Home > Uncategorized > History of Gwinnett County GA Mirrors History of White Flight, Links Between Test-Driven Reform and Segregation

History of Gwinnett County GA Mirrors History of White Flight, Links Between Test-Driven Reform and Segregation

November 2, 2020

Last week, Education Week featured a lengthy article by Benjamin Herold on the history of desegregation in Gwinnett County, GA, a history that could have been written about scores of counties south of the Mason Dixon Line… and scores of communities anywhere in our country. Everton Blair, the first person of color elected to the Gwinnett County School Board, is the protagonist in Mr. Herold’s recounting of the history. One of the first African American students to graduate from a Gwinnett County. Mr. Herold describes Everton Blair as follows:

Everton Blair Jr., a Black millennial and self-described progressive who’d gone on from the local public schools to the Ivy League and the Obama White House—only to come home, move back in with his parents, and set out to transform the school system that helped mold him.

The challenge Mr. Blair faced was systemic— and the same story blacks have encountered for generations: as blacks moved into the suburban districts surrounding Atlanta the whites fled… and even when the majority of students in the district were children of color the majority white school boards controlled attendance zoning and policy making and the children of color were denied access to the schools with the most resources. Shiloh High School, the Gwinnett County school Everton Blair Jr. graduated from, was a case in point. During the 12 years he attended schools in the district his neighborhood school went from 86% white to 77% minority…. and the experienced teachers fled with the white children. Blair was a devoted student who got degrees from Harvard and Stanford and, in all probability, could have parlayed his education into a high paying job. But he was committed to the students “left behind” in Gwinnett County. He observed that “The most-advanced, best-supported students would usually find a way to succeed” but he entered the fray on the school board because he was worried about the other kids:

That concern only grew as Blair heard about the experiences of his three younger siblings at Shiloh High. The rigor of the courses and assignments available to them was steadily decreasing, he believed… Gwinnett’s most experienced educators and highest expectations seemed to be following white families to the fringes of the county. And just like his parents had done, Black families of means were chasing after them. Low expectations suffocated the children who were left behind, Blair believed. Rather than challenge and support these Black and brown and poor students, schools focused on controlling their behavior, gradually undermining the hope for the American Dream that had drawn their families to suburbia in the first place.

The chance to disrupt that pattern helped draw him home to run for the school board in 2018.

“Offer a high-quality education to who’s here, period,” Blair said. “It should not be predicated on the retention of whiteness.”

The article offers a blow-by-blow description of the uphill fight Mr. Blair faced in trying to achieve the fairness and justice he believed was needed to ensure that ALL children had the same chances. The uplifting story illustrates that high-mindedness CAN prevail in the face of deeply entrenched racism. My only concern is that folks who live in the rest of the country will shake their heads and read this as yet another indictment of racism in the south without looking closely at the practices in their own states. New York has countless examples of predominantly black districts surrounded by districts that are white strongholds. New England, which has few blacks, has a similar pattern of affluent districts surrounded by ones where children raised in poverty reside. In my mind, any laws, policies or procedures that preclude economic and racial integration work against the aspirational narrative of our country, the narrative that any child born any where can become whatever they want to if they work hard and play by the rules. Sadly, the rules in place when it comes to housing do not support this goal.

In Gwinnett County, Everton Blair Jr. wants to change the rule book. Mr. Herold concludes his article with this:

The larger project, (Blair) believed, was about more than just winning elections. It was about showing that the suburbs and their public schools could actually deliver the American Dream to everyone, even those they were originally designed to exclude, regardless of whether the old guard was willing to let go of the past.

For decades idealists like Mr. Blair have fought to level the playing field, to change funding formulas and laws and policy that separate children of color from white students and affluent students from those raised in poverty. It takes more that changes to schools to make this happen. It requires more than a change of laws or a change of minds. It requires a change of heart.

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