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So let’s just go back to segregation, then.

[Guest blogger Nora here. This is an adaptation of something I posted in my personal blog back in June, in reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent school desegregation decision. Occurred to me it might be of interest to folks here, too.]

After hearing about the latest blow to desegregation, I’m feeling something different from my usual jaded weariness. I’m feeling… really, really pissed.

The bulk of my reaction is this: fuck it. Just let all the schools in the US re-segregate. Black students did better academically before integration anyway. It’s a lot easier to achieve when you’re not bombarded with negative cultural messages and social isolation if you do well. When I was in elementary school, I knew a few black and Latina kids who tested into the gifted program around the same time that I did. Most turned it down. I couldn’t understand why — until the day I walked into my first gifted class and realized I was one of only two people of color there. (There weren’t even any Asians; this was Alabama, remember. Though I hear a good-sized Asian population has developed down there in the twenty years since.) The next year I was the only one; the other kid dropped out. I stayed and did fine — academically, at least. Socially… well, there were consequences. My decision to stay in the gifted program branded me a sellout, because I didn’t do what the other kids had done. I was accused of “trying to be white” and worse. I had no black friends until late middle school. Some of the white kids were friendly, but it was a superficial kind of thing — there were certain things we just couldn’t talk about, and there was some inherent objectification that came with being “the black friend”. I got a lot of “Can I touch your hair?” and “Wow, I didn’t realize black people like to read!” Even for the handful who might’ve become true friends, their parents weren’t all that happy when they brought me home (to be fair, neither was my mother, when I brought white friends home). So while I did well in middle and high school, I often wonder how much better I could’ve done if I hadn’t been a treated like a freakish aberration.

These thoughts are triggered/framed by a book I recently read: Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. Tatum is the president of Spelman, an historically black women’s insitution down in Atlanta that I almost went to. (I got accepted, but they didn’t offer me as much scholarship money as Tulane, so TU it was.) The book basically summarizes racial identity development theory in the context of US education — i.e., the notion that all Americans go through predictable patterns of awareness and internalization about race. The result of the pattern is, effectively, “becoming black”, “becoming white”, or whatever your race is, though white Americans have the option of not recognizing their identity as “whiteness” — they have the privilege of thinking of it as “universal” because white culture is dominant in the US. Anyway, the pattern of development is relatively similar in whites vs peole of color — for example, both start out in a state of racial unawareness. For white people this is a general sense of racelessness — not so much being willfully “colorblind” as simply not noticing people of color as anything other than background noise. For black people (and Tatum does spend some time on Hispanics, Natives, recent immigrants, and Asians, but her expertise is clearly with African-American non-recent-immigrants), the initial state is called pre-encounter — they’re aware of race because it’s impossible to not notice if you’re black in this society, but they haven’t yet experienced any of the consequences of being black.

I learned about racial identity development in grad school, but my study of it was focused on the later stages, more relevant to college students/young adults. By the time they reach 20 or so, most young people are past this initial stage. Tatum’s book illuminated the earlier part of the process for me, and really resonated in the way it described typical patterns of development in early childhood and high school.

For example. The breakdown of the “racially unaware” state for both whites and PoC is usually some kind of triggering event — a sudden, undeniable confrontation with the inequities of race. For PoC, this is usually their first encounter with racism. By the time black kids get to high school, they’re usually in another phase of identity development — immersion, in which they feel compelled to band together with others of their culture in order to survive an environment newly understood to be hostile. This small group then begins developing a collective sense of identity about what it means to be black. This group sense serves as a kind of protective shield until the individual is ready to develop his/her own personal definition of blackness. After that the group definition can safely be shed.

