The Hydra of Jim Crow

The Hydra of Jim Crow

Teaching children to speak across boundaries is the essence of what integration is all about. It carries all the urgency of global peace.


I saw a little article in a newspaper a few weeks ago about a summer program for children from war-torn areas. The idea is to bring them together in a peaceful vacation spot here in the United States, where they can learn about the humanity of those they have been raised to fear or kill. This project of building bridges rather than walls actually costs $4,000 per child. It’s a worthwhile effort, I think–anything to give children the kind of resilience and hope that might render them ambassadors of reconciliation in the ever more uncertain future.

At the same time, I wonder if teaching children to speak across all kinds of boundaries isn’t one of the main objectives of a public school system. Public education has always existed to teach children how to become citizens, particularly in a nation as diverse as ours. Increasingly, it must also aim to educate them to operate in a diasporic and polycultural global marketplace. Yet even as we reach out to the young victims of conflicts beyond our shores, the notion of diversity as a necessary coping skill has not, of late, been well received here at home. Indeed, two school integration cases to be heard by the Supreme Court next term, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, challenge diversity as any kind of compelling state interest. Although they have been treated by much of the media as just another set of affirmative action cases, in fact they are positioned to undo that cornerstone of the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education. The plaintiffs argue that “racial balancing” is a constitutional violation of equal protection. To be precise, they claim that it’s not only against the law to consider race for the purpose of segregating schools but also unconstitutional to consider race toward the end of integrating schools.

It is well to remember that the Brown decision was not merely about schools. It struck down the Jim Crow principle of “separate but equal.” It stands for the notion that separation is inherently unequal, and that integration is a social good, a desired policy goal. Yet “integration” is not a word one hears very much these days. It is disparaged as “the diversity rationale” and “multiculturalism,” and its devaluation has allowed the re-emergence of what I think of as the “segregation rationale.” I do not have space here to reiterate the disgraceful and immoral rates of segregation that still exist in housing and schools, now rationalized as a mere matter of “choice”; or the horrendous disparity in health and longevity statistics, attributed to inherent mysteries; or the high school dropout rate of young minorities, dismissed as laziness; or the dismal disparities in employment rates, shrugged away as a collective failure of “individual responsibility”; or, of course, the appalling rates of minority incarceration.

This is all very dangerously circular–minorities have chosen their lot, so it’s entirely rational not to let them move into your neighborhood or mix with them in your schools or insure their health. This in turn fuels the notion that it’s reasonable to give them an extra once-over when you see them on your street. It becomes “common sense” to impose distance and a separate set of controls on their movement in society. This is further complicated, of course, by the expanded and expanding “war on terror.” Republican Congressman Christopher Shays has said, “If the choice is between a young man who fits the profile and an 85-year-old woman, you would check the young man–unless 85-year-old women become a threat.” Of course, it doesn’t make sense to wait until a homicidal little old lady blows herself up to deem “them” a threat. If we know anything about terrorists, it’s that they are experts of the unexpected. And if we only scrutinize grandmothers after one has wreaked havoc, the rational terrorist will be on to the next unexpected category–of young blond women with seeing-eye dogs or some such. That truth is consistently trumped by popular convictions that you can “just tell” a terrorist when you see one. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, in introducing legislation to allow racial profiling in subway searches, told the Associated Press: “They all look a certain way…. It’s all very nice to be politically correct here, but we’re talking about terrorism.”

The equation of criminality and phenotype has become a poisonous spill of global apprehension: Mexican migrants stand in for Al Qaeda, Christian Lebanese for Hezbollah, Brazilians for British “home-grown terrorism.” Against the backdrop of all this “preventive” sorting, the Parents Involved in Community Schools and Meredith cases challenge the state’s ability to talk about racial composition in schools, whether for segregation or integration. In other words, we can’t talk about remediation at all.

Yet when it comes to the public policy of police profiling, there seems to be lots of room for segregation by race or ethnicity. Selim Noujaim, a Connecticut state representative who emigrated from Lebanon, is another lawmaker who embraces profiling, even of himself. “They may target innocent people sometimes…but if this stops one attack or one killing, it’s worth it.” Some Americans, however, have already suffered too long as innocent “targets.” From the segregated South to South Central Los Angeles, the civil rights movement has attempted to address antagonizing degrees of imprecision in law enforcement. It is precision alone that will save us, rather than vague fears and broadly racialized propensities for ill.

Schools, on the other hand, are a highly effective way to teach children to see past stereotype, if only we had the sustained will to mix them up–thoughtfully, consciously and across established social divisions. Why wait till it’s a war zone to stage these uneasy conversations across battle lines? Serb and Croat kids holding hands, Palestinians and Israelis on Sesame Street, black and Hasidic kids from Crown Heights smiling on the 6 o’clock news–always the children, always on display, discussing how to overcome their differences. Learning this skill is the essence of what integration is all about, and it is not just a compelling state interest. It carries all the urgency of global peace.

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