Friday, April 18, 2014

Achieving the Segregation We Desire

Yesterday the Atlantic published a deeply reported piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that puts a human face on the reality of the resegregation of American schools. Her article focuses on the South, but it's a process happening nationwide. It's gotten worse since 2007, when John Roberts, writing for a Supreme Court majority, ruled that even municipalities that wanted to take race into account to achieve integration of their own volition weren't allowed to do so. Conservatives love local control, until they don't.

Coincidentally, I was speaking to a class of Kent State freshman yesterday about Stokely Carmichael's (he's the guy who coined the phrase "Black Power") critique of integration way back in 1966. Carmichael argued that what was happening in the 1960s was mere tokenism and that the burden of integration was falling on black people. Rather than a deep process that uprooted established patterns and leveled the playing field, in his view, integration actually reinforced the supremacy of whiteness by requiring blacks to integrate into white institutions. It so rarely went the other way around. As pathetic as Carmichael's end was, the potency of his critique remains to present day. I will tell you what I told the students in class yesterday: by most measures our schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. I think that surprised them, and it probably surprises you too, unless you're a regular reader.

The important thing to understand is that there is nothing benign about this process. This is about the building and maintenance of white supremacy here and now, in our own time. Hannah-Jones's peice focuses on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and what has happened there since a federal judge removed the city from a decades-old court integration order in 2000:
Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
Notice that the resegregration of the schools required specific, proactive steps to achieve these outcomes. Yet we don't recognize it for what it is because we're fed a diet of magical thinking about race that blinds us to the forces that buttress white supremacy. This is why history is so important. Our view of the past is so superficial and mythical that we can't recognize racism in the present. We embrace a mythical history that sensationalizes and localizes racism, situating its perpetrators and its effects at an exaggerated distance from ourselves. Even excellent scholars indulge in this moralizing of the past. Open an academic book on the civil rights era and you can read of "rabid" racists visiting all kinds of evil upon their victims. Such language absolves us and thereby reinforces white supremacy in the present. We're not "rabid." We're better than that. Hooray for us.

At back of this is a pervasive double standard that systematically favors the maintenance of white supremacy. When actions are taken to reduce segregation they immediately become highly visible to the public and are invariably controversial. When similar actions are taken to reinforce segregation they are not acknowledged as governmental action at all, but are seen as natural features of the landscape, as if people just want to congregate among people who are like them and enjoy poorly resourced schools. This was clearly in evidence during busing's heyday, as areas that had bused students for the purposes of segregation for decades without controversy suddenly erupted in anger when busing was used for the opposite purpose.

Segregation is not natural. It is constructed by public policy. It is being constructed right now. Do not believe that segregation is a minor problem or an academic concern. The real-world effects are devastating: concentrated poverty, constant teacher turnover, inadequate resources. Most of us support school segregation. It is important to state this clearly and stop playing the game that lets us white folks absolve ourselves by a verbal declaration. If this seems too strong for you, what do you think should be done about school segregation? Do you support busing? If not, then what about school funding equalization (which would involve a big transfer of wealth from rich to poor)? If not, then what about district consolidation across segregated municipalities to achieve more integrated schools? If not, then what about making peace with segregation but funding the minority schools at a higher rate than the white schools? If not, then what is your solution? If every potential solution seems too costly to you, stop pretending you care about racism or have any real interest in eradicating white supremacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates has it right:
There doesn't seem to be much of a political solution here. It's fairly clear that integration simply isn't much of a priority to white people, and sometimes not even to black people. And Tuscaloosa is not alone. I suspect if you polled most white people in these towns they would honestly say that racism is awful, and many (if not most) would be sincere. At the same time they would generally be lukewarm to the idea of having to "do something" in order to end white supremacy.
Ending white supremacy isn't really in the American vocabulary. That is because ending white supremacy does not merely require a passive sense that racism is awful, but an active commitment to undoing its generational effects. Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire. 
A latent commitment to anti-racism just isn't enough. But that's what we have right now. With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that a total vanquishing of white supremacy is necessarily in the American future.
Injustice will always be with us, but the Christian's responsibility here is clear. We must be a prophetic voice advocating for changes in public policy, while living counter-cultural personal lives that offer islands of integration, humility, and mutual respect amid a society of white supremacy.

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