Tatum confronts the unspoken assumption of the “Why are all the black kids sitting together” question, which is “…and what can we do about this problem?” She explains that it isn’t a problem; that after being slapped in the face with the trauma of racism, kids of color need support to recover from that trauma, and the best people to help them do that is other kids who are going through the same thing. This way, they can reject the wrongness of racism and develop needed defenses against it, such as a stronger understanding of their own culture and its benefits. Because most white kids haven’t yet progressed beyond the raceless stage at this point — they typically don’t until closer to college — they’re no help even if they mean well, because their natural reaction is to dismiss or downgrade the traumatic experience (“Are you sure it was because you were black?” or “But I’ve eaten there all the time, and they’ve always been nice to me…” and so on). So the black kids seek solace from each other.

But here’s the thing. Immersion is, in its own way, incredibly superficial. Kids in immersion have no real clue how to be black; they’ve been whacked with a societal interpretation of blackness as “bad”, but they’re not yet sure how to counter that interpretation. So they cobble together their own definition of blackness, drawing on what they know and what society tells them about themselves. If they’ve been exposed to positive knowledge about their culture, they embrace positive manifestations as the norm. But when they’re bombarded with stereotypes and negativity about their culture, they end up embracing that as their standard. This is what I fell afoul of as a child — the kids around me had absorbed the racist notion that black people weren’t smart, were lazy, didn’t “talk proper”, etc. Because I rejected this, I was deemed insufficiently black.

I saw a different example of immersion when I went to college. Tulane was a predominantly white school, but it had a large (for a white school) black population, mostly because New Orleans was majority black and the school accepted a lot of bright local kids. Apparently that population reached a kind of critical mass, because the instant all of us stepped on the yard it was like some kind of racial Singularity — we were somehow all drawn together into a weird gestalt consciousness. There was a series of benches in front of the student center, and this one corner bench suddenly became “the black bench”. Everyone knew it and gathered there between classes. In the cafeteria — yeah, it happened in college too — one black person couldn’t just sit by herself. It was as if her solitude triggered some kind of disturbance in the Force; suddenly a dozen other black people would just appear and come sit with her. One time I was walking through the experimental psych building, humming “Summertime” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and I heard the same humming from the labs on either side of me, and two other black students poked their heads out and said something like, “Whoa, I was just thinking of that song.” And they became my study partners.

I swear this is true. It sounds creepy as all hell now that I think about it, but it was also kind of cool. =)

Most of these other black students had come from the same background as me — these were the smart ones of their respective high schools, the isolated achievers, the geeks whose blackness had been questioned as incompatible with their interests and drives. So naturally when this subculture formed at TU, it incorporated “smartness” as one of its defining norms. Suddenly for the first time in my life I was pressured to achieve by other black people (besides my parents). Whenever there was more than one black person in a large class, it was understood that we would sit on the front row, where we could not be overlooked by the professor, and where we would feel compelled to ask questions and pay attention. For those like me who drifted toward liberal arts majors, there was heavy pressure to shunt into the sciences — so heavy that I strongly flirted with it for my first year. (Didn’t, though. Glad I didn’t — I’m happy with my current dayjob career — but sometimes I do wonder.)

Better still, there was reinforcement of other “norms of blackness” that were equally positive. Social-consciousness rap was OK, misogynistic rap was not. It was OK to do geeky shit like roleplaying, video gaming, and watching anime, because so many of us liked to do these things that we couldn’t label it non-black. Also, activism was strongly encouraged. It wasn’t enough to be black, we had to prove our worthiness to be black through political action. So I did things like organize a voter-registration drive at the Million Man March, and ran a school lecture series on Afrocentric interpretations of history.

This was just as superficial as the immersion shown by the kids in high school, note. I didn’t even know what Afrocentrism was before I started working on that festival. We were still trying on different ways to be black. We defined blackness by deeds and adherence to the group norms, not in an internalized, personally-defined sense. But a group norm which says “black people must be high achievers and politically active” is soooo much better than a norm which says “black people aren’t supposed to achieve or appear intelligent”.

