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Schools of thought

I am paying some attention to the recent Supreme Court case about public school desegregation efforts, in part because my own school district is facing the issue. I have, in the past, talked about the continued need for action to distribute opportunities more equally, given the continuing effects of segregation and official discrimination. There’s something more going on here than that, and it’s an odd thing that I’m uncomfortable with, so I thought I’d lay it out for y’all.

First of all, it seems clear that as the Seattle school district’s lawyer told Chief Justice Roberts (and I’m taking my quote from Linda Greenhouse’s NYT article, Court Reviews Race as Factor in School Plans), “Segregation is harmful.” That, by the way, is based on observation, not on philosophy. Segregated schools are bad for the kids in ghetto schools, and that is not only based on an inevitable difference in resources but on a variety of social issues. In other words, actual harm would be done to kids in a segregated system, even if the resources were somehow kept equal. It follows, I think, that the state has an interest in desegregating.

Second, busing is harmful. I think that’s been studied enough to have nearly as good a sense of that as of the other. It’s better for a kid to go to a school in his neighborhood, with other kids from that neighborhood, than to go to a school outside his neighborhood, with other kids from different neighborhoods. The harm in busing is not (as far as I know—I am not an expert on sociology and education, so my information comes from inaccurate newspaper articles and the occasional abstract from a real study report) so bad as the harm in segregation, but it exists.

Third, equality under the law demands a presumption that people of different races should be treated equally. This presumption will need to be overcome in some cases, such as to redress actual harm, so the question is whether a particular case does overcome such a presumption.

Fourth, there is, in fact, a history in this country of racial prejudice and harmful discrimination. In an actual case, it must make a difference whether the effect of a rule would increase or decrease the ongoing detrimental effects of that. In other words, there is a clear difference between a rule giving preference of some kind to white people and a rule giving preference to black people; it’s preposterous to suppose that there is no difference between them.

Enough to go on.

Your Humble Blogger lives in an affluent town in an affluent state. Our school district is wonderful, with tasty test scores and attractive well-kept school buildings. My Perfect Non-Reader goes to kindergarten five blocks from home. Her school is well-appointed and well-funded (within the current American context); recently each child in her kindergarten class was given a box of crayons to take home. Her school is also one of two schools in the town with any appreciable number of minority students. Her school is, according to state stats, about 65% minority; the town is around 33% minority. As far as I can tell, about a sixth of the non-white students in town go to her school, and about a sixth go to the next school to the south, with the other two-third spread over the other nine schools. There are two schools that are the reverse, with around 85% white students, and the other five look more or less like the city.

Five years ago or so, the state gave special status to our school and the other heavily non-white school, exempting them from affirmative action to desegregate in return for an affirmative effort to make the schools attractive to families from all over the town. My daughter’s school is a “magnet” school for science and technology; there are special facilities for studying science, right down to the kindergarten level. The “magnet” thing is pretty minor, though; most of the students are from the neighborhood, with the opportunity to cross neighborhoods to attend a magnet school for a limited number of families. There are other magnet schools for other things; most families choose the neighborhood schools. The special status hasn’t done much to change the demographics of the school, as far as I can tell from the reports.

Now, I understand that the state should be very skeptical of segregated schools. If it turns out that all the non-white kids are in one neighborhood, which is often the case, and one or two schools have most of those kids, you need to look very carefully at those schools, both because you can assume a resource imbalance and because (as was mentioned above) segregation is harmful. I get that. And I hate to be the kind of liberal that is all in favor of desegregating other people’s schools, in other people’s towns. But are our schools segregated? I’m curious what Gentle Readers will think. My daughter’s school is one-third white; will the various detrimental effects kick in? Most of the non-white kids in town go to other schools; will prospective employers and schools feel that non-white kids from this town are underprepared? Even in the whitest school, one out of seven or so is non-white; there will likely be at least one non-white kid in every class.

