We know just enough history to get it wrong

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were key episodes in the struggle to win equal rights for all Americans. It hurts to see them used for purposes that seem antithetical to the civil rights movement.

Last week, the Bloomington Herald-Times reported on one of the many fights that have erupted over whether students should wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. A father told the reporter that he and his fifth-grade daughter were inspired by Rosa Parks to reject wearing masks.

Rosa Parks. (U.S. Courts image)

“On Sunday night, she wanted me to talk to me about Rosa Parks and if that was true that Rosa Parks really just stopped doing something and everyone changed,” he told a reporter. “And I said absolutely it’s true.”

Maybe we should be encouraged that a 10-year-old in a rural school district that’s 95% white would be inspired by the actions of a Black seamstress 65 years ago. The problem is, we’ve learned a mostly false story about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t a simple seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired. She was a quiet but committed activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and traveled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for interracial activism training, a radical act at that time.

Letting her arrest be used to challenge segregation was an act of profound courage. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” her husband told her. He no doubt meant it literally, and with good reason.

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‘The Sum of Us’ can be more than our parts

There’s a “solidarity dividend” to be gained when we work across lines of race and class to improve lives for everyone, Heather McGhee writes in her excellent and incisive book “The Sum of Us,” published this year. Everyone gains when we work together and don’t waste our efforts holding others back.

Conversely, she writes, we all pay a penalty when we succumb to racism and to social and economic divisions. The zero-sum myth, which holds that someone else’s gain is necessarily our loss, lets politicians and the powerful divide us into warring, partisan factions.

Book cover of 'The Sum of Us'

One sphere where this plays out is education. The belief that there is a limited supply of “good” schools — and that they are in affluent communities and enroll mostly white students — hurts us all. Schools become more segregated by race and class. Many children attend schools that are stigmatized as failing while the fortunate pay a premium for the schools they want.

“But what if the entire logic is wrong?” McGhee writes. “What if they’re not only paying too high a cost for segregation, but they’re also mistaken about the benefits?”

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Hannah-Jones: Beliefs are not enough

Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.

Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”

Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.

“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.

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An open letter to Condoleezza Rice

Dear Dr. Rice,

I read that you recently told a TV interviewer, “Anybody who isn’t in favor of school choice, anybody who isn’t in favor of educational reform, anybody who defends the status quo in the educational system, that’s racist to me.”

I don’t support the status quo. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does. We all want schools to get better, although many of us disagree about how to make that happen.

But I don’t favor school choice as a tactic for improving education. And I very much am not in favor of the “education reform” agenda that promotes charter schools and private-school vouchers as an alternative to public schools. I haven’t seen any evidence that approach is working.

I don’t think that makes me or my views racist. Let me try to explain.

First, the idea that school choice will help “poor black kids trapped in failing neighborhood schools,” as you put it, may sound good, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the growth of charter schools has created a two-tiered system that favors children with engaged and savvy parents.

As Iris C. Rotberg wrote in the Phi Delta Kappan, numerous studies show school choice has increased segregation of students by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools are getting more separate and less equal. School choice is making this worse. Continue reading