Here’s the thing. Tatum makes the point that what I experienced at Tulane is common in HBCUs like Spelman, and in other environments in which a sufficiently large population of black students come together and are encouraged to positively express their blackness. This kind of thing used to be common, in fact, before integration. Once upon a time, academic achievement was as much a cultural ethic in the black community as it still is in the Jewish and some Asian communities. (Note that this hasn’t faded in more recent African immigrant communities, either.) It’s the sense of community that’s key. Many Asian communities seem to achieve this through the reinforcement of the extended family; many Jewish communities do the same, plus stuff like Hebrew school. But when integration ended, black communities fragmented; we stopped living in black neighborhoods, stopped patronizing black businesses. Black families, already fragile, fragmented as well, for a whole other set of reasons that’s a different rant for a different day. But perhaps the greatest loss was black schools, because that meant a whole generation of black children — my generation, and the ones just before and just after — grew up with no clear sense of who they were or what they were capable of.

Tatum doesn’t suggest resegregation, note. She believes that it’s possible to create a positive community environment for students of color (and white students too) within any educational environment through the use of inclusive policies, multicultural curricula. i.e., The more all students are exposed to nonwhite positive achievements and role models, the more quickly those students will form positive perceptions of themselves and other races.

But as the systematic dismantling of Affirmative Action, school desegregation, multiculturalism, etc., have shown in recent years, Tatum’s approach may be a pipe dream. There’s simply too much political and social will arrayed against this — everything from threatened white guys hollering “reverse racism”, to the most dangerous kind of racist, the outspoken “intellectual” who would rather hum loudly and hope racism goes away. These people can’t commit to the necessary positive community-building; they can barely even acknowledge that a community needs to be built. So given all this, I can’t honestly blame the white parents who don’t want their kids to go to school with kids of color. If all I knew about black kids was what society and the media told me, I wouldn’t want my kids going to school with them either. Obviously the Supreme Court agrees.

So fine. Fuck ’em. Let those white parents take their kids off to nice well-resourced schools. Let them leave the kids of color (and the white kids too poor to get away) in the run-down underfunded schools. Let segregation return. It certainly can’t hurt people of color any more — and it may very well have a positive impact. Either way, I’m sick of this backhanded bullshit: diversity but not too much diversity, equality but only if my taxes don’t pay for it, opportunity but only if my kid gets into Yale first, end racism but only if we don’t talk about race. Either we all need to be in on the effort to improve our society, or we just need to go back to the days when each group did its own thing.

::takes deep, calming breath::

Okay. I’m not seriously advocating an end to integration. Too many people, black and allies, have shed too much blood to get this far. And there’s lots of evidence to show that Tatum’s model of education does work — I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. It just takes time, money, and persistence. We’re beginning to understand now just how dangerous it is to leave children isolated and ignorant about their own and other cultures; Tatum and other educators like her are doing something about it. But with this Supreme Court decision, once again I have been confronted with the greater American society’s unwillingness to do what’s necessary to solve a problem, and I won’t pretend not to be angry — furious — incandescent with rage — about it. I’m furious with this country as a whole; we’re weak, weak and pathetic, if we give up on the effort to solve these problems. I’m furious with our national leaders and media personae, who’ve turned our children’s future into sensationalist rhetoric to get votes and ratings.

But I think maybe I’m feeling especially angry with myself, because I can’t think of what to do about this. And I have to do something, even if it’s just something small. Even if it’s just blogging about it. My parents fought dogs and firehoses and corrupt police to get me the education I got, flawed as it was. I can’t stand idle while evil people dismantle it, or turn it into something even more flawed.


