A Misplaced Race Card

My jaw did the proverbial drop when I read this opening sentence in a front page story in Sunday’s Albany Times Union:

Albany’s charter schools have created a second school system that is almost entirely segregated.

Did someone say that Albany was not a reform friendly city?  My jaw was not the only one dropping; Jason Brooks weighed in here.

The anti-charter contingent had spent the better part of a decade accusing  the Brighter Choice Charter schools of “creaming” as a way to dismiss the schools’ successes.  (See my Ed Next story on BCCS.)  Now that nearly a quarter of Albany’s public school kids, the ones local teacher unions and Albany Public School administrators said were uneducable (because they were poor and black) – now that the creaming issue is off the table and those same kids are beating the socks off even their white counterparts on academic achievement tests, we get  S-E-G-R-E-G-A-T-I-O-N.

Can’t poor black kids catch a break here?

We throw them into segregated inner city public schools all over the country and blame poverty for their poor performance.  Someone comes along and actually educates them, proving that poverty is not the cause of their academic problems, and we cry segregation!

“Virtually all of the schools’ students — 96 percent — are black or Hispanic,” according to the Times Union “analysis” of the Albany data. (Some analysis: the non-charter city school system is 80 percent black!) The reporter even trots out Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, to suggest that, in the reporter’s words, “isolating students by race can have a lasting ripple effect on their education.”

“The message is,” Orfield told the paper, “we’re preparing you to live and work in a segregated environment.”

There are, of course, questions about race and education worth asking. (See Ed Next’s intriguing forum discussion, “Is De-Segregation Dead?”) But the message in the Albany paper’s story is rather more complicated (if not a bit sinister – some observers see the hand of the New York State United Teachers at work here).

Indeed, casting the segregation shadow over an inarguably successful charter school operation raises concerns that have bothered black leaders for decades. Both W.E. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, were skeptical of integration in education – for reasons that have become painfully clear to several generations of African-American children who have been ill-served (and poorly educated) in both integrated and segregated schools.

According to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, writing in the Lewis & Clark Law Journal several years ago, Du Bois “grew skeptical about the possibility of integration as a goal and stressed that `theoretically, the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.’”  Seems Brighter Choice has done that admirably.

Minow quotes this wonderfully apt – and incendiary — Du Bois comment, from 1934:

I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate nitwits as a plea for segregated Negro schools. It is not. It is saying in plain English that a separate Negro school where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick niggers when they are down.

King had a similar view, says Minow, who quotes him once commenting,

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel . . . I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual—the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

(This quote, it should be noted, was uncovered by Samuel G. Freedman, of the New York Times, and published in the Times on May 16, 2004.)

None of this means that integration should not be encouraged, as Du Bois, King, Minow, and the Brighter Choice educators know.  But they all suggest that integration should not be used as a cynical weapon to kill off charters – or choke off real educational opportunity for children who would otherwise not have it.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College