Still the problem we live with

Look at Will Counts’ iconic photo of a white mob taunting Elizabeth Eckford, a black teenager who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Then listen to audio of the white parents expressing their alarm about black students coming to their local school in 2013, included in Nicole Hannah-Jones’ remarkable piece on school segregation that aired last week on “This American Life.”

Not much difference, is there?

The hour-long radio story tells what happened when the mostly black, mostly poor Normandy School District lost its accreditation. Under Missouri Law, Normandy students could transfer to the high-achieving Francis Howell district across town.

About one-fourth of the Normandy students opted to move, surprising school officials who thought the inconvenience would deter them. But the Francis Howell parents had no say in the matter, and they aired their displeasure at a town hall meeting. (The audio starts at 23:20 on the broadcast).

These are middle-class suburbanites in 2013, not poor Southerners in 1957. They don’t use the N-word, and they insist their concerns aren’t about race. But the coded language they use – and the boisterous cheers that greet the most over-the-top statements – belie that claim.

“My question is, when a child who is coming from an underperforming school comes into a math class at Francis Howell, how will they possibly cope?” one parent asks. “Once Normandy comes here, will that lower our accreditation?”

Another wonders why Francis Howell parents won’t get to vote down accepting Normandy students like residents were able to reject an expansion of public transit. And yet another insists Francis Howell will need metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs to protect her children from the Normandy invaders.

“I want the same security that Normandy gets and I want it here,” she says to wild applause from much of the crowd of 3,000. “Because I shopped for a school district. And I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed or taking a drug or getting robbed.”

Watching and listening on a video monitor in an overflow room were Nedra Martin and her daughter Mah’Ria, a Normandy honor student who was eager to transfer to a better school. Mah’Ria sobbed as she told Hannah-Jones about deciding to go to the microphone to speak, then losing her nerve.

Martin said that, watching her daughter, she thought of Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old black girl whose courageous walk into a previously all-white New Orleans public school was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

“We are still dealing with that today,” she said.

Segregation by choice

In a conversation with “This American Life” host Ira Glass, Hannah-Jones said she was persuaded after a decade of education reporting that desegregation was the one policy that has worked to close the achievement gap between black and white students.

“But it’s the one thing we’re not really talking about and that very few people are doing any more,” she said. “It’s not even discussed.”

The Normandy-Francis Howell transfer option was a controlled situation where some students moved to what became a less segregated school as a result of school choice. But as Hannah-Jones also reports, the situation seemed to get even worse for the 75 percent of students left behind in Normandy.

And school choice and charter schools often increase segregation. Affluent parents make the most effective use of choice. They use social networks to learn about schools, and they have the means to transport their children to charter and magnet schools rather than sending them to nearby schools.

Choice advocates like to argue that parents will send their kids to schools that do the best on accountability measures – or to the schools that are the best fit for their children. But Amanda Bancroft, a graduate student at Rice University, found otherwise in interviews with “high-status” white parents in Houston, Texas. She concluded that race played a significant role in the choices that parents made.

Ryan Holeywell writes about the study on the blog of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research:

To be clear, the parents Bancroft interviewed rarely explicitly mentioned a school’s racial composition as a reason they sent their kids there (or as a reason for moving them elsewhere). “It wasn’t so much what they were saying as how they were saying it,” Bancroft explained.

Instead, they relied on coded language, using words like “urban” to describe the populations of some schools or reiterating fears about “gangs” or “crack dealers.” Bancroft said it’s “hardly a stretch” to figure out what parents were talking about when they used those terms …

The role of race in choosing schools was so pronounced that, in some cases, parents actually put their kids in lower-performing schools rather than enroll them in a higher-performing school with large numbers of minority students.

The study calls to mind the late Ellen Brantlinger’s 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage,” which told how liberal parents in Bloomington, Ind., maneuvered to move their children to a low-poverty school when their neighborhood school closed.

That story involved segregation by class, not race. Not much difference.

2 thoughts on “Still the problem we live with

  1. Thanks, Steve. I had Will Counts for Photography at IU. My kids went to the poor school in Bloomington. I was in Missouri when the busing began and heard many of the coded remarks at my own child’s school. I was there when it ended and saw some wealthy school districts immediately stop accepting transfers. The struggles continue here in Indiana.

  2. Hannah-Jones’ piece on This American Life was amazing — EVERYBODY should listen to that! When South Bend schools went through a redistricting process a decade or so ago, I was worried that they would try to get out from under the consent decree they’ve been operating under for decades. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The consent decree is certainly not perfect — it dates to a time when the Latino population was much smaller, for example — but there’s no doubt in my mind that SB schools are better integrated than they would be without it. I think that’s a good thing, for all the kids in those schools.

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