It is my hope that those of you reading this who are parents will take action to protect your children’s future. Hell, those of you who aren’t parents too, if you can. For my own part, I haven’t registered to vote since moving to NYC. It seems I can do that at the library, so I’ll head there on Saturday. I haven’t gotten involved with the local Big Sisters’ — I actually did submit an application back in February when I first moved here, but no one’s called me. I think I’ll get pushy and go to their offices sometime next week. Or maybe I’ll try the Girl Scouts; maybe I can become a troop leader in my (predominantly black) neighborhood. God knows what kind of role model I’ll make, but what the hell. I’ve got to do what I can. [7/18 insertion: it looks like I’m going to be volunteering for the FIRST Robotics competition instead — still waiting to see. I hope it works out; I would love to be able to inspire more young black geeks!]

You should, too.

36 thoughts on “So let’s just go back to segregation, then.”

  1. Mandolin says:

    This is brilliant, N.K — beautifully written and, for me, a really different way of looking at these racialized group dynamics.

    As a non-practicing Jew, I can sort of see myself in the part of the article that talks about Judaism. It’s interesting to think about how some of my experiences in Junior High, and later college, involved belonging to groups of Jews and pulling on those positive stereotypes of ethnic Jews. In college, the idea of Jews seemed to be, “Smart, well-read, articulate, and politically active in favor of Israel,” that latter characteristic often manifesting as problematic, of course.

  2. rashad says:

    very awesome. i exp. the same thing in school all the way up to junior. the black kids shunned me cause i was too smart and while the white kids did accept me, it came at a horrible price, the whole “you’re not like the other monkeys” thing kept coming up. so by eighth grade i didn’t hang out with neither group.

    in high school i moved to new orleans and went to faith christian academy,(maybe you heard of it while you were there) and by some case of coincidental magic, my class ended up very diverse. there were whites, indians, vietnamese and blacks all lumped together. that drastically changed my view on race relations cause we all hung out and were pretty close, even now. of course we were considered the rebel class because of our unity and outspokenness but it was a great time, that makes me think unity can be achieved if we fight for it.

  3. M. says:

    This is far and away the most brilliant article I’ve read on the subject.

  4. the Omphaloskeptic says:

    This is a wonderful essay, just thank you.

  5. SakuraPassion says:

    Wonderful post!
    I’ve also read Tatum’s book and it gives insight into different definitions of racism. I also understand where you’re coming from. When I was in high school, I was also shunned by the black students because I talked “proper.” Because I’ve encountered many black students who believe the stereotypes about black people. Isn’t this what you would call internalized oppression? I would say it is.

    It also makes me angry when I hear someone say “affirmative action is just reverse racism.” When people say this they follow up with the question “why should a minority who is unqualified get a job because they’re a minority?” There are many things wrong this, because people assume that when a minority gets a job they assume that they’re less qualified. That tells me that people believe the stereotypes that minorities aren’t smart enough to do certain jobs.

    Anyways, I don’t want to seem like I’m ranting, but I liked your post and I understand how you feel.

  6. sassywho says:

    I second this, i found the bits in between the spaces more interesting and compelling rather than a call for resegregation.

  7. farah says:

    A splendid post.

    Just wanted to add that a lot of Black teachers lost their jobs as a consequence of integration. Ostensibly because they were “poorly qualified”.

    Even when jobs are granted in an utterly “fair” way (is there such a thing?) The feeling of PoC kids that “the majority of teachers are always white” is not going to be dissipated.

  8. transgressingengineer says:

    Nora… wow. Great post- you managed to capture what I have been feeling since the day I heard the Supreme Court’s decision and sat in stunned silence for 30 minutes. While I sat in silence and reflected, what bothered me the most was that little voice inside of my head kept repeating, ‘why am I surprised by this ruling?’ The fact is that all too often those who are out to fight the good fight are getting beaten down at every turn in the road.

