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Dishonoring the Dead
One sunny day in April, I was sitting with my friend Pineapple at a picnic table in St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx. I had met Pineapple six years earlier, in 1994, when I had visited her kindergarten class at P.S. 65. She was a plump and bright-eyed child who had captured my attention when I leaned over her desk and noticed that she wrote her letters in reverse. I met her again a few weeks later at an afterschool program based at St. Ann’s Church, which was close to P.S. 65, where Pineapple and a number of her friends came for tutorial instruction and for safety from the dangers of the neighborhood during the afternoons.
The next time I visited her school, it was the spring of 1997. She was in third grade now and she was having a bad year. The school was in a state of chaos because there had been a massive turnover of teachers. Of 50 members of the faculty in the preceding year, 28 had never taught before; and half of them were fired or did not return the following September. Very little teaching took place in Pineapple’s class during the time that I was there. For some reason, children in her class and other classes on her floor had to spend an awful lot of time in forming lines outside the doorways of their rooms, then waiting as long as 30 minutes for their turn to file downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch, then waiting in lines again to get their meals, then to go to recess, then to the bathroom, then return to class. Nearly two hours had elapsed between the time Pineapple’s classmates formed their line to go to lunch and finally returned.
On another day when I was visiting, before the children were allowed to have their lunch they were brought into an auditorium where old cartoons like Felix the Cat and Donald Duck and other flickering movies from the past were shown to keep them occupied before their class was called to file down into the cafeteria. The film in the film projector, which must have been very old, kept slipping from its frames. The lights would go on and kids would start to hoot and scream. I sat beside Pineapple and her classmates for three quarters of an hour while a very angry woman with a megaphone stood on a stage and tried to get the room under control by threatening the kids with dire punishments if they did not sit in perfect silence while they waited for the next cartoon.
In the following year, when she was in fourth grade, Pineapple had four different teachers in a row. One of them was apparently a maladjusted person who, Pineapple said, “used swear words” to subdue the children. (“A-S-S-E-S!” Pineapple said politely, since she did not want to speak the word itself.) One was fired for smoking in the building. Another was “only a helper-teacher,” Pineapple reported, which, a member of the faculty explained, might have been a reference to an unprepared young teacher who was not yet certified. Pineapple, who had always been a lively and resilient little girl, grew quite depressed that year.
When Pineapple used to talk to me about her school she rarely, if ever, spoke in racial terms. Going to a school in which all of her classmates were black or Hispanic must have seemed quite natural to her—“the way things are,” perhaps the way that they had always been. Since she had only the slightest knowledge of what schools were like outside her neighborhood, there would have been no reason why she would remark upon the fact that there were no white children in her class. This, at least, is how I had interpreted her silence on the matter in the past.
So it surprised me, on that pleasant day in April as the two of us were sitting in St. Mary’s Park, while Pineapple’s little sister, who is named Briana, wandered off at a slight distance from us following a squirrel that was running on the grass, when Pineapple asked me something that no other child of her age in the South Bronx had ever asked of me before. Leaning on her elbows on the picnic table, with a sudden look of serious consideration in her eyes, she seemed to hesitate a moment as if she was not quite sure whether the question in her mind might somehow be a question you are not supposed to ask, then plowed right on and asked it anyway.
“What’s it like,” she asked me, peering through the strands of beaded cornrows that came down over her eyes, “over there where you live?”
“Over where?” I asked.
“Over—you know . . . ,” she said with another bit of awkwardness and hesitation in her eyes.
I asked her, “Do you mean in Massachusetts?”
She looked at me with more determination and a bit impatiently, I thought, but maybe also recognized that I was feeling slightly awkward too.
“You know . . . ,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Over there—where other people are,” she finally said.
Pineapple was usually very blunt and clear—she sometimes inadvertently hurt other children’s feelings by her tendency to make unsparingly direct remarks—so her use of that ambiguous and imprecise expression “other people” didn’t seem like her at all.
I asked her if she could explain which “other people” she was thinking of. At that point a wall went up. “You know,” was all she said—“where you live . . . where the other people are. . . .”
I didn’t try to press her further about who she meant by “other people” after that. I think she felt it would be rude to say “white people,” which is what I was convinced she meant, and I have no memory of whether, or how, I tried to answer her. She and I have since had many talks in which she posed the racial question more explicitly. Pineapple is a shrewd teenager now and she has seen a good deal of the world beyond the Bronx and doesn’t feel she has to mince her words in talking to a grown-up friend whom she has known now for so many years.
That evening, however, I repeated what Pineapple said to Martha Overall, the pastor of St. Ann’s, who pointed out to me how little contact with white people, other than the principal and teachers at the school and some of the grown-ups working at the church, most of these children ever had. “They don’t have any friends who are white children. When I take them with me sometimes to Manhattan to go shopping at a store for something special that they want or to a movie maybe on one of their birthdays, and they find themselves surrounded by a lot of white kids, many of the younger ones get very scared. It’s an utterly different world for them. In racial terms, they’re almost totally cut off.”
One of the consequences of their isolation, as the pastor has observed, is that they have little knowledge of the ordinary reference points that are familiar to most children in the world that Pineapple described as “over there.” In talking with adolescents, for example, who were doing relatively well in school and said they hoped to go to college, I have sometimes mentioned colleges such as Columbia, Manhattanville, Cornell, or New York University, and found that references like these were virtually unknown to them. The state university system of New York was generally beyond their recognition too. The name of a community college in the Bronx might be familiar to them—or, for the boys, perhaps a college that was known for its athletic teams.
