NPR just did a story on desegregation in Little Rock. (I can’t remember which day, so I’m not sure which one.) I only caught snippets of it, but from what I heard there was some good stuff and some parts that completely missed the boat, in the same way that adults have been missing the boat for a while.
Good stuff first: they made the distinction between desegregation and integration. A school is desegregated if it includes white kids and black kids. But it’s not integrated unless those kids actually hang out together. I went to a desegregated middle school in the 1980s. Kids in the advanced learning program, mostly white, were bused to a school that was mostly black. Today’s name for that would be “magnet school.” Good intentions . . . but most of the classrooms were still segregated, because so many of the kids in the advanced learning program were white. It was kinda half a solution.
Thirty years later, we’re still doing the same thing. The NPR program talked about the way the kids had separate classrooms and sat apart from each other in the lunchroom, and it included some student voices talking about how they could take responsibility for the problem. That’s good.
But what it did wrong, its blind spot, is that it placed the blame for the segregation on the high school kids and not on the adults who set up the classroom situation in the first place. If the classrooms are segregated, is it any wonder the lunchroom would be too? I know it’s a tricky and difficult situation, and the adults are taking steps to change this. But we can’t just let the kids shoulder all the responsibility and blame.
Now, I just heard a snippet. It could well be that NPR covered that ground later in the program. Regardless, this is a huge blind spot that we have. The adults need to be doing our part to make sure that we break down as many barriers as we can to integration.
Instead, sometimes we’re putting more barriers in the way, like when Seattle Public Schools shut down a successfully integrated K-8 program called Summit. Or when it closed down a schools race and justice curriculum last year.
We’ve got to get this right.
And we also need to be explaining to our kids that the work of desegregation is not yet done. Our school is celebrating Martin Luther King right now, and talking about the civil rights movement and the ending of segregation. This is misleading. Our school is 61 percent Caucasian and 7 percent African-American. If my kids grow up thinking segregation is over, they’ll also grow up thinking that our country is populated by 61 percent white people and 7 percent black people. Not true! In our school district, whites are a minority, at 43%. (Full detail: American Indian 1%, Black 19%, Hispanic 12%, Asian/Pacific-Islander 19%, White 43%, Multiracial 6%)
At the same time, while I need to explain that we still have plenty of troubles, I can’t be filling my kids’ heads with doom and gloom. Kids need to know the hard truths, but they also need to have hope.
Enter Ruby Bridges! She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school. Last year, my daughter got a book about her from the school library, The Story of Ruby Bridges. So this year, when she was assigned a Great American Leader biography project, she chose Ruby Bridges. Martin Luther King is an inspirational role model, and so is Rosa Parks. Big, important people. But Ruby Bridges is a child. My daughter can identify.
I wasn’t so sure that Ruby Bridges would fit the bill of a Great American Leader, though. It’s not like she had a choice to attend that all-white school. Her parents made that decision, and she had to live with it. It was a long, hard road for a lot of those first kids who attended all-white schools, and nobody came out of it unscathed. (It’s STILL a long, hard road.) So I had to find out what happened to her later in life. Here it is:
To summarize the video . . .
When Ruby Bridges first walked into the school, she was surrounded by an angry mob. Fortunately for her, she didn’t understand at first. “I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. . . . They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” All the white parents pulled their kids out, and all the teachers but one left the school. Ruby was all by herself at that school for a whole year. But then one white family broke the boycott, and five-year-old Pam Foreman Testroet became her classmate.
Fast-forward past the consequences Ruby’s family faced for their heroic efforts, and whatever hard and scary things Ruby had to endure, because my daughter is not ready for this yet. Now, as an adult, Ruby is continuing the important work that she began.
She visited her old school, the one she helped desegregate, and was reunited with her classmate Pam. It was a time of celebration, but Ruby also pointed out that the school is now all black. The work of desegregation is not done.
It’s a grand, epic tale about a Great American Leader. But what really touched my daughter? The reunion with her classmate Pam.