    I do agree that we each need to keep fighting that fight, though. My part of this is through my dissertation. I did go into the sciences- I’m an industrial engineer. Within this discipline, I look at how to organize and create organizations to better fit people rather than try to force people to fit into already existing organizations. My dissertation, specifically, looks at why there is an overrepresentation of white male engineering professors in my college of engineering (at a research institution) by examing how these white male engineering faculty make meaning of their whiteness and how that affects the racial climate of the college of engineering. Eventually, I would hope this work could provide a framework to create a racial climate that is a fit for everyone and excludes no one, thus increasing the racial diversity within the college of engineering and the engineering discipline. I find this work compelling, but am told every step of the way by someone (usually a white male faculty) that my work is not engineering nor is it an issue that needs to be addressed. So, here’s the million dollar question…. how do those of us fighting the good fight stay energized, especially when we live in a hostile environment? How does one not get burned out?

    As a side note, I heard Tatum speak at a conference I went to a year an a half ago (National Conference on Race and Pedagogy)- she was brilliant. She does have a new book out as well that I just got my hands on two days ago- “Can we talk about race? And other conversations in an era of school resegregation.” It’s a short book, but looks to be a good read from my glance at the table of contents.

    Also, Nora, what is the URL of your blog? After reading this post, I MUST start reading other things you have written.

  9. BetaCandy says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    I don’t know what the answer is, either. I attended a high school in TN that had 1300 kids, and I swear maybe 12 of them were black and other races were even less represented. It seemed to me legal segregation had simply been replaced by an economic version of it – school districts carefully arranged to keep poor and rich kids separate, which in that place and time, matched up fairly well with keeping white kids and kids of color separate.

    (After I left, the district lines changed some and I believe that situation improved, which is hopeful.)

    On the one hand, insulated white kids aren’t going to learn to appreciate kids of color if they aren’t exposed to them. Especially if their families engage in active stereotyping (which exposure often belies, leading a kid to question everything they’ve been told about another race).

    On the other hand, integration – at least the way we went about it – broke down the “other” community’s internal support system.

    It’s disheartening, because every solution I’ve heard of or thought of creates a lot of problems without any guarantee it’ll solve any problems.

  10. Angel H. says:

    The Klan rally let out early, I see…

  11. nojojojo says:

    Nuthatch, more likely. I’ll take care of it.

  12. angrychildoftheangryblackwoman says:


    i’m totally speechless. i would love your blog so i can read more of what you right about.


  13. nojojojo says:

    Oh, sorry — thought I’d linked it already. But note that my blog is mostly about my writing and general life stuff; I try not to talk about politics or anything else there, or at least not much. =)

  14. Alexander says:

    Brilliant essay. Absolutely brilliant.

  15. Blanky says:

    The trouble is it’ll promote even more hatred and misunderstanding from rich whites and rich asians (whom the “richer” schools will likely be made out of) towards poor blahispanics.

    But you don’t give the youth–kids who haven’t graduated high school yet–enough credit.

    It could be my school, where blacks don’t sit alone. They sit with whites and east asians.

  16. Morris says:

    Great Article!

    I’m shocked and saddened by the similarities of our past. Had this book been written and given out to the expecting parents of children color I wonder what images would be reflected in our communities today? I felt myself wanting to say AMEN, whilst reading this article. Good work. On another note a while back I was feeling similarly disenchanted with the state of the Black community (I live in Los Angeles) and wanted to ‘re-connect’ somehow, so I became a mentor. It was a great and very worthwhile experience. I mentored an eleven year-old girl awarded to the state and living at a group home. I continued this relationship for more than a year. Unfortunately, our friendship was cut short when she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and needed more institutionalized care. This disease is normally diagnosed in people at an older age but she was predisposed to the disease because of her family history. Despite the inherent difficulties of undiagnosed mental defiencies, it was still something I am very proud I did. A price has been paid by ancestors of all colors. If we do anything positive with our lives, it helps repay the debt we owe to them. Even if its only stringing together a few words that motivate just a handful of us. History has given us the lesson that all you really need is a handful of very pissed off people to bring about change!!

    Thanks again for the post.

