Friday, June 29, 2007

Remembering segregation

In the 40’s and 50’s, I was raised in a lily-white suburb of Seattle, Washington. Back then where I lived, there was no “race problem” because everyone was white. I didn’t know what prejudice was.

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court declared that public school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race in PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS V. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, et al.

In 1961, I started teaching in Baltimore, Maryland, Robert Poole Junior High School #56, in a low-income and racially diverse area. The school was integrated. My supervising teacher, outstanding in every way, was an African American. Perhaps the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the establishment of separate public schools for black and white students inherently unequal, made it possible for my supervisor to teach in an integrated school.

But there was a problem: we racially mixed teachers couldn’t meet in Baltimore restaurant because they weren’t integrated.

During winter break in 1962-1963, I took the Greyhound bus to Durham, North Carolina, to spend Christmas with my cousin. I was shocked when the African Americans headed to the back of the bus, and at the bus station, they were herded into a small separate room where they were given food through a small hole in the wall.

I’ve always thought that if we can expose children to other children of diverse backgrounds, including race, each generation will grow up less prejudiced. I’ve always supported Head Start because I envisioned it as the best way to expose children at a very early age to others who don’t look like they do.

Scott Horton, who blogs at No Comment lamented the Supreme Court’s decision today, in his post, Resegregation. Scott’s is a lot younger than I am, but he agrees with my premise: “I grew up going to schools with and without busing. Frankly, I could never understand the arguments against busing (excepting perhaps for fuel economy). Going to schools that reflected the broader community was a good thing, leading to a broader, richer and more diversified experience in the learning process. A school in which all students and teachers reflect the same ethnic, cultural and economic profiles is a pretty anemic place. In fact I watched those forces in work. They produced a higher proportion of narrow-minded bigots, it seemed to me.”

Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation everywhere, including public places. We were heading in the right direction. Now we're heading in the opposite direction.

In 2004, I worked very, very hard to keep George W. Bush from getting elected (legally or otherwise). I thought that the most serious long-term consequences of his continuing in office would be: 1) A Supreme Court that rolled back the 20th and 21st centuries, and 2) global warming. This is no consolation, but it looks like I was right.

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