Monday, July 2, 2007

Segregation of Another Sort

The moderate to liberal media, bloggers included, have recently lamented what some have considered the official death toll to the civil rights movement: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al. The Supreme Court decision from last week left many activists in shock as it decimated any remnants of Brown v. Board of Education. In a 5-4 decision, the Court declared Thursday that “public school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race.” It seems as if the push for diversity in light of the fact that countless schools in the United States are completely lacking in racial diversity (that many deem necessary and beneficial to the academic environment) is now an effort rendered null and void.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Juan Williams advises Americans “Don’t Mourn Brown v. Board of Education,” and goes on to demonstrate how the decision is outdated and rarely effective:

. . . the fact is, during the last 20 years, with Brown in full force, America’s public schools have been growing more segregated — even as the nation has become more racially diverse. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white, while 70 percent of black students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of students are black and Hispanic.

While I disagree with some of the piece, I do share Williams’ belief that the decision seemed to have the most impact during the Civil Rights Era. In the decades to follow, as political and legal framework supporting American apartheid unraveled, the desperation that drove the movement for the undoing of oppression was eased. Of course, we tend to dramatize the results of the CRE when discussing it in the present. We talk about that historical period as if all the change happened overnight. We look back on the time with nostalgia, as an apex of black achievement and struggle for change. While this praise and admiration is due, unquestionably, our fairy-tale rendition of the CRE as a battle of good vs. evil, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as black America’s knight in shining armor and the entire white population of the South as the enemy, is highly problematic because a) it provides an overly simplistic view of a very complex period, b) it makes any problems that followed the time (to the present) regarding race appear trivial in comparison. As a result of the aforementioned problems, forming coalitions against racism or even making people more socially conscious becomes a huge challenge because of the widely-held assumption that the problems our parents and grandparents fought against no longer exist today.

Despite the recent Supreme Court decision ultimately confirming that racism is an antiquated concept, a belief held by those who are na├»ve to the negative effects of racism and de facto social segregation, it’s important that we ensure black children are somehow guaranteed access to quality education. One aspect of social stratification that is often ignored in our national discourse surrounding inequality is class. Though some are beginning to delve further into the possibility of lessening poverty and its detrimental effects, it’s a problem that our country continually fails to address in the way that we (attempt to) discuss race and gender.

This silence can partially be blamed on the Cold War. Though the fight against communism is no longer considered an urgent issue, as communism has been replaced with the threat of terrorism as our grand international villain, it certainly slowed progress in the eradication of poverty. Any legislation and activism geared toward reforming institutions that enabled or directly led to poverty or initiating institutions that would ease poverty for those whom it directly affected were immediately deemed “socialist” or “communist,” and branded for exclusion from serious consideration. Remnants of the Cold War remain, exemplified by the United States’ continued tension with communist or socialist countries like Cuba and Venezuela, but for the most part, it appears that the newest challenge to poverty-related initiatives is apathy.

Race and gender, though we don’t exactly confront these issues comfortably, certainly receive more attention than poverty, for better or for worse. But all three issues are inextricably linked. Countless studies, including contemporary research on Latin American women of African descent, demonstrate that women of color continue to fall at the bottom of the global caste system. We sometimes lose sight of this in the United States, as women of color, and black women, in particular, are considered to have surpassed the achievements of their male counterparts. But in believing this characterization as a truth for women of color as a whole, we neglect to consider the situation of those who do not have equal access to opportunity.

One of the biggest complaints launched against Affirmative Action is that it benefits middle to upper class people of color far more than the poor (of all races) who lack adequate resources during their primary and secondary education to compete on equal footing. However, it is clear that even when those who may be of color and of a lower income background are able to reach higher achievement levels, a definite chasm exists between them and their upper class classmates. In an eye-opening Courant article about the experiences of a black female Yale student who grew up in a state of economic volatility, the social divide between rich and poor is made incredibly clear:

Aurora is one of the few to cross Yale's class threshold, but once inside, she struggled to fit in. Talk about money, race and grades was frowned upon, she quickly learned. Yet, as much as she craved connection, she seemed unable to stop speaking her mind and adopt her peers' keen sense of discretion.

Her anxiety at being on the margins hit home one night while she was working in the dining hall. She complimented a student on his University of Virginia hat and found out he was from Charlottesville. Excited, she explained that she was, too.

"What are you doing up here?" he asked. Aurora was confused, then hurt
as it sunk in. He had mistaken her for a townie. "I go here," she said, realizing that attending Yale is not the same as belonging.

Throughout the article Aurora explains the culture-shock of sorts that she experienced while attending Yale because so few of her peers had a real understanding of poverty and the boundaries it creates. While Aurora is one example of someone “making it,” there are thousands of other who aren’t. While some of this is due to lack of motivation, an aspect of poor achievement upon which we as a society tend to dwell because we continue to hold the American Dream myth as truth, many poor Americans can cite a lack of resources and support as a legitimate explanation for their circumstances. Their situations provide proof that our society, though certainly racially polarized, is even more segregated in terms of class.

To be honest, one would think that confronting class inequality would be the perfect way to address race and gender in this country. After all, discussions revolving around class can appeal to members of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds because an explicit mentioning of race is not necessary. Whites are not necessarily demonized in these discussions. Instead, wealth and capitalism, both abstract terms in the American mind, are held in contempt, making it a slightly less anger-inducing method of combating social division.

But I wonder, is this the direction we should go in order to seek racial equality? It seems like it may be the only option considering that race is repeatedly deemed a non-issue by our leaders. The recent court decision also begs the question of whether or not race is not only a non-issue, but an outdated one to consider at that. Are we at the point where we have truly “evolved” and no longer see race or need to consider it as a facet of diversity? I don’t think so. But when it comes to making change, we have to shift our focus over time in order to target the problems we seek to eradicate. This court decision could be a catalyst for doing just that. Could class be the best way to make racial segregation obsolete?

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