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.