“This American Life” Considers School Desegregation

by Kathleen Goodwin

Norman-Rockwell-The-Problem-We-All-Live-With-1964Education is arguably the most interesting lens by which one is able to view the race issue at the core of American society. I would venture that there are many white Americans who pay lip service to the value of diversity but wouldn't dream of sending their children to a school that isn't predominantly white. It's a complex hypocrisy, however, considering that schools with a white minority are underfunded, overcrowded, and underperforming with very few exceptions.

The two most recent episodes of the Chicago Public Media produced “This American Life” perform a deep dive into racial desegregation of public schools in American cities. Over the course of two hours, the podcast's creators explore a tactic that few districts are willing to tackle in modern America—actively dismantling the structures that allow white kids to go to school with mostly other white kids in good schools and for black and Latino kids to go to segregated subpar schools. One of the contributors to the podcast, Nikole Hannah-Jones, herself a product of an integration program in a small Iowa town, summarizes the argument for desegregation:

“I think it's important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids…What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids. And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get– quality teachers and quality instruction.”

The most successful method of ensuring that black and Latino children receive a quality education is by integrating school systems because “separate but equal”, in addition to being morally repugnant, has never been a legitimate reality in the U.S. However when school desegregation is implemented white parents oppose it—to the point of rioting as the 1970s in Boston revealed. By the late 1980s most school districts decided that integration wasn't worth the trouble it caused. The first episode makes this point apparent with clip after clip of angry white parents at a town meeting after it is announced that their affluent Missouri school district must absorb the students from a poor, predominantly black district that has lost accreditation, coincidentally the same district that Michael Brown attended.

The parents' words are unsurprising even as they sting— it's one thing to imagine racist attitudes and another entirely to hear them recorded verbatim in present day America. There are many euphemisms to hide behind—and the parents list them all—big class sizes, low test scores, violence, drugs, and disease. Although the issue is admittedly multi-faceted, the prevalence of racism in this country is the foremost reason that school desegregation is such an uphill battle. I commend the creators of “This American Life” for attempting to be candid with their 2.1 million listeners about the inextricability of education and racism in the U.S.

The education reform debate is usually articulated in terms of “resources”. In the simplest terms the quality education that most white children receive in the U.S. is the result of limited resources that their comparatively wealthier parents are able to access for them. Access is what black and Latino parents want for their children—access to teachers that show up and AP classes and functional athletic equipment. However, it seems that many white parents assume that someone's gain causes a corresponding loss—i.e. for every child receiving a better education, my child's is increasingly compromised. My counter-argument for this mentality is that a) education shouldn't be a limited resource in the wealthiest nation in the world and b) the preoccupation with resources distracts from the crux of the problem. It takes until the end of the podcast for the “This American Life” contributors to come to terms with it themselves. Chana Joffe says:

“Because integrating schools, the very conceit of integrating schools is that you have to pay attention to race. And you have to acknowledge that you have a problem with racism. And it's more comfortable to say that it's not an issue about racism. It's just an issue about high poverty schools that need help and need more money and need more resources.”

It's easy for me to say the U.S. should be forcibly desegregating its public school systems—I've already completed my education and I am not a parent. In fact, I am at least partially a result of white flight following the Boston busing riots. It was only recently that I made the chronological connection between my mother's family's exodus from South Boston, and the Catholic schools her generation attended. When it comes to education reform there are many lofty ideas and very few actual success stories. And like many social policies, there are many idealists like myself willing to talk about the importance of diversity and “closing the achievement gap” but very few parents willing to risk their children's chances of success during the broad changes and growing pains that will lead to a more integrated education system—however, I'd still like to challenge the assumption that education has to be a zero-sum game. If we are able to defeat that fallacy, we can imagine a future where schools are better in a broader sense than just better resourced— hopefully they can be places where America's diverse young population can learn the skills necessary to succeed in life together.