many white children grow up to wield power over people they only saw on television?
When I ponder these words, I also think of a country not really wanting equity and justice to become pervasive. Yes, “separate but equal” has no place in public education, but any Black and Latino family can tell you that separate and unequal not only has a place, but a strong, unrelenting foothold.
Are segregated communities inherently detrimental to the Black child, or is the stark and persistent inequity of funding for our schools what is actually detrimental to their well-being? Will parallel play within an “integrated” school actually help develop the Black child’s psyche? If I attend a mostly white school, but I have no access to rigorous courses and I am regulated to the least experienced or most ineffective teachers, is that an integrated experience? Do my feelings of Black inferiority or white supremacy suddenly dissipate because of the sprawling school lawn and unlimited resources?
When, instead of holding ourselves accountable for what and how much children of color learn-regardless of where they attend, I fear that we are waving the lure of integration as the panacea for the educational injustice our children experience daily. Buyer beware, it will lull you into a 62-year coma.
I’m Tired of Sacrificing
I wonder if the push for integration as the sole fix for the lack of safety and achievement in our neighborhood schools will have a detrimental effect on the psyche of Black children. To be told that your dilapidated building, scarce resources, and teacher equity won’t be fixed, but you will receive the equity and justice you deserve as a human being if you attend a white school, can be damaging to the Black child’s psyche.
Any assault on the idea of Black excellence in a predominately Black space is detrimental and unacceptable.
I agree that if all things are equal, having an integrated school can provide benefits to children growing up in a multi-cultural society. But, I also grow weary of Black folks needing to do the sacrificing in the face of resistance in order to achieve integration. It is like when people of color have to carry the water for cultural context incessantly, while white people get to groan about how uncomfortable it makes them feel.
As in a lot of spaces, siloed attempts to integrate public institutions are devoid of meaningful cross-sector integration. Folks may want their schools integrated, but will it result in just more parallel play? Will the same people who point to segregated schools as the main reason for decades-long failure in predominantly Black and Brown public schools jump at a chance to integrate, say, a neighborhood without gentrifying it?
We Are Accountable to Our Students
I work in an overwhelmingly Black school. We are holding ourselves accountable for our students’ education and well-being. We demand excellence from ourselves, and we support and push our students in striving for excellence. Do I believe if our students attended a white school they would get better resources? Yes. Do I believe that they will automatically receive a better education? No.
Out of all the negative by-products of No Child Left Behind law, one silver lining was the disaggregation of data. It illuminated that, too often, these very schools that we want to integrate our children in, have similar results for poor Black children. I would imagine it would be a double whammy to be low achievement in a sea of whiteness. And, that is not to say we should not integrate. What I am saying is, regardless of where Black and Brown kids attend school, let’s demand equity and justice and hold people accountable for the education of students of color -regardless of where they live and attend school.
Many people still view poverty and racial segregation as the only reasons for low student achievement. While I know that poverty has an impact, it is surmountable with high standards, rigorous coursework, thoughtful and sustained interventions and systems, the development of positive racial identity, and accountability for all to ensure this is all happening.
It is unfortunate, that too many folks would rather send a bus of Black and Latino kids to predominantly white schools instead of holding themselves accountable for pursuing excellence in children’s neighborhood schools.
To communicate to communities that they are only deserving excellence when they attend white schools is as insidious as the doctrine of separate and unequal itself.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.