  17. Mandolin says:

    Manual trackback:

    Brilliant Post by Nora on the Angry Black Woman Blog at Alas, a Blog

    “Nora, who writes science fiction and fantasy under the psuedonym N. K. Jemisin, is guest blogging at the Angry Black Woman blog. (Readers may be interested to know that Nora has a story in the all female-authored issue of Helix that I wrote about a few days ago.)

    Nora writes about the recent supreme court blows against desegregation. She looks at segregation through a lens rarely discussed…”

  18. Mandolin says:

    Oh, well, feh. So it automatic trackbacked for me. Goody two shoes blogging software. ;)

  19. Rachel S. says:

    Nora, I read this a few days ago, and I wanted to respond to an important misperception in your post. You said, “Black students did better academically before integration anyway. It’s a lot easier to achieve when you’re not bombarded with negative cultural messages and social isolation if you do well.”

    I suppose this is depends on how you measure doing well. But overall, Black students are doing much better than they did in the preintegration era. Black literacy is at an all time high, and gap between black high school graduation rates and white HS graduation rates has narrowed significantly. The poverty gap has also diminished significantly, which is partly related to improved educational opportunities for black students.

    This is not to dimiss the identity issues and stereotyping that arises for black students in predominantly white environments (and predominantly black environments). One area where historically black colleges do better than white colleges is graduation rates, and that has been attributed to several of the issues mentioned above, but overall black students academic achievement has improved significantly since integration.

  20. NancyP says:

    Outstanding post, NK. And commenters, you too are interesting.

    Can anyone cite statistics on % of HBCU grads, versus black non-HBCU grads, who go on to take professional or graduate degrees?

    I ask, because there is a somewhat parallel situation in regards to women in higher education in the 1920s to 1950s, when women’s access to coed public higher education became more widespread. Women’s colleges, particularly the selective ones (7 sisters), had a much higher percentage of graduates go on to take professional or graduate degrees than did the large public universities. I don’t know how much of that was due to economics, how much due to institution size, and how much was due to increased support and academic expectations at women’s colleges.

  21. nojojojo says:


    I don’t know the statistics, but I’ll browse around and see if I can find anything.

    I’m not sure that’s a good measure to look at, though, because until recently many HBCUs were practical schools, purposefully not aimed at getting students to higher degrees. The idea was that freed/former slaves needed practical skills to help themselves and their community. I think Tuskeegee Institute (now University) started out with that philosophy, though they’ve changed since. And many of the early HBCUs were teachers’ colleges. (Even now there’s a heavy tendency for African Americans who get graduate degrees to go into education-related fields, just out of cultural tradition. There was an article in a recent CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION about how these students are going heavily into debt now, because they’re racking up the student loans but going into low-paying fields. — Crap, I can’t link it because the site is passworded. It’s in the September 22, 2006 edition, titled “As the Volume of Private Loans Soars, Students Feel the Pinch”.)

    So it might be useful to look at that, but only at HBCUs which have historically aimed for postgraduate education. Might also be useful to look at 4-year retention rates — i.e., how many students who start at the school as freshmen actually graduate in 4 years without dropping out?

  22. nojojojo says:

    Rachel S,

    You raise a good point. I have no doubt that some things have improved in education for black students since integration; if it had been a total failure it would’ve fallen apart before now. But I think what most concerns me is the change in *attitudes* among black students, and how that may have kept things from improving as much as they could have. I have no statistics on this, but as a black geek I hear tale after tale among my fellow black geeks that they were considered “not black” or “not black enough” in primary/secondary school. As an educator I’ve encountered countless bright black students who have underachieved because they think there’s something *wrong* with achievement. That attitude didn’t exist in my parents’ day.

    The thing that always gets thrown into our faces is college admissions (performance on standardized tests in particular), and the fact that African American non-immigrant students don’t do as well as Asian Americans or recent immigrants. But you’re right — it’s not all about getting into college, and maybe more attention should be given to what’s gone *right* with integration than what’s gone wrong.

