The Fifty Nifty United States: Alabama

Today I'm sharing the first installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series will focus on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

Last week Emma Brown at The Washington Post turned in a story of modern day secession. A group of White families in Alabama, whose children attend an interracial school district, want to take their toys and go home:

... the Gardendale Board of Education oversees no schools, employs no teachers and enrolls no students. City officials in this predominantly white town appointed the board in 2014 as part of a years-long effort to secede from surrounding Jefferson County — where there are more African American than white students — and form their own independent school system. Opponents argue that the secession effort is laced with racial overtones and amounts to a push for segregation. But supporters say that it has nothing to do with race and that they are motivated by a desire for local control of public education — and the tax money that pays for it. “It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County,” said Stan Hogeland, mayor of Gardendale ..."

Gardendale, and the county in which is resides, is a textbook example of how communities take advantage of racial gerrymandering in schooling. The situation also demonstrates the pernicious intermingling of schooling, property values, taxation, race, and class. As EdBuild documented in its recent report on "hyper-segregating" school district borders, towns like Gardendale have a financial incentive to segregate themselves from towns with smaller tax bases. Because housing in this country is inextricably linked to a history of racial bias, the actions in Gardendale amount to an act of racial segregation, whether or not racial segregation is the intent of the community leaders.

Alabama has one of the most troubling racial histories of any state in the country, and the state's past is compounded by contemporary political and justice systems that reinforce racial discrimination. In a recent New Yorker profile of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Jeffrey Toobin quantified the political disparities:

[Alabama is] the only death-penalty state in which judges routinely overrule juries that vote against imposing death sentences. (In their campaigns, judges boast about the number of death sentences they’ve imposed.) Alabama’s population is about twenty-seven-per-cent African-American. The nineteen appellate judges who review death sentences, including all the justices on the state Supreme Court, are white and Republican. Forty-one of the state’s forty-two elected district attorneys are white, and most are Republican.

Alabama was a slave state, and lawmakers in the state replaced slavery with an extraordinary array of Jim Crow statutes, including forced racial segregation of public spaces until the 1960s. Given this history, Alabama is an easy state to pick on when it comes to racial justice. Indeed, when I shared Emma Brown's article on twitter, I received this response:

Good journalism is an act of finding real stories that illuminate broader social issues, so I make no apologies for sharing a terrifically reported article that accomplishes this difficult task.

On the other hand, "Victim of Fate" on twitter is right: this does happen everywhere. As a child of the great state of New Jersey, I know what it feels like when one's home state is the target of relentless joke-making. In an effort to be more fair about the whole endeavor, I've decided to launch a new blog series today: "The Fifty Nifty United States."

"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a song that schools use to teach the names of the states to children. I never learned it, but my wife remembers the song verbatim, including the alphabetical rundown of all fifty states for which the song is famous. Alabama is the first state in alphabetical order, so rather than treat this recent bout of secessionist flirtation as an isolated incident, I thought it might be worthwhile to broaden the tent. Or, as the song joyfully proclaims:

Each individual state,
Contributes a quality that is great ...
Shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em,
Until we have given a day,
To every state in the USA!”

In this new blog series - "The Fifty Nifty United States" - every state will have its day in the sun. No state in this country can avoid our country's dark history with racism, although there is a tendency to conflate racism with the former confederate states, and their defense of the institution of slavery. States and cities far from the confederacy, however, have used statute, personal prejudice, and power to enforce what amounts to a racial caste system, long after the Civil War ended. Because housing, schooling, and pubic safety are intertwined from a public policy standpoint, more often than not segregationist policies come back my two favorite topics: education and justice.

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power. In the case of Alabama, for example, the wealthier White families want to use their political and financial power to cause greater socioeconomic isolation and segregation. Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.

I hope that regular readers of this blog will help me to identify and tell these stories, as we cannot shy away from difficult topics. Next week, we travel to Alaska.