Some Thoughts on Public Schooling and Segregated Cities

Cities cleave along racial and ethnic lines, and every city I’ve ever lived in proves it. When I grew up in Manhattan, there was Harlem, which was black. And East Harlem, which was Hispanic. And the Upper East and Upper West sides, which was where I and most of my friends lived. I’m white and they were, too. Over the years, I watched the formerly Jewish Lower East Side, where my grandpa used to own a textile shop with a handful of his brothers, turn Chinese. Later on I lived in Oakland, where the hills were white. There’s a Chinatown there, too.

In Baltimore the racial divide feels more extreme. Small numbers of young Jews are moving back to town, but the Jewish community at large worships outside the beltway. The Spanish speaking population is growing but per the 2010 U.S. Census only 4.2 percent of Baltimoreans are of Hispanic or Latino origin. The racial split is almost purely Black and White, 63.7 to 29.6 percent. And a fifth of people here live below the poverty line.

Baltimore City School demographics are another indication of how segregated and poor this city has become. This school year, 2011-2012, the public school student population is 86 percent black, though there are still individual neighborhood public schools – like the one in Hampden – where the racial breakdown looks more like that of a New England liberal arts college than of an HBCU. That is, the percentage of students of color in Baltimore’s predominantly white public schools is large enough that an elite college with similar numbers would tout itself as highly diverse. (Everything’s relative.) The big difference: 84 percent of kids in Baltimore City Schools come from low income backgrounds.

Given my private school background, my thoughts on public schooling are skewed. My thoughts on  integrated elementary schooling are just as funky. I was born in Israel. Before my first birthday, my mother took me from Tel Aviv to New York, where I attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through sixth grade. I learned all the things most public school students would learn. I also learned about my cultural heritage and Jewish identity.

My background colored my thinking about the reports and opinions in the New York Times a few weeks ago – they came out around the time of the May 17 anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board – about what is effectively segregated public schooling in New York City schools. My thoughts went something like this: If the de facto segregation in predominantly Black or Latino or Asian elementary schools included curricula that engaged students in learning about their heritage and grappling with the meaning of their identity as Black or Latino or Chinese, wouldn’t our pluralistic society be better off? Is it enough to prepare students for “democratic citizenship” (if that is what public schools are doing) by teaching them about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Maybe we would have a more vibrant political culture if we also prepared students by teaching them about themselves.*

Learning about where I came from when I was young shaped my thinking for life. Is there a better place to do that than in school? Is whitewashing personal and cultural history part of the tragic legacy of the separate but equal logic that led to forced and legally enforced desegregation?

Can public schools teach us about our complex identities? Should they? Do they?** Can it be done in schools where integration is forced?*** I have many questions and few answers. So I read.

* Baltimore-based writer Stacey Patton’s piece on Black studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education also got me thinking about disciplined approaches to teaching identity. The piece kindled a well contained conflagration of controversy when a blogger for the CHE not only questioned the merit of dissertations in the field but outright ridiculed them based on their titles. She was fired.

** Hebrew charter schools are ruffling feathers in the private Jewish day school world. I attended a panel at the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) conference in 2010 that included the founder of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. The school cannot teach prayers or engage students in religious study. They can teach Hebrew and cover topics such as Israeli independence. (Nevertheless, I found it online by searching “Jewish charter school.”) Washington D.C. approved a Hebrew language charter school on April 25, 2012.

*** In thinking about all this, I returned to the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s controversial essay, “Reflections on Little Rock.” It’s difficult to make sense of her thinking without knowing something about her allegiance to distinctions between the private and public realms and her critique of the rise of the murky region she calls “the social,” but it’s worth a look.

Up next, some curated links to posts on and around these issues.


6 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Public Schooling and Segregated Cities”

  1. Reblogged this on Year + One and commented:
    Wonderful thoughts about the Baltimore City school system as well as segregation in our city and our schools by Edit Barry.


  2. It’s all about goal-setting. Because segregation and self-segregation have always been with us.
    Why were Baltimore’s erstwhile 18 German-language public schools successful? Not because they taught the glories of Germany, which they didn’t, but because they were a vehicle of Americanization, teaching greenhorns that if they wanted to succeed, they had to join the mainstream as quickly as possible. This, rather than promoting ethnic exceptionalism, still should be the main goal of American public education. Pride ain’t going to do it, if you don’t speak standard English, or if your goal is not to speak standard English.
    One comment about segregation. Black has always meant inferior. Not only because that’s how whites had been taught to think but because after the integration caused by the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling empirical evidence soon emerged. In my Baltimore book about race and real estate (“Not in My Neighborhood”) I talk about the Gwynns Falls Parkway Elementary School, which went from 0 percent black to 44 percent black overnight in 1954. Such integration otten produced overcrowding and introduced double shifts where none had existed. This combination of racial change and the impression among white parents that things were going to hell produced a Gwynns Falls that in three years became 97 black because whites moved and took their kids out of that school..
    Why do I mentlon this? Because this same phenomenon is now being felt throughout Europe as minorities keep growing. The same side effeccts: overcrowding and double shifts, in addition to diversification of a student body that soon may lead to a new majority. White parents keep pulling their kids out of such schools. This is happening in my native Finland, this is a fact in the Netherlands.


  3. I went to a Workmen’s Circle on Sundays (held, of course, in an abandoned church); a primarily black public school; and the Manhattan School of Music, which, at the time, was largely Jewish, Korean, and expatriate Russian (of all stripes). Now I teach in one school where the students are often from Guyana and the DR; one in which they are second-generation Indian and Italian; and one where they are mostly white and midwestern. I think one must just be sure to cover all bases. 😉


  4. Thank you for your perspective.

    There is quite a quandry about what may/may not be taught at public schools. Cultural grounding is, I believe, critical to any youth’s development and yet that grounding has the potential to initiate and maintain separation and division…

    I also wonder of the effects “forced integration” might have, and think it noteworthy that Brown v. Topeka never resulted in de facto integration — desegregation was to take place “with all due speed”; slower than a snail, allowing ‘white flight’ and that, to this day, creeps slowly in schools that never ‘desegregated’.


  5. This is a terrific, thoughtful post. Two observations–we’re talking about American cities here and that should be borne in mind. Also, despite the salience (for some) of racial and ethnic differences, for others–I believe many others–this is the most relevant line in this essay: “And a fifth of people here live below the poverty line.” Cleavage between neighborhoods with adequate to high income and those whose residents are impoverished is the cruelest division of all–and the toughest to crack, as Hopkins’ EBDI’s failure to put East Baltimore residents to work shows (this morning’s paper.)



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