Now and then, in an effort to expand their reference points, the pastor takes a group of children to an inter-racial gathering that may be sponsored by one of the more progressive churches in New York or to a similar gathering held in New England, for example. I have accompanied the St. Ann’s children on a couple of these trips. The travel involved is usually fun, and simply getting outside the neighborhood in which they live is an adventure for most of the children in itself. But the younger children tend to hold back from attempting to make friends with the white children whom they meet, and many of the teenage kids behave with a defensive edginess, even a hint of mockery, not of the white kids themselves but of a situation that seems slightly artificial and contrived to them and is also, as they surely recognize, a one-time shot that will not change the lives they lead when they return to the South Bronx.
It might be very different if these kids had known white children early in their lives, not only on unusual
occasions but in all the ordinary ways that children come to know each other when they go to school together and play games with one another and share secrets with each other and grow bonded to each other by those thousands of small pieces of perplexity and fantasy and sorrow and frivolity of which a child’s daily life is actually made. I don’t think that you change these things substantially by organizing staged events like “Inter-racial Days.” Even the talks that certain of the children are selected to deliver on these rare occasions often have a rather wooden sound, like pieties that have been carefully rehearsed, no matter how sincere the children are. Not that it’s not worth holding such events. They energize politically the adults who are present and sometimes, although frankly not too often, long-term friendships may be made. But token days are not the ebb and flow of life. They ease our feelings of regret about the way things have to be for the remainder of the year. They do not really change the way things are.
Many Americans I meet who live far from our major cities and who have no first-hand knowledge of realities in urban public schools seem to have a rather vague and general impression that the great extremes of racial isolation they recall as matters of grave national significance some 35 or 40 years ago have gradually, but steadily, diminished in more recent years. The truth, unhappily, is that the trend, for well over a decade now, has been precisely the reverse. Schools that were already deeply segregated 25 or 30 years ago, like most of the schools I visit in the Bronx, are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools that had been integrated either voluntarily or by the force of law have since been rapidly resegregating both in northern districts and in broad expanses of the South.
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century,” according to Professor Gary Orfield and his colleagues at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, “American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous resegregation. The desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has now receded to levels not seen in three decades. . . .
During the 1990s, the proportion of black students in majority white schools has decreased . . . to a level lower than in any year since 1968. . . . Almost three fourths of black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority,” and more than two million, including more than a quarter of black students in the Northeast and Midwest, “attend schools which we call apartheid schools” in which 99 to 100 percent of students are nonwhite. The four most segregated states for black students, 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.
During the past 25 years, the Harvard study notes, “there has been no significant leadership towards the goal of creating a successfully integrated society built on integrated schools and neighborhoods.” The last constructive act by Congress was the 1972 enactment of a federal program to provide financial aid to districts undertaking efforts at desegregation, which, however, was “repealed by the Reagan administration in 1981.” The Supreme Court “began limiting desegregation in key ways in 1974”—and actively dismantling existing integration programs in 1991.
“Desegregation did not fail. In spite of a very brief period of serious enforcement . . . , the desegregation era was a period in which minority high school graduates increased sharply and the racial test score gaps narrowed substantially until they began to widen again in the 1990s. . . . In the two largest educational innovations of the past two decades—standards-based reform and school choice—the issue of racial segregation and its consequences has been ignored.”
“To give up on integration, while aware of its benefits,” write Orfield and his former Harvard colleague Susan Eaton, “requires us to consciously and deliberately accept segregation, while aware of its harms. . . . Segregation, rarely discussed, scarcely even acknowledged by elected officials and school leaders”—an “exercise in denial,” they observe, “reminiscent of the South” before the integration era—“is incompatible with the healthy functioning of a multiracial generation.”
Racial isolation and the concentrated poverty of children in a public school go hand in hand, moreover, as the Harvard project notes. Only 15 percent of the intensely segregated white schools in the nation have student populations in which more than half are poor enough to be receiving free meals or reduced price meals. “By contrast, a staggering 86 percent of intensely segregated black and Latino schools” have student enrollments in which more than half are poor by the same standards. A segregated inner-city school is “almost six times as likely” to be a school of concentrated poverty as is a school that has an overwhelmingly white population.
“So deep is our resistance to acknowledging what is taking place,” Professor Orfield notes, that when a district that has been desegregated in preceding decades now abandons integrated education, “the actual word ‘segregation’ hardly ever comes up. Proposals for racially separate schools are usually promoted as new educational improvement plans or efforts to increase parental involvement. . . . In the new era of ‘separate but equal,’ segregation has somehow come to be viewed as a type of school reform”—“something progressive and new,” he writes—rather than as what it is: an unconceded throwback to the status quo of 1954. But no matter by what new name segregated education may be known, whether it be “neighborhood schools, community schools, targeted schools, priority schools,” or whatever other currently accepted term, “segregation is not new . . . and neither is the idea of making separate schools equal. It is one of the oldest and extensively tried ideas in U.S. educational history” and one, writes Orfield, that has “never had a systematic effect in a century of trials.”
Perhaps most damaging to any effort to address this subject openly is the refusal of most of the major arbiters of culture in our northern cities to confront or even clearly name an obvious reality they would have castigated with a passionate determination in another section of the nation 50 years before and which, moreover, they still castigate today in retrospective writings that assign it to a comfortably distant and allegedly concluded era of the past. There is, indeed, a seemingly agreed-upon convention in much of the media today not even to use an accurate descriptor such as “racial segregation” in a narrative description of a segregated school. Linguistic sweeteners, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies are repeatedly employed. Schools in which as few as three or four per-cent of students may be white or Southeast Asian or of Middle Eastern origin, for instance—and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic—are referred to, in a commonly misleading usage, as “diverse.” Visitors to schools like these discover quickly the eviscerated meaning of the word, which is no longer a descriptor but a euphemism for a plainer word that has apparently become unspeakable.