“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I completed most of my homework on the school bus in sixth and seventh grade, because I rode an hour to and from school. My county in Tampa, Florida, was still under a 1971 court order to integrate its schools when I attended middle school in the 90’s. Those of us in the (mainly white) suburbs were bused to schools in the lower income, predominantly black, areas of Tampa to ensure the schools would be integrated.
“Didn’t it bother you that I went to school in such a rough neighborhood so far from our home?” I asked my mom a few years ago after realizing more about why I attended school so far from our mostly white suburb.
“You were separate,” she said. “All your classes were in the honors hall, so you didn’t interact with many students who actually lived in that neighborhood.”
So even within a school designed to promote integration, white students were kept separate from non-white students by being placed on honors halls. Reflecting back, I realized she was right. Though I had a handful of black students in my class, the majority of my class was still white.
I recently came across a fascinating document from 1973, detailing the implementation of integration in my county along with ten other counties throughout the nation. In it, a school administrator said, “‘Without the benefit of student transportation,’ he concluded, ‘it would be impossible for the schools to overcome the effects of a history of residential and educational segregation.'” (School Segregation in Ten Communities, p. 35)
This is an extremely complex issue, but it seems like busing was the only solution to integrating the schools when the residential areas remained segregated. I wondered if the schools were still integrated today.
Hillsborough County was finally released from its court order to integrate the schools in 2001. The county achieved what is called “unitary status,” meaning they no longer need to be closely supervised by the federal government. According to the Cowen Institute, “To be declared “unitary” by a judge, a school district must demonstrate that it has eliminated all traces of intentional segregation in six areas, called the “Green factors”: 1) student assignment, 2) faculty assignment, 3) staff assignment, 4) transportation, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) facilities.”
But it seems that what unitary status actually means is that now students can attend their neighborhood schools again since the schools are no longer rigidly supervised. The school I attended for sixth grade is now back to being 73 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, 6 percent white and 1 percent “other.” Have the schools, therefore, “re-segregated”?
As a child, I had no idea I was in the middle of a system designed to eliminate segregation. Later, as a teacher in a magnet school in a white area of the city of Chicago, I thought nothing of the fact that most of the students of color at the school rode buses for nearly an hour to attend school because their parents knew the value of integration.
The 1973 document spelling out the integration plan in my county concludes on a positive note:
“Desegregation in this racially and ethnically mixed community
has not been easy, but there is evidence of growing optimism and
satisfaction with what is happening in the schools and community
because of desegregation. Nearly 100 students who had left the school system have reportedly returned. The superintendent’s office reported that it had received fewer than half a dozen calls concerning problems
with busing during the first half of the 1972-73 school year. Some
of those originally opposed to the plan now seem prepared to agree
with the view expressed by the Ventura County Free Press as schools
opened in September 1971:
‘If there is a solution to the racial, social and ethnic differences that divide our society, this is where it seems to be–in kids rubbing elbows with other kids–kids who are different in many ways–and finding that nothing ugly rubs off. It’s a part of education that too many of us grown-ups missed, and if it takes some busing to achieve it for our youngsters then we must face the necessity for busing even without a court order.‘”
Reading this last paragraph is sobering. The writer hoped they were moving towards a solution to end the problem of segregation. But as schools slipped out from under the nose of the federal government and achieved “unitary status,” it seems our school system eased back into segregation.
According to Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, in an article for Slate, “The racial balance created by busing was a fiction, and in the absence of those programs we’re just seeing the country for what it has been all along, what it never stopped being: separate and unequal.”
What was your experience growing up? What was the racial make-up of your school? What about your children’s school today?
Check back tomorrow for more discussion on this topic.
This article is a fantastic overview of the history of integration in the U.S.: The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, by Tanner Colby for Slate
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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