How We Live Our Lives

Teaching Tolerance director Lecia J. Brooks reflects on the still segregated nature of our public schools.

The great promise of the 1954 landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was that children would grow up together in integrated schools. They would prove the segregationists wrong. Black children and white children would learn to respect one another as equals and bring down the walls of racial separation. Through the efforts of our children, our nation would live up to the ideals of equality and justice for all.

And, as an added bonus, we’d finally abandon the false notion that separate was equal. Instead we’d make a commitment to provide quality educational opportunities for every child.

That’s just not what happened.

This issue of Teaching Tolerance uncovers what did happen. The sad truth is that public schools are more racially segregated today than they were 40 year ago. Oh, and we’re back to buying into the belief that separate can be equal — and this time around we’re not limiting segregated space to race. As you’ll see in “Immigrant Schools: A Better Choice?” and “Homo High,” communities are attempting to address the very real needs of students who are ill-served by schools they are zoned or otherwise compelled to attend by creating culturally sensitive, safe spaces just for them.

Just for them? Yes, that’s segregation, too. But there is a difference.

Back in the days of Jim Crow, segregated schools existed solely to support the illogical and damaging notion of white supremacy. Though many would argue that black students fared far better academically in the segregated South than they do in any region of the country today, there was a high psychological price to pay. Blacks were deemed inferior to whites and as such we were forbidden from going to school with them. As we know, racial segregation was also the law of the land at restaurants, water fountains and on the bus. In more communities than we’d like to admit, segregation wasn’t just about schools; it was a social norm.

"Nobody needs to explain to a Negro the difference between the law in books and the law in action."

Charles Houston, special counsel to the naacp, c. 1950

Today, the legal rules governing social relationships no longer dictate separateness. Each of us has some say over how we live our lives — and, as parents, how we’ll raise our kids — segregated, integrated or a hybrid combination of the two.

As I look back on my own experience as a single parent raising a male child in Los Angeles, I find that we were constantly navigating integrated and segregated spaces. I was committed to doing everything I could to ensure that Daniel had more opportunities than our race and class membership dictated he should. He entered kindergarten with classmates who mirrored him exactly — black and working poor. His high school graduating class was small, marginally diverse and relatively privileged. All along the way, we lived and socialized with folks who looked just like us.

“He talks white!” This indictment was first hurled at Daniel by family members when he was about 7 years old. We were living in South Central Los Angeles, and he was enrolled in a magnet program on the other side of town. Yet adhering to the rules of Standard English wasn’t enough to keep his teacher from seeing Daniel as “troubled.”

As he got older, I considered moving out of the neighborhood. Not that I didn’t feel safe; I did. I grew up in East Oakland and was not easily frightened by folks who looked like me. My experiences interacting with the teachers and administrators at the magnet school on the Westside left me feeling less than — and at the time, I was a 5th-grade teacher in South Central. I had to take Daniel out of that school before he began to internalize their biases.

Thus began the improbable journey — through too many schools, in search of a quality education. Today, my son and I have an unshakeable appreciation for who we are and where we came from. We live naturally integrated lives and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lecia J. Brooks

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