Thursday Reading List: Schools are Still Segregated

The annual New York Times Magazine education issue drops this week, and the big story therein is Nikole Hannah-Jones's deep look at school resegregation and secession in Alabama. She focuses on the community of Gardendale, which is part of the larger Jefferson County school system:

Jefferson County is one of a few hundred school systems in the country still bound by decades-old school desegregation court orders that came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Gardendale could not leave the district without the approval of the federal court in Birmingham. That court had been friendly to towns trying to secede, and the new school board apparently considered the desegregation order so inconsequential that it did not inform its new superintendent that it existed. So in February 2015, the Gardendale school board sent its lawyer to the federal court for what Gardendale secession supporters assumed would be a pro forma request to separate from the county schools. They were wrong.

Regular readers of this blog know that we have been following the Gardendale story (in fact, it was the star of the first edition of the nascent "Fifty Nifty United States" series)! Hannah-Jones provides a careful look at the legal history of segregation and secession, since the Brown decision, situating the current action in Alabama amidst its appropriate historical context.

Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, The Nation just released Emmanuel Felton's long piece on the same community. He covers similar ground, with additional data on the recent history of the federal enforcement of desegregation:

Former Justice Department lawyers defend the department’s work, saying that both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to adequately invest in making desegregation real. While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades. While the original court-mandated desegregation plans usually required districts to provide reports on a semi-annual basis, many districts don’t bother. Officials in several districts contacted by The Hechinger Report said that they hadn’t heard from the Justice Department or the courts in 20 years.

If you have time, read both pieces, because you'll get different narrative texture from each. Hannah-Jones spends a lot of time with a civil rights lawyer who has argued against segregation for decades, whereas Felton profiles a Black woman whose own children are affected by the court's decisions.

As usual, it warrants repeating that the aggressors in the case of the resegregation of American schools are White people. Moreover, as is the case with other forms of institutional racism, it does not matter whether those parents' actions are motivated by racial hatred, because the consequence of their deeds is the maintenance of a system of racial advantage. In the Gardendale story, the White families are unabashed in their desire to isolate their children from non-White peers, and the reasoning for that separation is a presumed linkage between "Whiteness" and "quality of education."

That sounds an AWFUL lot like White supremacy to me.

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It's evident that race is still a factor in schooling, a point that Beverly Tatum reinforced in her 1997 book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Melinda A. Anderson of The Atlantic interviewed her, upon the release of a 20th anniversary edition of Tatum's classic text:

Beverly Daniel Tatum:  In 1997 my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger, and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. … I still have that goal, but in 1997 we were a nation at peace and the economy was expanding. Today we are a nation at war, suffering from economic anxiety and the combination of “post-racial” rhetoric, simmering racial resentments, and an increasing 140-character culture of communication that has made productive conversation more difficult to have. That said, it is still the case that in a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. I still believe that an understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference.

I am a total evangelist for this book. It changed my perspective on my own childhood, adolescence, and racial identity. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so if you haven't read it, buy the new version. If you're already a fan, buy a copy for a friend!

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Finally today, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation wrote his annual letter to the public, and his focus is moral leadership:

A few weeks ago, the most insidious elements of our history—as much a part of our national character as the Constitution itself—announced themselves anew, and in the most disgusting and frightening ways. In Charlottesville, Virginia, racist, anti-Semitic white nationalists marched without hoods, shame, or stigma. As I watched the images emerging from Charlottesville, aghast, I worried that hate was being normalized in America.I was not alone, of course. In recent weeks, the American people affirmed, as they have so often, that from darkness comes light. By the thousands, and in cities across the country, they expressed that, in Fannie Lou Hamer’s perfect phrasing, “righteousness exalts a nation; hate just makes people miserable. ”To me, it seems clear, not just in this alarming episode, but in the deeper history it has laid bare: America has reached another defining moment. We face a crisis—the next battle for the soul of this country, one that will play out on the battlefield of our collective consciousness.

Walker subsequently makes a stirring case for moral leadership, which often ends up being subservient to other forms of leadership, institutional and otherwise. His take is sobering, yet optimistic, and I hope you find strength in it, as I did.

Have a great day.