Separate and Unequal
“Separate but equal” -- the doctrine from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that solidified the system of racist segregation -- was always a lie. The reality of schools under Jim Crow was always separate and unequal.
Now, 50 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down “separate but equal” as inherently unfair, schoolchildren in the U.S. are again suffering the consequences of segregation -- an all the more odious reality because segregation has been outlawed on paper.
In his new book Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown, 2005), Jonathan Kozol rips the veil off of America’s “apartheid schools.”
Schools have been re-segregating for the past dozen years, Kozol explains, so that “the proportion of Black students in majority-white schools has decreased to a level lower than in any year since 1968.” Gary Orfield and the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University show that 2 million students attend these “apartheid schools” (a term Kozol uses for schools where the student body is more than 99 percent non-white). Overall, almost three-quarters of Black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority.
Kozol says that “the four most segregated states, according to the Civil Rights Project, are New York, Michigan, Illinois and California. In California and New York, only one Black student in seven goes to a predominantly white school.”
The apartheid schools, driven by the politicians’ mania for testing and standardization, emphasize obedience and order. Kozol describes elementary schools where silent lunches have been implemented -- and where students spend at least 30 minutes a day “lining up.”
Teachers become managers. Students must be labeled “Level Ones” at worst or “Level Fours” at best, according to their reading abilities. These schools are run on the corporate model of efficiency, and stress teaching corporate concepts to young children -- students are given jobs like Homework Collection Manager, and paid in fake money for correct answers.
“‘ALL CHILDREN CAN LEARN!’ the advocates for this [testing and accountability] agenda say hypnotically, as if the tireless reiteration of this slogan could deliver to low-income children the same clean and decent infrastructure and the amplitude of cultural provision by experienced teachers that we give to the children of the privileged,” Kozol writes. “If the officials who repeat this incantation honestly believe all kids can learn, why aren’t they fighting to make sure these kids can learn in the same good schools that their own children attend?”
Kozol tells how students are told that they can reach their potential if they and their teachers just try hard enough. “At an early morning assembly in Seattle’s Thurgood Marshall School,” he writes, “the entire student body stood and chanted, ‘I have confidence I can learn,’ exactly 30 times. Similar sessions of self-exhortation are familiar at innumerable inner-city schools: ‘Yes I can I know I can!’ ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me’. In some schools, these chantings are accompanied by a rhythmic clapping of the hands or snapping of the fingers or by stamping on the floor.”
Shame of the Nation is filled with stories about the psychological impact of the accountability craze. Kindergartners cry and throw up out of fear if they don’t understand the tests they are supposed to take. Administrators ruin their health trying to live up to promises to meet “Annual Yearly Progress” testing benchmarks. Kozol talks about a New York administrator who dies from an asthma attack exacerbated by an extreme level of stress to meet “measurable” goals.
The book is compelling because it also gives examples of teachers, students and administrators fighting with dignity (and frustration) not to let these policies rip joy and art out of the school setting.
Kozol’s research method is refreshing. He talks to the people who really know how schools work -- above all, teachers and students -- and then describes public education in their voices.
Kozol visited my classroom one afternoon and had the following conversation with my students, which is related in his book:
Mireya suddenly began to cry. “I don’t want to take hairdressing. I didn’t need sewing, either. I know how to sew. My mother is a seamstress in a factory. I’m trying to go to college. I don’t need to sew to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for something else.”
“What would you rather take?” I asked. “I wanted to take an AP class,” she answered.
Mireya’s sudden tears elicited a strong reaction from one of the boys who had been silent up to now. A thin and dark-eyed student, named Fortino, with long hair down to his shoulders who was sitting on the left side of the classroom, he turned to Mireya.
“Listen to me,” he said. “The owners of the sewing factories need laborers. Correct?” “I guess they do,” Mireya said. “It’s not going to be their own kids, right?” “Why not?” another student asked. “So they can grow beyond themselves,” Mireya answered quietly. “But we remain the same.”
“You’re ghetto,” said Fortino, “so we send you to the factory.”
These conversations with children and educators contain more truth than all the combined studies of the Department of Education.
Politicians justify the regimen of testing and drilling in the worst urban schools by claiming that “no excuses” approaches will narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
In fact, though, while drill-and-kill methodology has been dominant, since about 1995, there is a “widening achievement gulf in math and reading levels between minority high school students and their white contemporaries -- a devastating five-year gap between the races...”
The book ends by posing answers to two questions.
First, how did it get this bad? Kozol answers this question by pointing out the fact that education is essentially a “states’ rights” issue. Education and civil rights advocates have largely reduced the fight for education to a state-by-state legal strategy.
In the most recent legal cases involving schools and civil rights issues -- such as the Williams case against the state of California filed by the ACLU and settled in 2004 -- plaintiffs have not demanded desegregation, nor even equity in segregated education. Things have gotten so bad that the best that can be hoped for, say civil rights advocates, is some kind of a floor beneath which segregated schools aren’t allowed to fall.
With his typical honesty, Kozol reports on conversations with people who are trying to grapple with solutions to the crisis in education.
“A political movement is a necessary answer,” says Gary Orfield. “We cannot look to courts to do it in the present age. We cannot look to the two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, to do it. We need to reach out to a broader section of the nation to initiate a struggle.” A columnist for Time magazine calls for “a radical proposal...revive the civil rights movement.” A teacher says, “We need our teachers marching in the streets.”
Kozol implicitly endorses these approaches, as well as everyday resistance. School administrators, teachers and parents can collectively decide to try to step “out of the box” of the testing and accountability mania. Some neighborhoods and schools could be desegregated relatively easily voluntarily. After all, 60 percent of young adults surveyed report that “the federal government ought to make sure that public schools are integrated.”
Shame of the Nation rejects the idea that desegregation is unrealistic and unnecessary. It cites several examples of small-scale voluntary desegregation programs that, when fought for, enjoy community support.
Prince Edward County, Va.; Boston; Milwaukee; and St. Louis have integration programs and boast higher achievement for students of color within these programs. “[The St. Louis program] works, so it will be killed,” says Kozol. “Unlike charter schools, which do not work and will be expanded.”
When the real problems with education are exposed, it becomes obvious that a number of solutions being proposed right now are fake fixes. Currently in Los Angeles, district officials are cramming one such solution, “Small Learning Academies” -- which, despite the name, don’t reduce class size -- down the throats of “failing’ schools.”
“When school boards seize upon this concept as a panacea for systemic problems and begin to stamp out small academies without the long preliminary groundwork...they end up making little more than fashionably smaller versions of the unsuccessful large schools that they’re replacing,” Kozol says.
Access to decent education is one of the most visibly decayed edifices of the American Dream. Undocumented workers, people of color, working class Americans -- all hope, no less than the white middle class -- that education will open up not only doors of opportunity for their children, but also doors of enlightenment and awakening.
Kozol quotes W.E.B. DuBois: “‘It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream’ to know ‘something was vanquished that deserved to live. All this is bitter hard.’” The fight for education will be a huge arena of struggle, and Shame of the Nation helps equip us for that struggle. It’s a must-read.
Sarah Knopp is a high school social studies teacher in Los Angeles, CA, and is a contributing writer for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.