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Mississippi Desegregation Decision Dilemma: How Much Integration is Enough?

June 6, 2016

A few days ago I wrote about a Mississippi desegregation decision handed down by a federal judge that arrived four generations too late. Today’s NYTimes has a follow-up story to that decision by Richard Faucett that illustrates the dilemma virtually every segregated or re-segregated school district faces: there aren’t enough white students to go around. In Cleveland, MS 35% of the student body is white. One of the Cleveland HSs is 45% African-American and 47% white. The other Cleveland HS is all black. Why? The answer in Cleveland, MS is the same as the answer in many urban areas:

Mississippi’s troubled history is still reflected in Cleveland’s geographic reality. A north-south railroad bed separates the predominantly African-American east side and the west, which is still considered the “white” side.

In some urban areas it might be an interstate highway instead of a railroad track; in other areas it might be attendance zones determined at the turn of the last century dividing rural communities from small towns and cities; in still other areas it might be the result of zoning laws. But in all cases, it serves as a rationale for keeping things the way they are. So traditional “geographical” boundaries can be an impediment to integration. But here’s another dilemma districts face today, as described in the subsequent sentences in Faucett’s article:

Yet the races in this city of 12,000 people work and socialize together in ways unimaginable decades ago. The school superintendent is African-American. So is the city manager….

At a time when the percentage of the nation’s schools that are overwhelmingly populated by the poor and racial minorities is climbing, Cleveland is wrestling with a quandary quite different from one it faced during the days of legal segregation: Should it fight to maintain the modicum of integration it has achieved, which has kept whites in the district while leaving many blacks in all-black schools? Or should it accept the federal government’s more vigorous efforts to pursue something akin to full integration?

The status quo paints two contradictory pictures: one that illustrates a stark and unambiguous separation of housing by race; another showing a community that has African American municipal leaders governing a harmonious integrated community…. and there is evidence that when one attempts to address the racial imbalance in housing it can disrupt the community well-being. Faucets describes this dilemma in a later paragraph:

Dismantling (the status quo)…would prompt whites here to do what they have done in so many other Delta cities: decamp en masse for private schools, or move away. This federal “desegregation,” (some) argue, would really mean the resegregation that has happened in other impoverished nearby Delta communities.

Brown v. Board of Education has made a difference in Cleveland. Without that ruling there would not be a public school that is virtually evenly split racially, there would not be African American elected officials, and there would not be a community that is perceived as a place where “…12,000 people work and socialize together in ways unimaginable decades ago”.

I have no answer to this dilemma based on the information reported but I can offer this advice: before spending thousands of dollars in legal fees and remedies that involve involuntary transportation, maybe the school leaders and municipal leaders could do a back of the envelope calculation of those costs and provide the high school serving African Americans with a block grant to upgrade its facilities so that it might attract more students through the open enrollment plan mandated in 1969, a plan that did allow African American students to enroll in the formerly all white high school. Even if the improvements realized as a result of the supplementary funds fail to attract a single new white student, it would enhance the learning experience for those students stuck on the wrong side of the track and avoid disrupting the seeming peace that exists in this community.

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