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“Carefully Curated Integration” a By-Product of Gentrification

June 10, 2016

The on-line version of the NYTimes today featured an outstanding article on the effects of integration on black children using the personal experience of writer Nikole Hannah-Jones and the redistricting that impacted two Brooklyn Heights elementary schools as a lens to examine the issue. “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City” is a long read, but well worth every minute you spend on it. I’ve gathered some quotes from the article and offer some commentary on each.

Hannah-Jones describes the racial mix in NYC schools in this paragraph:

The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three-quarters of all students are low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending “intensely” segregated schools — schools that are less than 10 percent white.

The overarching theme of the article is the dilemma Ms. Hannah-Jones and her husband face in choosing a school for their daughter. As first generation college educated African Americans, they wanted to make certain their daughter received the advantages they experienced. Ms. Hannah-Jones attended schools that mandated integration through busing in Iowa and her husband attended fully integrated schools on military bases. Consequently they both experienced academic success and appreciated the importance of a sound public education. But they also had some ambivalence:

Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.

But Ms. Hannah-Jones was also painfully aware of what research shows regarding socio-economic advancement by blacks:

In 2014, the Brookings Institution found that black children are particularly vulnerable to downward mobility — nearly seven of 10 black children born into middle-income families don’t maintain that income level as adults. There was no margin for error, and we had to use our relative status to fight to give Najya every advantage. Hadn’t we worked hard, he asked, frustration building in his voice, precisely so that she would not have to go to the types of schools that trapped so many black children?

Ms. Hannah-Jones’ also noted that the well-intentioned white parents’ actions, who want their children to be exposed to multi-curtural experiences, have unintended consequences for children who attend schools with de facto segregation.

This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.

That “steep cost” was described in the gentrification that occurred in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area of NYC that abutted Bed-Stuy neighborhood where Ms. Hannah-Jones and her husband moved as part of the first wave of gentrification. Just as gentrification changes mom-and-pop bodegas into hipster-owned coffee shops, it changes public schools from institutions designed to help and support children raised in poverty into “carefully curated” schools that clearly improve the lot of the poverty stricken children who remain in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification. But eventually and inevitably, as owners of rental properties cash in their assets and the neighborhood becomes middle-to-upper class, the poor children leave and end up in another segregated school somewhere else in the city.

This leaves the mayor and chancellor with a dilemma when it comes to integrating schools:



“You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area,” (Mayor de Blasio) said, because families have “made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.” The mayor suggested there was little he could do because school segregation simply was a reflection of New York’s stark housing segregation, entrenched by decades of discriminatory local and federal policy. “This is the history of America,” he said.

Of course, de Blasio is right: Housing segregation and school segregation have always been entwined in America. But the opportunity to buy into “good” neighborhoods with “good” schools that de Blasio wants to protect has never been equally available to all.

These inter-relationships between good housing and good schools and the conflicting feelings a parent has about adhering to principles or providing what’s best for their child results in feelings that are difficult to deal with on a personal level and problems that are seemingly intractable. Hannah-Jones captures this in her concluding paragraph:

This sense of helplessness in the face of such entrenched segregation is what makes so alluring the notion, embraced by liberals and conservatives, that we can address school inequality not with integration but by giving poor, segregated schools more resources and demanding of them more accountability. True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.

As an idealistic parent of a school-aged child who lived in an integrated neighborhood in Philadelphia in the early 1970s I enrolled my daughter in a “carefully curated” integrated private school in the neighborhood. This meant that she attended a school with children whose parents who were school teachers, nurses, government employees— middle class families who could afford a private school— instead of the public school five blocks away adjacent to the housing project. Like Kenneth Clark, a champion of integration, I did what I thought was best for my child. Hannah-Jones writes:

Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against.My children,” he said, “only have one life.”

But, as Hannah-Jones notes in her closing sentences:

But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregated schools. They have only one life, too.

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