It starts the same.
“I heard what you’re saying about integration and everything, and I agree with you in general …”
“And I hear you on fighting for all schools and not just mine …”
“And I’m not racist, but I don’t want to take my kids out of a well-resourced school so they can go to a school with gang violence.”
“Excuse me, what?”
“I don’t mean …”
Yes, you did.
If you’ve read any reporting from New York Times’ Kate Taylor in the last few months, any discussion around school segregation and integration in New York City has a “but I’m not racist” in it. Racism isn’t merely a set of feelings one has towards another, but also the systematic ways we view schools where the students predominantly attending are black.
Our school system, as a function of our country, moves with the best interest of rich white folks. Despite some pundits’ willful ignorance about education history, the real first opt-out movement was when droves of middle to upper class white people created private schools to avoid desegregation court orders. Segregation was always the ostensible representation of inequity, and its dismantling puts schools at odds with American laws, systems, and values. All too often, asking for any level of equity has been met with violence from firings of entire staff to the torching of bodies and buildings, all because some folks got used to black people not reading.
In New York City, the concurrent battles against Success Academy charters and rezoning / integration speak to the idea that, ultimately, the education of people of color in this country is seen as a matter of compliance, bias, and oppression. Re-segregated schools in our country haven’t worked to a large extent as the great equalizer, even when its promise has come close in a couple of spots in an otherwise sordid history. Policymakers and activists alike continue to shut out the very folks in need of the most help, preferring to create mascots and figureheads.
And the minute an under-the-radar school decides to shift the focus to the black students it serves, our officials try (and fail) to convince a neighboring white school that it’s worth their kids.
While some parents don’t want to be part of a social experiment that has children of different races sitting in the same classrooms (all while quoting Martin Luther King Jr.), the same parents rarely advocate to get better schools for others either. That difference in resources (i.e. segregation) makes some parents feel special, as if their child is getting a relatively better education, because education is relative to the receiver. Legs ups (i.e. segregation) thrive in communities like this because people of color getting a substandard education sets the bar low enough for our country to exploit.
The tale of two schools begins and ends with a white school and a black school, and, no matter if the schools are equal by any measure that our society deems credible, one will always be different from the other. Segregation.
Integration isn’t just a strategy for equity, but also an anti-racist strategy that suggests that we are all responsible for the legacies we leave all of our children. So, when people say “I’m not racist but,” I am inclined to ignore anything prior to “but”. I prefer they honestly tell me they can’t stand their child in the same classroom with someone who they’ve already predisposed for vermin-like treatment. I’m not inclined to keep my mouth shut. I’m not predisposed to folks mistreating my students. I truly believe in an education that’s inclusive, equitable, and responsive to the students most in need.
Without that common understanding, mass education movements will fail. And you can keep your racist notions in the purses you clutch when I speak.