The race factor in the challenge of socioeconomic integration

I recently read two articles that gave me pause. The first, “How Woodrow Wilson Shut the Door on K-12 Education for African Americans,” discussed the significance of recent protests at Princeton University by students who have urged the trustees to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson supported the Ku Klux Klan—indeed he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the Klan, at the White House—but more damning is the role his administration played in education policies that set black students back for generations.

Studies, spearheaded by the Wilson administration, focused on training black students in vocational education for service and manual labor jobs. The article cites the 1917 report by Thomas Jesse Jones (a philanthropist who worked closely with the Wilson administration) called “Negro Education,” which disparaged black parents and teachers who wanted an academically rich curriculum for African Americans and pushed back at African American educators like W. E. B. Dubois who wanted black students to focus more on academics.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.
Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

This was not a new argument for the time. Booker T. Washington and others were focusing more on training African-Americans for lesser jobs. Even so-called progressives, like John Dewey, echoed this view and thought that black students would be better served by curriculum (in all black schools of course) that focused on manual labor. These “studies” during the Wilson administration had a chilling effect on African-American students for decades afterwards.

Fast-forward 100 years to a December 12 Washington Post story that cites Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments during a hearing on the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well as opposed to having slower track schools where they do well.” Or this one:“ I’m not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer and maybe some— you know when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks admitted to lesser schools turn out to be less. And I don’t think it stands to reason that is a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

And finally: “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re—that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too—too fast for them.”

It sounds like Justice Scalia would be comfortable sitting for that screening of Birth of a Nation.

As the Post article notes, the University of Texas and most colleges would have no problem admitting black students who need extra help as long as they are playing football.

African American students who play sports are often provided with the supports they need to succeed in college. And a case can be made that colleges need to provide better supports and scaffolding for students from many underrepresented populations.

And if that means more attention must be paid to students who have not been prepared to do college-level work, then so be it. I have worked with professors who complain about unprepared students yet do little to adjust their teaching methods to better serve all their students.

But for our purposes, the bigger issue is the rigor and academic preparation that must be provided to low-income students—many of whom happen to be African American—mired in high poverty schools in Rochester. The experiences and privileges that prepare predominantly middle class students for college cannot be overlooked in this equation.

Students from Brighton, Penfield, Webster and any number of suburban communities are raised with the expectation from parents and teachers that they will attend college. And those schools and families do everything in their power to provide these students with the connections, schooling and experiences for this inevitability.

Contrast this with the expectations of poor African-American students from Rochester, among the poorest cities in America. These students have no social capital, few connections with someone who has attended college and parents who are struggling to make ends meet. These parents cannot provide their kids with the experiences that prepare them for college level work and their teachers, many of whom work tirelessly to serve them, often don’t have ownership in the neighborhoods where they live. For example, when I was a principal in the Canandaigua City School District about two-thirds of the teachers and staff lived in the city of Canandaigua. What percentage of teachers in Rochester live with these kids and know their lives?

As I read the reports and work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, it appears that more people would like Rochester to focus on neighborhood schools to provide healthcare, community activities, parent education and schooling for their children. I understand this wish. I remember an African-American gentleman who took a course from me way back in 1990. He was educated at an all black school in the south in the 1950s. He told the class that although his school was in horrible condition and had limited resources he knew that the teachers cared about him. Actually I think he used the word love. Later upon moving north, he said he did not feel that love.

GS4A has worked for the past year and a half to try to open up urban schools to suburban students while advocating that suburban districts take more of city students. That is a Sisyphus type task. We recognize that suburban districts may not be ready to accept thousands of students from the city. So we are focusing also on trying to open up schools in Rochester that could attract middle class students from the suburbs. This two-way exchange is important to achieving socioeconomic integration and to demonstrating that many city schools can do well by students when the demographics of the classroom are right.

The phrase “white privilege’ is becoming meaninglesslike “diversity.” Still, the idea that middle-class, predominantly white, suburban school districts have provided for their children while letting the children in the city suffer cannot be overlooked. Nor can the words of Supreme Court Justice Scalia once again showing us how far we have to go when it comes to considering race in America.

Discussing race is never easy but until we acknowledge how privileged we are as white people in this country we cannot move forward. We can address this issue or we can in the words of Justice Scalia leave “slower track students where they do well,” which will guarantee us another hundred years of Wilson’s thinking.


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