America’s Separate But Equal School System

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.

6 thoughts on “America’s Separate But Equal School System”

  1. I find this situation really vexing. It’s a problem that has a better answer but I don’t think this answer is going to be implemented. The better answer is everyone together with supportive adults who stop bullying in its tracks, who respect the students and teach self-respect and respect for others. If there are stong, intelligent, emotionally aware, caring adults at school, it could be a wonderful experience for the students. Right now it seems adults are too willing to turn away when children are bullied (for whatever reason). As to same sex schools–the best research shows there is more difference between individuals than between the “opposite” sex. So teachers should be open to good research that kids need a variety of teaching methods to help them learn. These techniques are not gender specific, they are child specific. Schools should be places of learning, kindness and encouragment for all children. If one or more student(s) has a problem with a LGBT child, there is no good reason why caring, well informed adults couldn’t resolve these issues. This isn’t my experience of schools which is why I favor home schooling at this time (when that is possible).

    Safety has to come first. As it does not and LGBT children have an extremely high rate of bullying then I don’t see another option than to have separate schools. But I really wish adults would pull their shit together and create a safe, creative, intellectual, thoughtful, fun environment for children. If this happened children would not go out into the world with prejudices intact. They would be able to think for themselves and have a much richer life.

  2. Well, I guess you’ve never heard of the phrase: I’m what you’ve made me. Hello! The difference here is that these kids/people are not being forced and sujected to ‘keep away.’ No! They are choosing what they will, and it makes all the damn differnce in this forbearing world. What information have you been fed?

    Definitely wouldn’t wanta be ya!


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