By Brad Lander, BuzzFeed News
No one marches under a banner reading “10% Less Segregated.” And no one should. Segregation is central to the ideology of white supremacy and the reproduction of America’s racial caste system. It should be opposed root and branch.
So when the high school activists of IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge march, they rightly carry signs reading “Separate But Equal Is Inherently Unequal” or “Segregated Schools Can’t Teach Inclusive Democracy.”
Thanks in part to their activism, this week, 2,500 sixth-graders in Brooklyn will show up to middle schools that are far more integrated than they were a year ago. In previous years, the 11 middle schools of Brooklyn’s Community School District 15 were highly segregated, despite the overall diversity of the district, thanks primarily to academic screens for admissions. This year, the schools eliminated those admissions screens and adopted targets that will result in student bodies that much better reflect the diverse demographics of our district.
These 11 middle schools educate only about 1% of the public students in New York City’s public school system, which is one of the country’s most segregated. It would take 10 more plans like this one just to get to a system that is 10% less segregated. But like those protest marches, the District 15 plan is a critical part of building long-term support for deeper school integration.
There’s a tension between these approaches — the protest and the pilot program. But both are necessary.
We will never integrate without protest. As Frederick Douglass knew, power concedes nothing without a demand. We’ve grown far too comfortable with segregated schools that announce themselves as a meritocracy but function as a system for hoarding white privilege.
Those of us who have benefited from the system ignored it for decades, and it wasn’t until public outcry (along with incisive journalism) that public officials in NYC even started thinking about doing anything. A much larger movement will be required for broader change.
The politics of school integration are highly polarizing, as we’ve seen again in recent months. Integration efforts are often met with backlash as white (and now sometimes Asian) parents feel something is being taken from them.
In the past, that resistance has been allowed to quash efforts that we know are necessary for justice, and that can no longer be the case. We cannot wait to integrate our schools until we’ve assuaged the feelings of white liberals. That’s a hollow concept of justice, and we’d never do it. (I don’t mean this self-righteously. As someone who sent his kids to largely segregated elementary and middle schools, I’m guilty of this too. I say it simply as a matter of fact.)
Integration in our public schools is owed to students of color, and especially to black students, after centuries of inequality. And it is necessary if we intend the promises of the Constitution or the idea of “equal opportunity” to mean anything at all.