On My Mind
Last fall, I read an article by Jonathan Kozol, adapted from his newest book, The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. The article, “Still Separate, Still Unequal,” chronicles the shattered dreams of those who believed in desegregated public education, and is enough to make anyone weep. Weep I did, at the unfathomable isolation of so many children in the poorest and most segregated sections of so many American cities; at the fact that in high schools named for Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and others who fought so that Brown v. Board of Education would lead to school desegregation, between 95 and 99 percent of the students are black and Hispanic; at the realization that “resegregation,” even in schools located in racially mixed areas, is the overwhelming reality.
What Kozol makes clear in his book is that the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education has been betrayed, that the promise of a decent public education for black and Hispanic students has not been kept and that we are not really willing to face the fact that, in 2006, our public schools are indeed segregated. Schools in which 3 or 4 percent of students are white, Asian or of Middle Eastern origin are routinely called “diverse,” obfuscating that every other child in these schools is black or Hispanic. We go through great semantic lengths to hide from ourselves the fact that we have all but given up on desegregating our schools.
Until we are willing to talk about the elephant in the room, we will not make much progress toward being truly inclusive.
Even here on the Sarah Lawrence campus, where the community is in general agreement that our College must reflect true diversity, both in the make-up of the individuals who populate the College as well as in the curriculum, discussing race can be an awkward, even difficult, matter. But until we are willing to talk about the elephant in the room, we will not make much progress toward being truly inclusive. That socio-economic inequalities intersect with racial inequalities should not diminish for us the real need to address squarely what it means to live and work in a society where some members are visibly different from others and where that difference carries with it historical baggage of prejudicial assumptions.
In the mostly white public schools of affluent New York suburbs, about $22,000 is spent on each child. The present per-pupil expenditure in the New York City schools is $11,700. The New York City level is what the district of Manhasset, Long Island, spent per pupil 18 years ago, when that amount bought a lot more than it can buy today, including teachers’ salaries. The median salary can range from $43,000 in New York City to $81,000 in Scarsdale. It is hard to look at these numbers and not come to the conclusion that inequality is structurally built in from the get-go and that some kids will simply not have much of a chance at a decent education.
It’s imperative that we discuss and educate about these issues. Last spring our Child Development Institute (C.D.I.) held a conference called “Confronting the Crises in Education,” addressing racial inequality in our schools. We must continue to underscore the importance of this issue through the C.D.I. and every other means at our disposal. As Charles Willie of Harvard’s Graduate School in Education said at the C.D.I. conference, African-American students educated in desegregated schools are “more likely than counterparts from segregated schools to live in racially mixed neighborhoods, to work in racially mixed settings, and to have better employment opportunities.”
I don’t know what it will take for our country to find the political will to make at least our public schools places where the playing field gets leveled. It is a moral imperative, and a practical one. And shame on us if we abandon the dream and the legacy of those who had the courage to sacrifice everything to desegregate our nation’s schools.