I’ve spent a lot of time this past week watching David Simon’s new HBO series, Show Me a Hero and listening to This American Life’s most recent, two-part series, because I am every middle-class white person stereotype. I suspect it’s only coincidence, but both Show Me a Hero and This American Life are covering the exact same ground: Desegregation.
It is not a sexy topic, but when you dig into it —as both of these projects have deftly done — you begin to see where so much of the discord within cities around the country resides. This nasty business starts in the schools, and whether we want to admit it or not, affluent, liberal white people are as much the problem as anyone.
Inspired by a true story, Show Me a Hero centers on Yonkers and its young mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) in the 1980s. Yonkers, like the rest of the country, was in the middle of desegregation crisis. The series itself focuses only on the housing desegregation, but at the true heart of the crisis at the time was school desegregation. Yonkers residents resisted mixing the east and west sides of the city because one side was black and one was white. Despite a court order, the city council continued to resist, even after they were threatened with fines upwards of $1 million a day and the city councilors themselves were fined $500 a day and imprisoned for contempt.
Why would they fight so hard to resist? Because the white people didn’t want their children to go to school with the black kids, and they didn’t want their property values lowered by the public housing units in their neighborhood.
You may think it’s a race issue, and it is! But the white people didn’t see it that way.
Twenty-five to 30 years later, the exact same problems exist in our public schools. Although desegregation in the 1980s had the effect of lowering the achievement gap between white and black students by HALF, federal and state governments eventually gave up on it in the 1990s because of white flight and because it was so incredibly difficult and contentious to implement.
However, as This American Life demonstrates, integration is the only proven way to improve schools within urban areas. You can throw as much money at the problems as you’d like, you can hire better teachers, better administrators, and better superintendents, and you can implement any number of rigorous testing standards. None of it works. Only integration does.
The two-part This American Life series focuses primarily on the fall-out from a forced integration in the 2000s in St. Louis, and as well as a recent voluntary integration in Hartford, CT. In the forced integration case, the public hearings that took place sound very much like the city council sessions from Yonkers in Show Me a Hero: It’s angry white people furiously opposing any form of desegregation, even though — as the Connecticut case and numerous other studies have proven — it works.
In that Connecticut case, five badly underperforming schools were turned into magnet school and white kids — who volunteered to go — were bussed in from surrounding areas to increase the white population in those schools to 25 percent. The result? Markedly better schools; in fact, much, much better than the segregated schools in the area. Unfortunately, once parents in those segregated schools found out how much better the desegregated schools were, it was too late for them. The magnet schools were turned into lottery schools and only a select few would be admitted. White kids who are rejected from the magnet schools at least have their good suburban schools to fall back on. The minority population within the city, however, have only their terrible, largely segregated schools to attend if they do not win the magnet school lottery. It’s a shitty situation.
We know now that desegregations works — separate but equal is a fallacy. So why isn’t the government pushing more for the one proven method for improving schools?
It’s a race issue, even if white people on the opposing side refuse to admit it.
“This is not a race issue,” one woman opposing the desegregation of her school vehemently declares in a public hearing recorded by This American Life. “I just want to say to … the first woman who came up here and cried that it was a race issue, I’m sorry, that’s her prejudice calling me a racist because my skin is white and I’m concerned about my children’s education and safety.”
The crowd in attendance cheered this woman, who was clearly making it a race issue. And fuck her.
But also, as hateful and bigoted as that woman may be, and as much as I might not want to identify with her as a liberal guy who listens to This American Life and watches a David Simon series about desegregation, I have found myself in a similar situation under different circumstances.
It’s a challenging dilemma.
I have three children. One is currently attending a Jewish private school (because reasons), though that won’t be an option in three years. Meanwhile, my twin daughters will begin public school in two years. We live in a city, and though it’s not a large city, there’s a significantly higher minority population (relative to the rest of the state) in those schools. The school system is average. Meanwhile, five to ten miles outside of the city, there are literally two or three of the best school systems in the country (one was recently named the best school district in the United States). No surprise: There’s very few minority students in those schools.
So, we’re faced with a dilemma: Do we send our kids to the average school district, or do we move five miles outside of the city and send them to one of the best school districts in the country? Diversity or quality?
On an individual level, that’s a no brainer, right? We want what’s best for our kids, so we send them to the best schools. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We know of several families who have moved outside of the city to avail themselves of these incredible school districts, but every time that happens, the city lose the resources of those white families, while many of the black families within the school system do not have the option of moving.
So what do you do? What’s best for your kid? Or what’s best for the greater good?
I have no idea, and while my instinct is to serve the greater good and send them to the school around the corner, I question whether we’re doing our kids a disservice by not taking advantage of better opportunities five miles away? Which is the more selfish move? Selfishly serving my own lofty ideas about equality? Or selfishly serving my children’s education?
It’s not about race, it’s about what’s best for my children. Unfortunately, what’s best for my children is all about race.
That’s what’s at stake in Show Me a Hero, as well as school systems across the country. Desegregation is the only way to systemically improve our nation’s school systems, but it asks of parents to make sacrifices not of themselves but of their children. How many of us — given the option between a great school or an average or terrible one — are willing to risk our kids’ futures on the greater good?
On a theoretical level, it’s an easy choice. On a practical level, it’s impossible.