Is School Integration About Helping Kids of Color Learn or Propping Up Whiteness?
By Ryan Williams-Virden
Running in education and activist circles, I often hear white progressives say that integration is the key to closing the achievement gap. On its face, it sounds good. Who doesn’t want integrated schools? But when you look closer, what these folks are really saying is that kids of color need to be close to whiteness in order to learn. That, without white classmates, they simply can’t achieve. This is false, paternalistic, and, yes, even racist. As an educator at a school that serves predominantly children of color—and serves them well—I can tell you that kids of color can learn just fine, if not better, without white classmates.
Whiteness isn’t the solution to education challenges. In fact, I’d argue that whiteness is the primary problem. Instead of focusing exclusively on getting kids of color closer to whiteness, white advocates need to work tirelessly to make sure students of color get the quality education they need.
THE ONLY THING THAT WORKS?
Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller recently hosted a roundtable on school segregation featuring Bernadeia Johnson, the former Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, Dan Shulman, the lawyer who recently argued the Cruz–Guzman case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, and Brandie Burris-Gallagher, the Policy Director of EdAllies. Despite sitting next to two Black women, who have been in education for years and were expertly pointing out the shortcomings of his arguments, Mr. Shulman, the only white guest on the show, routinely dismissed them. Repeatedly, he maintained that integration is the answer, even going as far as saying that nothing else works.
In making his case, Mr. Shulman cited Brown v. Board of Education, as most well-meaning white progressives often do when trying to tell families of color what’s best for them.
DID BROWN V. BOARD OF ED WORK?
Long after Brown, whiteness and white supremacy remain central obstacles to the education of children of color. This is a truth civil rights activist and critical race theorist Derrick Bell explored in his work Silent Covenants. Simply being in the same space as white people was not the point. Rather, equity, justice, and a fair distribution of resources were the goal. “From the standpoint of education, we would have been better served had the court in Brown rejected the petitioners’ arguments to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson,” Bell said in 2004. But instead of using the ruling to do what the petitioners sought—better schools for their Black children—whiteness used it as a way to position itself as the ideal. Those Black children needed to be around white kids.
When schools did integrate (to whatever extent they did), Black teachers lost their jobs and were replaced with white ones. Black students were sent to buildings fully steeped in, and fully committed to, whiteness and white supremacy.
In turn, white people fled to suburban schools where they could count on housing discrimination and the market to maintain the sense of superiority that segregated schools had provided. We still see this in our own community: White parents push back against efforts that might diversify their kids’ schools or advanced classes. In a city that is more than 60% white, where youth are 41% white, only 34% of students in Minneapolis Public Schools are white. White people in Minneapolis and across the country still believe that they deserve better than what is offered communities of color. That—not parents of color seeking out better for their own children—is the problem.
School integration advocate Nikole Hannah-Jones explains why efforts to integrate to date have failed: “What people also don’t want to acknowledge is that schools are segregated because white people want them that way. It’s not simply a matter of zip codes or housing segregation or class; it’s because most white Americans do not wish to enroll their children in schools with large numbers of black kids…We won’t fix this problem until we really wrestle with that fact.”
“THOSE WHO DO NOT LEARN HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT”
This brings us to 2018, when one of the main arguments I hear against charter schools is that they promote segregation. That charter schools, which were created with the sole purpose of serving kids of color who are underserved in their district schools, are bad because they’re doing what they set out to do. Ignoring the actual success of students of color in “segregated” charters, and completely overlooking nearby privileged, majority-white schools, this argument, again, positions proximity to whiteness as the goal.
But getting Black students closer to white students and teachers was never the goal of Brown. The goal was getting better resources for Black teachers and Black schools, so that they could better educate Black students. “Theoretically, the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote. “What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad.”
Hearing Mr. Shulman on MPR, and confronting white liberals daily who agree with him, I fear we are misremembering the purpose of Brown, and therefore bound to repeat the mistakes of its aftermath. “Civil rights lawyers were misguided in requiring racial balance of each school’s student population as the measure of compliance and the guarantee of effective schooling,” Bell said. “Court orders to ensure that black youngsters received the education they needed to progress would have achieved much more.”
REMEMBERING THE REAL GOAL
We must shift our focus from integration to justice and equity for children who for generations have been underserved in schools where teachers remain white, and curriculum and norms remain centered on whiteness. Instead of pouring energy into closing down successful charter schools, or spending millions of dollars on failed bussing strategies (not to mention putting the burden of desegregation exclusively on children of color), let’s do now what our country should have done after Brown: invest equitably in schools and ramp up strategies that work for kids of color. “It’s a waste of time to talk about integration,” civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller recently said. “How do these kids get the best education possible?”
Despite what the Mr. Shulmans of the world may think, integration may be a very noble and worthwhile goal, but it is not the only thing that works. There are countless policies and practices we can embrace today that would fundamentally move not just our classrooms but our entire society towards realizing the promise and spirit of Brown. Some of these steps include: restructuring school funding mechanisms to move away from property taxes; making ethnic studies courses a graduation requirement, both for students and for the licensure candidates seeking to teach them; increasing teacher salaries and incentivizing positions in low-performing schools; and honoring the choices families of color make. These measures would guarantee our schools have the resources to meet the needs of all students, and take meaningful steps to guarantee the public discourse centers on justice for communities of color and dismantling white supremacy, rather than propping up whiteness as the solution.
That was the ultimate goal of Brown and should still be our goal today.
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