One thing that’s skewing my perspective is that my school was very segregated, with only one or two black kids out of twelve hundred in my high school, and a similar ratio in elementary school. There were more Chicanos and Indians (as we called them), but certainly we were more than 85% white. I’m going here by a very loose memory, and also if a kid spoke English at home and wasn’t observably non-white, I’m counting her as white, even if she was named Lupé. What I’m trying to get at is that my school felt very white, and my daughter’s school neither feels very white nor very non-white. In many ways, it’s my liberal dream school: moderately affluent, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial. Multiple good role models of at least four races and at least three religions, so nobody has to be Other on Display (how well I remember that). It’s perfect! It looks just like the tediously put-together illustrations in sort of books that tediously put together illustrations of Benetton-colored kids playing together! Why would you touch it?

Now, my daughter is white, so if they start in trying to bus kids out of the neighborhood to even out the numbers, she’ll be one of the ones who gets to stay. And I say gets to stay because she loves it, and would be all broken up if we had to go somewhere else (which we well might, next year, for our own reasons). I think—I think—that the other kids also love the school, in that kindergartner way. I don’t perceive any need for state intrusion at all. On the other hand, I am in a terrific position not to perceive that need if it does exist.

This hooks together with the day’s news because some of the policies that went in front of the Supreme Court yesterday were similar to policies in our town. I understand that the policies are awkward and in some ways individually unfair. My reaction to the move to further desegregate my own school was substantially negative. On the other hand, I do understand the interest of the state, and I further understand that the more latitude you give the state to waive its policies in individual cases, the more latitude you give it to consign politically weak groups to an underclass. That’s not happening in my town—it never happens in my town, but I could see it happening elsewhere. And obviously (I hope this is obvious) the Judiciary actively overturning local democratic-based decision making to protect members of a group that is already privileged seems wrong. And yet, I have to wonder—are we stuck with desegregation forever? Are there policies or plans to have neither segregation or desegregation? Because honestly, they both suck, and the fact that I’ll accept one rather than the other doesn’t solve either.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I am very glad your perfect formerly non-reader loves her kindergarten, and that it is so diverse and so good!

Are we stuck with desegregation forever? Where "forever" has a value of "as much of the future as we are likely to live to see" the answer is yes, unless we decide that not to try to reduce segregation anymore, and I earnestly hope that we as a nation will not give up on the principle of equality of opportunity in my lifetime or after.

yeah, i think, basically we're stuck with desegregation forever, because native or black communities can't stabilize unless we can stop turning huge %s into felons. that is a tremendous drain on social potential. there's all this other stuff we have to want to change in order for de facto school arrangements to be healthy. it takes a couple generations for a community to get the poison out. jail, cops, service work. have a nice life, kid!

the sweetie says, "it isn't just about numbers. the question for the local downpressed community about whether a school to be desegregated is, is the school a positive for its area as it is. is it working for the kids. would there be a real facilities and staff improvement for the moved kids, or would it be a rubbing-shoulders improvement. the flow of money away from poor minority neighborhoods is hard to stop; living breathing schools are a way to establish community spirit and help rebuild the social networking."

Hm. My point about the end of desegregation is that the policy goal (presumably) is to create conditions where we don't have to have specific desegregation policies, which are often detrimental (tho' not as detrimental as segregation). In other words, segregated schools are harmful largely because segregated neighborhoods are harmful, and while we need to act affirmatively in the schools, we also need to act affirmatively in the neighborhoods.
And, of course, having racially integrated pockets of concentrated poverty would lead to bad schools, which would be bad for equality of opportunity. But we know how to deal with concentrated poverty; we were doing that for most of the nineties very effectively. If we, as a nation, had the political will do deal with integrating neighborhoods, I think the other would come very quickly.
All of which is background, I think, to my own discomfort at how uncomfortable I am with the idea of breaking up my daughter's school. It's frustrating to me that after a generation of this stuff, the best we can come up with is to stick kids on a bus and take them to a school across town. It's even more frustrating to me that, given that bad idea is the best we've come up with, we are giving up the whole thing rather than coming up with better ideas.

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