Published Online: February 12, 1997


Inherently Unequal?

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Do we want our children and granchildren to live in a society symbolized by our American creed? Or do we succumb to the weakest and most selfish parts of our human nature?

Seldom has there been a more auspicious time for school systems to address race issues. In contrast to earlier efforts launched over the past four decades, perhaps, just maybe, some lessons have been learned. This view may seem cloudy and unrealistic given the current heated positions being taken and the many disturbing examples of racially driven actions. Yet often in life, just when it appears that the lowest pit has been reached and little if any hope for progress is possible, things begin to turn around.

Not too long ago, Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King put it this way:

"Exclusively identifying with one another by blood and staying behind the walls of our self-chosen segregation may be the way it is these days, but in the long run is it really a good thing? I think not. ... We have left fertile ground for racial separatists and antisemites, sexists and homophobes to muck around. And they are quietly having the time of their lives."

The motivation to desegregate schools throughout the '60s and '70s has steadily weakened. Many reasons account for this, including politicizing desegregation and the strategies of busing, affirmative action, and curricular revisions. While the country became increasingly divided, the rhetoric heated up, fueled by terms like "forced busing," gerrymandered school zones, and white backlash. Talk show hosts, Rush Limbaugh and others, relished the emotions being stirred, not to mention the profits that were (and still are) building their personal bank accounts. Add to the above the O.J. Simpson trials, the Rodney King incident, skinheads, militia groups, and more than enough examples exist to spark abhorrent action--as indeed they have.

Still, there is opportunity for school districts to recapture the spirit and drive to integration. The words of the 1954 Supreme Court decision still ring true, still make sense: "Separation is inherently unequal."

What other institution has enabled more people to succeed, to realize their dreams, or to make our nation more democratic?

Leadership is needed at all levels. Only now we have reason to be more realistic, pragmatic, and less naive. Let us learn from this history.

Sadly, complex matters are not resolved until crises arrive. Like a neglected tooth, problems "abscess" and eventually demand resolution. And we do have choices that will attract families, regardless of race and ethnicity.

What can be done? We can continue to separate and listen to those, white and black, advocating divisive solutions. Or we can re-examine the demographic changes occurring by taking advantage of different housing patterns that allow more natural accommodation of school desegregation plans. This may work within a particular school district, or it may require metropolitan plans that provide more equity in resources--human and material. With proper planning, this need not destroy local identities and loyalties. Indeed, there is possible enhancement of these traditions.

Principles and values backing desegregation remain morally in tune. They were right and fit the basic sentiments of our most revered documents. But history shows that like machinery, human beings dislike and respond poorly to heavy-handed efforts to make things work.

What have we learned from the past four decades?

  • The degree of racial hatred was underestimated by both blacks and whites--especially whites.
  • School districts by themselves cannot overcome the many obstacles to desegregation. (Remember, only two institutions, the military and the public schools, made the attempt.) Now, other agencies and the private sector must collaborate for their own survival.
  • Plans were primarily developed from the top, but the tough but necessary involvement of communities and other institutions is essential.
  • Busing strategies were based on routes that placed an unfair burden on blacks and minorities. (Political power ensured this.)
  • Court orders were often unrealistic, theoretical, and lacking in sophisticated knowledge of geographic areas.
  • More organized coalitions were needed to combat unfortunate but natural human reactions.
  • Too much faith was given to human understanding of inequality and inequity.

With the ugliness and growing spread of urban decay that now threatens suburbs comes an urgency to address desegregation and the absolute necessity of narrowing the frightening gap between economic classes that is growing. And altruism or affluent beneficence is certainly not the primary motivating factor. The survival of American society and all that our ideals represent are at stake. Do we want our children and grandchildren to live in a society symbolized by our American creed? Or do we succumb to the weakest and most selfish parts of our human nature? The latter will destroy us.

Placing such weight on our public schools may be asking too much. But if one thinks back through our relatively short history as a nation, what other institution has enabled more people to succeed, to realize their dreams, or to make our nation more democratic?

Robert W. Peebles, a retired schools superintendent, is the executive director of the Washington Area School Study Council. He lives in Alexandria, Va.

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