"Why do no white kids go to school here?"
A 14-year-old ninth-grader asked me this question earlier this semester about the school she attends and where I teach. Smart and genuinely curious, she asked the question without any of that world-weary irony and moral casuistry that often attends questions from teenagers and, more generally, questions about school segregation in present day America. More, her question was not shaded with the language of inequality or achievement gaps or school reforms or global competitiveness. She really wanted to know how the world she lived in got to be this way — the kind of open, probing questioning at the heart of any good education.
What is striking is how such a genuine question is completely absent or summarily dismissed in our loud and self-righteous debates about fixing schools, fixing students, fixing education. Both liberals and conservatives seem to agree that a racially segregated education is nothing a "common core" curriculum, a new school building, a charter school, a better test, a better teacher, more accountability, a seemingly endless promulgation of reforms and can-do spirit can't set right — if a segregated education needs setting right at all. Our elected representatives, all genre of reformers, our school leaders, education journalists and most American citizens seem simply to have concluded that the de facto segregated education of tens of thousands of Baltimore school children, and the tens of thousands in almost every American city, is not a relevant data point. It's not news.
If you had doubts about the realities of de facto school segregation in America, you could point to the recent report of the Civil Rights Project, "E Pluribus … Separation;" or University of Wisconsin-Madison's Jeremy Fiel's research in a forthcoming issue of the American Sociological Review on racial "resegregation" and "racial isolation" in American schools; or the work of Jonathan Plucker at the University of Connecticut on the "permanent talent underclass" produced along race and class lines by American schools.
Or you could simply come to my classroom. Or go to any of the classrooms of the three schools housed in the single building where I teach in West Baltimore. Or go to almost any of the classrooms in Baltimore — or Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, St. Louis, urban America generally — and answer questions from smart, curious kids who want to know why their world is this way. Let them know that segregation is not real or not important or rendered meaningless with well-intentioned reforms that pledge liberty and justice for all.
You can begin your explanation with history. Let the students know that after Homer Plessy lost his case against John Howard Ferguson in the U.S. Supreme Court, when the justices ruled in 1896 that racial segregation was constitutional as long as the accommodations were "separate but equal," he returned to Louisiana and largely disappeared from history. The doctrine of "separate but equal" however has had a much more vital afterlife.
"Separate but equal" works beautifully not merely because it affirmed the American system of racial hierarchy, it did so in the language dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal — within separate accommodations. We all still live in Homer Plessy's world, despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that renounced the doctrine.
Even Earl Warren's attempt at moral nuance in writing for the majority in that decision was largely ignored at the time and is completely erased in today's understanding of the "public" in public education: "Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases," Warren wrote. "We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education."
Segregation, today, is a systemic fact of contemporary school life in America, and it perverts the very meaning of public education.
Reform programs, standardized test scores, building new buildings, getting a new district CEO or papering a "common core" over our manifest inequality does not change that.
And we are corrupted by our failure to name it. Our silence, our intellectual stratagems to avoid segregation as a fact of public education — and hence of public life — in Baltimore, in our country, diminishes and deforms us as citizens.
My student, though, is resilient as well as smart. She will not be a victim. However, she is clearly a messenger. She speaks to those who claim to be working to "reform" public education in Baltimore and America. There is wisdom in what she asks.
I hope you can hear her question.
Michael Corbin teaches at ConneXions: A Community-Based Arts School in West Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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