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Published in Print: October 31, 1990, as 'Separate But Equal' Has No Place

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'Separate But Equal' Has No Place

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In this time of desperately troubled schools, now comes the school district of Milwaukee with its contribution to school reform: the separate school for black male students.

The idea is so unexpected it makes news. Black males are so victimized in today's society that the idea evokes a response of "Why not?" The proposal emanates from a school district with black leadership, both on the school board and in the superintendency, so no accusations of racism are heard.

But is this in fact a legitimate idea? Is it, further, an educational idea?

Legitimacy. As is self-evident, this is a racially segregative proposal. A school board can say that any student may apply for admission. But the salient point is that schools created, designed, and announced for black males are obviously not looking for Hispanic, Asian, or Anglo males--or for females of any race, including black.

The result will be an intentionally segregated school, precisely the variety which the federal courts have been ordering dismantled for more than 30 years. What makes a segregated school, fashioned by school officials, suddenly legitimate? The professed motivations of school officials? Or the evident failure of the schools they manage to succeed with a certain category of student, in this case black and male?

The U.S. Supreme Court has never altered its 1954 conclusion that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." Neither opposition to desegregation nor disillusionment with it has prompted the Court to revisit this fundamental premise for school desegregation, however painful and imperfect it may be. Can a school board do what the Court hasn't done?

Efficacy. As a matter of educational strategy, what is the instructional idea that explains a school for black males? If instruction is to be rooted in African or African-American culture, why are black females not as relevant as black males? Alternatively, if the curriculum is to pivot around the role of males in societies and cultures, why aren't males from other racial and cultural groups in the focus of these schools?

Nor is this idea the counterpart of self-contained groups of Hispanics or Cambodians engaged in bilingual education. There, an instructional basis for the grouping exists--the learning of a second language. What precisely is it in the nature of those to be separated in Milwaukee (black males) that will be the basis for a new curriculum--and a curriculum that, in addition, can be delivered only to a separated group?

Milwaukee has long had black schools. The school system was segregated until the 1970's. Even with desegregation, it has always been allowed a significant number of all-black schools. Which raises the question: Why hasn't the district been teaching black male students in these schools whatever it is that it now declares it will teach in schools that are still all-black but limited to males?

Race has always represented a dilemma for America. This is a society that does not speak kindly of inequality, but it is also a society that has long used racial discrimination as a means of cultivating it. Now, as a result of progress in civil rights, black public officials, elected and appointed, occupy positions where race-related decisions get made. Thus they are confronted by the dilemma of race. And they are not, simply by virtue of their race, necessarily any more prepared to resolve it than their white predecessors or counterparts.

Witness Milwaukee. The sequence of events leading to separate schools for black males began innocently enough. The school board created a task force "to review all programs dealing with the education of African-American male youth." The task force, not at all surprisingly, found that the city schools (which are majority black) have not "adequately addressed" the particular needs of minority students, especially black males.

Based on that finding, the task force propounded a series of recommendations: multicultural curriculum; attention to racial disparities in student performance; programs during summers, Saturdays, and afternoons as alternatives to "unsupervised and unproductive activities" of children and youths; stringent homework policies; staff training focused on diversity and flexible instructional methods; black-teacher recruitment; "gender socialization courses" for all students focusing on "what it means to be a man or woman in today's society." And, in the longer term, it recommended "restructuring" schools, intensive drug education, "alternative discipline programs," training for parents, adult mentors for students, conversion of schools into multi-service community centers, and job apprenticeships for students in local businesses.

All of this is defensible, and none is unfamiliar in contemporary school-reform methodology.

Then the dilemma of race strikes, muddling the analysis and the logic. The task force abandons its most basic conclusion--that "those serious about improving education must build a high-quality, multicultural educational program." Equally serious, the task force forgets that the school board that created it, and to which it reports, is in fact in control of and responsible for the quality of the education received even now by minority students, black males included, in the schools of Milwaukee.

So who's responsible for what's happening with black male students? Why, it's desegregation.

Thus, desegregation becomes the culprit--it "has often meant long bus rides to sometimes hostile communities for black students"; and "even when black students attend the same schools and classes as whites, they often do not receive the same educational benefits and rewards as whites." By implication, it is not the school board and its administration which control student assignments and thereby the length of bus rides (which of course they do). And it is not the school board and its administration which are accountable for what the schools they manage do and do not do for students, black males included (which of course they are).

Once desegregation has been made the designated culprit, then it becomes justifiable to propose (as the task force did) "African-American Male Immersion Academies ... with emphasis on addressing the needs of African-American males." It was an idea that the school board, or at least a majority of its members, could not resist. The idea was even more irresistible to the media, which bathed Milwaukee in coverage, an experience not unwelcome in a Midwestern city chronically overshadowed by nearby Chicago. The media treatment was not unlike that accorded the black principal in an East Coast city a few years back who ran his school with so much force (student rights notwithstanding) that even the White House paid attention.

But the measure of good ideas in the running of schools is not media coverage, the approbation of editorial writers, or public opinion. Nor is disillusion, even on the part of some minorities, with the imperfect results of school desegregation a healthy foundation on which to base next steps.

Certain facts are incontrovertible: where desegregation hasn't worked well, school officials haven't done their desegregation-management job; minority students, in general, deserve much more from schools than they presently are getting, and this is especially true of black males; historically speaking, in public schools segregation has never served minorities well; and with diversity expanding, separate public schools by race and gender is a formula to "re-Balkanize" American society, beginning with the schools.

Black parents have a right to expect schools to succeed with their children. Their children--all children--deserve bona fide school reform, not showy acts of desperation that test the law and defy common educational sense. When schools don't work, in other words, fix the schools.

Regrouping the students who are being failed in a separate place is insufficient. Re-segregating them is illegitimate and unpromising.

Milwaukee would do better by its black male students (and all others as well) if it paid attention to all the other recommendations from its task force. The reforms would be more difficult to implement, and they would take more time to take hold. The media would pay less attention. But families and children would be better served. The schools might actually realize improvement in the long haul. That's what school boards are supposed to be interested in.

Milwaukee, not so incidentally, is at the center of the nation's second largest program in metropolitan, multi-district school desegregation. In metropolitan Milwaukee, about 6,000 students, most of them black, cross school-district lines daily to attend schools they have chosen and which they help desegregate.

What would the black advocates of separate schools for black males in the city say if the school board in one of the 23 white suburbs in this metro program decided to adopt the city's idea--and created separate schools for the black male students it receives each day from the city?

That's a political question. But the answer is not altogether unrevealing.

Vol. 10, Issue 9, Page 32

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