The opening of the controversal arabic-centered public school in New York, once again, raises the issue of the reintroduction of separate but equal principles in America.
A prior column addressed this problem in a different context in Chicago:
Published November 2005
Roughly 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of its most monumental decisions, Brown vs. Board of Education. In a single blow, the court struck down the infamous separate-but-equal doctrine that permitted states to create separate schools and accommodations for whites and non-whites. Yet, even after last year’s national celebration of Brown, public school officials in Chicago and other cities are quietly marking the anniversary in a strikingly different way: reintroducing segregated schools in the name of reform.
The latest venture in de facto segregation was announced this week by Chicago Public Schools. As part of Renaissance 2010, the city will open the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, described as an “all-boys high school to primarily serve black youths.” While this school is in the early stages of development, it appears to follow other experiments in segregated schools. CPS created a gender-segregated school for girls, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, in 2000.
The emphasis on African-American males is a worthy public policy priority: Black males have the lowest rate of graduation among any demographic group in Chicago public schools. But with a proposed student body of 600 students, the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men is not likely to affect most black male students. More important, it will peg such achievement on the artificial isolation of the students by their gender and race.
If Chicago goes forward with such a school, it will not be alone. Across the country, public officials are reacquiring an appetite for segregation. Once the scourge of the civil rights movement, segregation policies are now being embraced by the very descendants of that movement: African-American, feminist, gay and religious leaders.
In New York City, a high school was created in 2003 specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Named for Harvey Milk, the assassinated openly gay San Francisco politician, the school was created with the best possible intentions to provide a sanctuary for these students.
Harvey Milk High School—or “Gay High,” as it is often called—has become a lesson in the unintended consequences of segregation. Its creation reinforces the stereotype of these students as fundamentally different and in need of special treatment. Moreover, the $3.2 million spent to establish the school could have been better used to create a systemwide program of counseling and education for all students on the issues of sexual orientation and discrimination. Equally disturbing is the growing level of “self-segregation” in higher education institutions. Some colleges and universities now hold separate graduation ceremonies for certain minority groups, and a growing number of schools have created separate housing aimed specifically at minorities. Some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, house almost a quarter of their African-American students in racially segregated dormitories, or so-called “affinity houses.”
The new rationale for segregated schools is that separation based on gender, race, religion and sexual orientation is beneficial for the students and society. Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep, states that black males benefit from schools that exclude girls. It is an argument that seems to be taken directly from Plessy vs. Ferguson, where the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the idea of “a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
These recent experiments appear to be based on a new view that separate is not just equal but superior. For Chicago, which has endured a long and difficult busing program to achieve integration, it is a dangerous conceptual shift.
High schools are often the final opportunity for society to shape future citizens. Putting students in an artificially segregated system denies them an important transitional phase into adulthood—a transition that is monitored and shaped by educators. It is in high school where principles of tolerance and respect are reinforced. Teaching students in a racially “comfortable” environment yields to the tendency to define one’s surrounding and oneself in primarily racial terms. It is true that racism remains a reality that must be confronted, but we do not reduce the problem of racism by making race a defining criteria in a balkanized system.
We have learned from a long, painful history that the seduction of segregation hides far greater costs for a society. Before Chicago succumbs to segregated schools, it should consider the unintended lessons that it is teaching future citizens. This self-proclaimed “renaissance” is hardly a reason to celebrate.