The Integration Dilemma

January 12, 2017 by



This blog was written by Guest Author Derrell Bradford and was originally published on Eduwonk in August 2016. Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president at 50CAN, and the executive director of its New York branch, NYCAN. He was one of two speakers for our January 2017 Hot Lunch, A Conversation on School Integration.

In the country’s largest school district, you can catch a headline on school integration almost daily. New York City’s unique set of circumstances should make it a mecca for school integration (density, diversity, and strong public transportation, unless you live in hipster Brooklyn of course). The only problem is, that ain’t the case. In fact, the opposite is true: New York is one of the country’s most segregated school districts—despite all of these advantages. Of 1,800 public schools surveyed recently, only two mirrored the city’s total demographic picture.

I support integration, but I have some skepticism about the current push for more of it, (even when wrapped in uber compelling narratives like that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose adorable daughter is one of the faces of the “good society” we should be trying to engineer). And by “more” I basically mean “any,” let alone some rational percentage that mirrors the city or society we live in.

The first, and maybe the most obvious, reason is that no one seems to actually want to get integrated (a sweeping generalization, I know). Now someone reading this might be saying, “But I want to get integrated. This is important to me!” To you I offer praise and thanks. But you seem to be the exception and not the rule, if the nation’s largest school district is any example.

Take the beautiful Upper West Side; a bastion of the sort of smug progressivism that claims it wants an integrated society—until someone actually tries to integrate it. This fall, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, decided to give it a try anyway, rolling out initial thoughts on diversifying some of the neighborhood’s deeply segregated—by race and income—schools. The pitch went over like a lead balloon, prompting the sort of rapid backpedalling only a cartoon character does well. The chancellor later suggested pen pals for kids instead, asserting, “Diversity for its own sake…is not going to be what takes us where we need to go.” The mayor, an ostensible champion for a post-Dickensian New York, folded like a futon under the same pressure, claiming that, “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school.”

And isn’t that the very reason no one wants to do it (or at least the primary one)? When a sign goes up in an apartment lobby asking, “If you are a homeowner, how concerned are you about the impact of the P.S. 452 move on the value of your home/apartment?”, the only thing sadder than the sign itself is understanding why the sign is there in the first place. The incentives are aligned “against” integrating schools, at least when housing and assigned attendance zones are at play, and folks know it. In this case, there’s an inevitable real estate hit to the housing values of the West Side’s white and rich when a neighborhood school is suddenly integrated against the will of its residents.

But it also blows up black folks too, and in this instance, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Sure, you might try to muscle your way into a white neighborhood in search of both a good school and some diversity for your kid, taking on a hefty mortgage in the process. But that will only work (both for you and the value of that house) as long as it’s just you and a few of your closest black friends. As Dorothy Brown, a professor of tax law at Emory University discussed, once black folks comprise more than 10 percent of a community, your house’s value will start to appreciate at a significantly slower rate. In her words, “The market penalizes integration: The higher the percentage of blacks in the neighborhood, the less the home is worth, even when researchers control for age, social class, household structure, and geography.”

It’s a lose-lose economically. But that isn’t to say integration is without value. I’ve come to believe the best way to do it, however, is to let it happen on its own in a way that does not require changes in the housing market or central planning in the forms of arbitrary cutoffs, formulas or ratios. Which is to say, through choice. And I don’t mean “controlled choice”, which is like saying none (when someone else controls your choice you don’t really have one). Parents chasing the schools they want without regard for income or place is the best way to get more integrated schools. And therein lies the rub: there is no perfect state for integration…only more or less of it. Accepting that simple premise could go a long way to designing better policy to promote it.

Moreover, no one seems to consider the role of the integrator in all of this; that small black or brown kid sent off to do the hard work of representing his or her people in a sea of whiteness, rescued from a tumultuous rip tide of inefficacy when the schools are filled with kids who look just like him or her. This is lost in the discussion of integrated schools and the perceived value of having them.

I think you can look at the school integration problem in two ways. Most folks take the stance that schools function well and better when they are integrated, so integration is the magic catalyst. I see the problem differently; that the schools function one way in the presence of whiteness, and another in its absence. These two problems can look very similar, but trust me, they are not the same thing.

What both of these views have in common is that they identify whiteness as the key reagent to school success and, as such, a key ingredient in success for minority kids. But coincident with that “reality” is another one: that the more whiteness is critical or valued, the less blackness is. Adults might not focus too deeply on this but I assure you young kids of color cast in the role of “integrator” most certainly do.

I’d urge everyone to try it sometime—even as a well-educated adult—and see how it feels to be “the other,” while also placed there for the benefit of others who don’t look like you. Next strip away all of your degrees, your experience, money, security, accomplishments, add a boatload of childlike or early-teen insecurity, and try it again.

As someone who has done this, I assure you it is neither easy nor without edges that cut like broken glass well into adulthood. Are the cuts worth having? Maybe. Should you have to have them simply because your neighborhood school, filled with kids who looked like you, didn’t work for the same reason? On that I am not so sure.

Which is why there still needs to be a place for the high-functioning black school filled to the brim with black kids; the school that works and that essentially preaches blackness as a powerful and desired state, not a subservient and toxic one. It’s also why, when folks talk that yin-yang about high-performing charter schools being segregated—and how that’s wrong—I start walking away before the smoke out of my ears becomes too visible.

Integration is complex. Like anything where the mixing of people is concerned, there are many benefits to be considered. But let’s be real about why even the world’s most progressive mayor crumbles under the pressure to do so regularly, and let’s make sure we remember there is a cost to the kids that have to do it. Sure it might be a cost worth paying, but let’s not pretend like it doesn’t exist at all.