Monday, April 26, 2004

Bob Herbert Misses the Point

As usual. His hysterical ranting about federal courts "being gleefully packed with reactionaries" and "a betrayal of America" completely misses the point about the whole education dilemma. Leaving aside the issue of whether things are as dire as he makes them out to be, for Herbert, having black kids sitting next to white kids is in and itself so wonderful and so necessary that all other good things will be added unto black people if only this one goal is achieved; this is a mere fetishization of race, rather than a well-reasoned policy proposal.

One thing Herbert doesn't consider at all is that, barring measures more appropriate to a communist state than to a liberal democracy, all the legislation in the world will not force white parents with the means to choose their places of residence to send their children to schools in which black children constitute more than a small minority, whatever rulings may be handed down by a Supreme Court even to Herbert's own liking; were New York City successful in merging with the white suburbs to form a single gigantic school district, and were it then to mandate busing within said district, what would likely occur would be a flight of parents from the region, and any white parents who couldn't stomach the prospect of having their children in schools full of blacks and Hispanics would simply sell up and move to, say, Scottsdale, Arizona.

But all of this leaves aside an important question, which is, to the degree that resegregation really is occurring, and not just one more piece of statistical sleight-of-hand cooked up by social research Jeremiahs, how do we know that it doesn't owe as much to black and Hispanic desires for schools where "their own kind" predominate as to any white aversion to racial integration? It seems to be an unquestionable assumption on the part of many people who think like Bob Herbert that African-Americans would never willingly congregate together if they were given the chance to join all-white groups, but that is in itself a prejudiced and false assumption. The reality is that there is more to being African-American than just skin-color, there is a well-defined, broad, deep and largely thriving culture as well, and it's eminently reasonable that a lot of African-Americans should wish to raise their families in neighborhoods in which said culture can be expressed freely without fear of misunderstanding by, or tension with, a white majority. If Jews, the Irish and others can have their own enclaves, what is innately so wrong about mostly-black neighborhoods with mostly-black schools, assuming such neighborhoods voluntarily come into being?

One final factor for the (hypothetical) resegegration that Herbert fails to address is the possibility that even if it may be occurring, and even on the assumption that it isn't simply a matter of different groups wanting to live and study amongst others who share their cultures, it may be that there is something at work driving many white parents to move their children out of predominantly black schools, even when said parents have the most liberal impulses towards racial integration: the fear of crime, violence, drugs and poor school performance. The unpleasant truth is that the difference between good and bad schools is often as much a matter of the makeup of the student body as that of the teachers, both of which matter far more for educational purposes than, say, the quality of the physical plant, or any of the other purely material things that liberals often prefer to look at to the exclusion of more human matters.

It's one thing to put a handful of poor children from the projects in a middle class school, and quite another to expect middle-class parents of any hue to wish to keep their own offspring in any school in which such children are to be found in sufficient numbers to set the tone. Like it or not, middle-class norms and those of the urban poor are often very different, and at least for the purposes of learning, the former are much to be preferred to the latter; and if there's one area in which one can expect empirical facts to defeat ideological hopes even in the most committed of white liberals, it's in the matter of doing well by their own children. Even if John and Jane Doe marched in Selma and were hosed down by Bull Connor himself, only a fool would imagine that they'd sacrifice their children on the alter of integration if ghetto kids were beating the stuffing out of them on a daily basis.

I'm not going to make the claim that the last factor is the most important one in any resegregation that may or may not be occurring, though I'm sure many on the right will leap to it as the only possible answer; for one thing, it isn't at all clear to me that the phenomenon identified by Herbert is real, and even if it is, I don't know that it isn't more a case of even prosperous racial minorities looking to be with others who look like them. What I do know is that merely sitting next to a white child isn't automatically going to do anything to increase the educational prospects of black children on its own, and that chasing after this false god is likely to prove little more than a distraction that only serves to unnecessarily inflame racial tensions. Racism isn't dead by any means, and Rehnquist is no "friend of the coloured folks", but the makeup of the Supreme Court isn't what we ought to be looking at to fix problems with American education.