Black Kids Don't Need to Sit Next to White Kids to Learn

Dec 11, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Over the last decade, and indeed for longer than that, those fighting for justice, many of them White, have largely looked to integration as the panacea for educational inequity. 

The Center for American Progress argues that “School integration is not just an ideal; it remains a difficult but essential means to creating equal opportunity for all children.” Edutopia cites research that finds, “racially segregated schools depress learning gains as early as first grade for black students, for example, and that overall achievement for black students is lower in highly segregated schools, even after accounting for income. Conversely, racially desegregated schools have been found to increase graduation rates, earnings, and health outcomes for black students.”  The Washington Post reported that “the beneficial effects were found not just for the children who attended desegregated schools, but for their children as well. School integration didn’t fail. The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.” 

There is much in these points of view that is spot on

However, it must be said that focusing solely on integration without fighting against the systems that have created multi-tiered systems of education that equate predominantly Black and Brown educational spaces with ineffectiveness and predominantly White spaces with excellence is misguided. 

These things didn’t just happen; they were systematically designed this way.

What if fighting for integration is an essentially racist principle?

I’m not saying we ought to go back to state-sanctioned segregation, of course, but [pullquote]I’m beginning to believe that fighting for ‘integration’ is simply another White supremacy feint[/pullquote], another color-neutral empty gesture that does nothing to address the policy systems that create and maintain our unjust education system.

Antiracist or Assimilationist?

When I think about advocating for integration, I think about the differences between being an antiracist and an assimilationist. 

Using the definitions from Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist,” an antiracist is someone who “expresses the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces inequity.”

In contrast, an assimilationist is someone “who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.”

When I think about these ideas, I identify integration as an assimilationist action.

Integration is assimilationist because it depends on the idea that excellence can only be found in predominantly White spaces.

This is, of course, in large part due to resource allocation based upon racist systems that align a community’s wealth with its local school funding.

And, I would argue, it goes further than that.

It’s about what we imagine an excellent school to look like.

Schools Don't Need White Students in order to be Great

Generally, Americans can look at nearly all-White schools and understand that they can be educationally excellent.

But it can be a larger leap to mentally imagine an all-Black school as educationally excellent.

After all, when we talk about integration, we talk primarily about moving Black bodies into White spaces, thereby providing the ‘uplift’ that these students need.

This is an inherently racist mindset, an assumption based upon understanding the Black community as one of deficits rather than assets.

What if, as an author recently wrote in the Tennessean, rather than focusing on racial resegregation or racial integration, we instead focus on removing barriers, obstacles and racist policies and practices that prevent Black students from reaching their full capacity?  

What if, rather than concerning ourselves with ways to racially “integrate” schools, we instead worked to construct and enact equitable practices in segregated schools that work to level the playing field and maximize Black student learning and development? In addition to HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), schools in Philadelphia like Mastery Schools and Boys Latin are, while not perfect, are examples of such schools.

And furthermore, here’s a question for White people like me; [pullquote]who says Black families want to send their kids to school with our kids?[/pullquote]  

It ought to go without saying, anybody should be able to send their child to whatever type of school they want.  

If a diverse student body matters to you, fantastic, go for it.

But there is no reason the local neighborhood school that is nearly all Black or Latinx cannot be excellent.

Those students don’t need a White student sitting next to them for their school to be great.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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