School Integration is More Than Counting Kids by Race …

The 14th Amendment, on its face, appears to remove all barriers to equality under the law for all Americans, emphasize all.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

 For almost a hundred years the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Afro-Americans were abrogated at the highest levels. Supreme Court decision after decision shredded the guarantees of the 14th Amendment (See Lawrence Goldstone, Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 2011). In Plessy v Ferguson (1896) the court held,

“The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”

 For decades as established by the stare decsis, (precedent), “separate but equal” was the law of the land.

Finally, in 1954 the Court reversed Plessy in a unanimous decision,

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

 The first wave of school integration in New York City began in the early sixties, in a roiling decade; a growing civil rights movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam, a nascent teacher union movement and a Board of Education that began school integration initiatives, a school busing program primarily in the borough of Queens.

Parents and Taxpayers (PAT), a community organization, vigorously opposed school busing to promote school integration and Reverend Milton Galamison organized a school boycott to support school integration.  Eliza Shapiro, in the NY Times, recounts the history of school integration efforts. Two excellent examinations: Clarence Taylor, Knocking At Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools  (1997) and David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street (1969), Rogers examines the PAT movement in detail.

The Board of Education efforts to integrate schools was not a total failure.

James Madison High School was carefully selected as the first high school in south Brooklyn to be integrated in the early sixties, a swath of Afro-American neighborhoods were zoned to Madison – ten years later the school was 65% White/35% Black, and was hailed as a successfully integrated school, until December, 1973, when, as described by the media, a “race riot” erupted. The NYC Human Right Commission investigated the incident and issued a detailed report (unfortunately no longer online).

Read a detailed NY Times article here (“It was a good school to integrate”), recollections by a former Madison student here (“Prisoners of Class”) and a discussion in previous blog posts  here and here.

Over the ensuing half century the population of New York City became increasingly residents of color: Latinx, Afro-American and Asian.  Today the school system is fifteen percent white. Some neighborhoods became integrated, others became hyper-segregated.

Norm Fruchter and Chistina Mokhtar, “NYC School Segregation Then and Now: plus ca change …”  produced a well-researched deep drive into race in New York City schools, and, pulls no punches

… the central administration’s worst failure, in our view, was its refusal to intervene to improve school performance in hyper-segregated community school districts that consistently produced dismal student outcomes. From 1970 to 2002, the operative years of decentralization, only two of the eight chancellors who served for more than two years intervened to try to improve disastrous district-level academic outcomes, particularly in the hyper-segregated districts in which performance outcomes were often dismal. Although the central administrations were fully aware of the extent of incompetence, political corruption and inept instructional practices in those districts, only two chancellors mounted efforts to improve their consistent educational failure.

 I urge you to read the Fruchter-Mokhtar research.

District 15 (Brownstone Brooklyn), after many months of discussion, occasionally sharply differing opinions, approved a middle school blind choice integration plan that was implemented in September, with kudos and back-slapping.; as I’ve written, it is far too early to claim success.

What has not been written is how the cultures of the schools are adjusting to the new integrated student body.

In December, 1973, a “successfully integrated school,” James Madison High School erupted; a “good school to integrate” was a ticking time bomb. The NYC Commission on Human Rights conducted an analysis of school conditions and made a host of recommendations and the New York Times wrote a lengthy article that should be required  reading by the Department of Education and integration activists (“A Good School to Integrate.”)

Classes were segregated by perceived academic abilities, the student cafeteria, black tables and white tables, the cheerleaders all white, the boosters all black: two schools walking side by side, ignoring each other, one privileged and other disrespected. The NYC Human Right Commission Report hit hard, the Board, the principal and the senior staff rejected the recommendations within the Report. In the ten years since Madison was integrated White parents sought out other schools, Madison lost about a third of their enrollment.

Slowly, very slowly, with a changing of the guard in the school Madison recovered and once again is a desirable neighborhood school.

I fear that electieds and advocates will applaud and move on and the Madison experience will be replicated.

School integration is a process, it is far more than counting races by race.


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