A few months ago, as I was putting the final preparations on my filming trip to Asia, This American Life did a story about school integration. I was in the busiest stretch of my year, so I put off listening to it until this morning. The basic premise was that in order for black students to receive a full and effective education, there must be engineered school integration. Though it largely fails to prove the thesis –sending black kids to school with white kids is the only path to large scale black educational reform- it is worth listening to, if for no other reason than it explains a certain failure of current black thinking.
I am not one of those people who would push aggressively for the integration of schools. Obviously, schools must be desegregated, and we do need to think about ways to fund and administer schools that are not so closely linked to local revenue and politics, but the basic idea that a good education must necessarily include anyone of any particular race is odd, if not downright offensive.
The basic failing of the report is that Nikole Hannah-Jones mistakes story for evidence. Her central narrative focuses on how much better a select group of black students did when they elected to leave their failing inner-city school and make the long trip to a mostly white suburban school. In making her story compelling on a personal level, though, Hannah-Jones undermines the very point she’s trying to make. In short, it makes little sense to compare the success and experience of a child whose parents elect to drive their kid an hour each morning to a better school versus a parent who elects to keep their child in a failing inner-city school. This might speak to the quality of two particular schools, but says nothing about the inherent capacity of mostly-black schools.
If the argument is that such a child can *only* be saved by sending them to a majority white school (the point she makes), then the point is being made without a proper kind of comparison. If the student (or, better, a random and statistically significant mass of students) who succeeded in a mostly white school failed in a functional, well-funded, safe mostly-black school, then this conversation would make sense. Instead, Hannah-Jones seems to be comparing apples to rotten oranges while also attributing the successes and benefits that occurred because of the choices and qualities of the parents to the new white school.
To move beyond the anecdotal, studies that compare children whose parents entered and won the lottery for a charter school and those who entered and lost suggest the power of the dynamic at work here. In short, the parents’ intense desire to have their kid in a better school was a better predictor of success than actually getting into the school. Though the story of one sympathetic girl with a motivated and loving mother might make for nice radio, her story doesn’t actually end up proving the point the reporter wants it to.
On a deeper level, I am deeply suspicious of any approach that suggests black inability to accomplish things on our own. Has it come to this? We cannot learn unless there are white folks around? The only argument for the sort of extraordinary engineered integration that makes sense at all is that white folks will never give resources to black communities unless white folks have kin in the game. That may in some instances be true, but we’ve also seen (often in Missouri, where this story takes place) that money is not the entire answer. When federal judges took over the running of several St. Louis schools, the resulting influx of funds to mostly black schools didn’t actually do much to improve black performance. There is a much bigger story to tell here that requires a more expansive analysis and solution; but, it almost certainly is a solution that has as a major component the decisions and actions -political, familial, individual- of black folks in black communities.
The current accepted liberal black perspective is that any talk of how to reform the black community from within gets slapped with the label “respectability politics,” and the person suggesting it gets shouted down. But, when you’re unwilling to countenance the idea that we need to do better (which, of course, in no way necessarily diminishes broader –that is, white- culpability) you end up with loony, and frankly pretty pathetic, ideas like this one. We can’t fix our schools, only white people can. We can’t educate our children, but white people can. We can’t learn how to learn unless we stay a step ahead of white flight. It seems like an abject surrender of black self-respect and an admission of inherent black incompetence.