  23. Deoridhe says:

    I’ve been reading this every few days since you posted it. I still don’t have anything intelligent to say. Sometimes I think all the little pieces of the world will drive me insane. All I can really say, even now, is thank you, once again, for giving my brain a new way to see the world that isn’t mine. It’s not your job, but I’m very grateful you’re doing it in public so I can benefit.

  24. Rachel S. says:

    That’s a fair point about HBCUs. I think they do better at retention and graduation. What you seem to be getting at returns to college education? In otherwords, does a degree espcially a more Booker T. Washington oriented technical degree lead to higher earnings and increased opportunities. Additionally, are Black students being steered into certain areas–i.e. social services education, or other lower paying degrees, and does that vary by HBCU vs. Historically white colleges? I think the steering is happening in the white schools, possible more, but the HBCUs are more limited in their degreee offerings (many of them are in terrible financial condition, and they have seen declining enrollments with integration). It would be useful to compare returns to education at a A&T type school to a Fisk, Howard, Spellman type school.

  25. MsRebecca says:

    Very well written article..
    Thank you for your contribution

  26. Rachel S. says:

    You said, “But I think what most concerns me is the change in *attitudes* among black students, and how that may have kept things from improving as much as they could have. I have no statistics on this, but as a black geek I hear tale after tale among my fellow black geeks that they were considered “not black” or “not black enough” in primary/secondary school. As an educator I’ve encountered countless bright black students who have underachieved because they think there’s something *wrong* with achievement. That attitude didn’t exist in my parents’ day.”

    A few things about the acting white hypothesis that you are discussing here. The findings on this are not as clear cut as the mainstream media would have us believe. The qualitative studies find that this is a real phenomenon, but they are not able to clearly connect it to lower achievement.

    The vast majority of studies find that black students have aspirations equal to or greater than white students. So I don’t think there is any widespread problem with black students dumbing themselves down.

    I tend to see the accusations of acting white as extending well beyond academic achievement. It is either a way to say a black person is uncool/unhip or sometimes it seems to be thrown around in a fit of jealousy. I think high achieving black kids sometimes get labeled acting white because of jealous reactions from their less successful peers–the jealousy becomes racialized. Smart, nerdy white kids are made fun of too, but it doesn’t get racialized. But there are numerous other contexts when a black person gets labeled acting white–they can’t/don’t dance, they speak with a stereotypical white accent, they have only white friends, they grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood, they dye their hair blonde, they have anti-black attitudes. I’m not defending it, but just pointing out that it is way broader than academic achievement, and the public discourse misses that.

  27. Blackwomb says:

    I’m late coming into this discussion, but I just wanted to add a few points on “acting white.” This has to do with racial performativity going back to 19th century when the rules/social customs for whiteness and blackness were being defined, specifically in regards to literacy. It has since then expanded to include the various ways we “perform” race. If you are interested: “Acting White- Response to Paula Zahn Now” at (Feb.07)


  28. nojojojo says:

    OK, very very very belated, because I went on vacation for awhile, a response to Rachel. And because I’m a freak, =P I did some reading while I was on vacation so I could respond coherently.

    There’s a lot in your comments, Rachel, so I’m going to focus on what seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) to be the core: *are* black students worse-off now than they were before integration?

    It’s a really tough question to answer because I don’t know where or how to find info on achievement before integration. That was part of the problem — black schools in those days were so under-resourced that I doubt anyone tried to collect such data, or analyze it. (To be fair, I’m not sure that kind of thing was done for white schools either; that was kind of before our current “assessment”-obsessed paradigm.) So I don’t know what black HS graduation rates, or literacy rates, were back then. I think you’re probably right in that those rates have been improving in recent years, which is good, and that integration provided black students with a heck of a lot more access to resources than they got before. I read Beverly Tatum’s new book, CAN WE TALK ABOUT RACE?, and she cites a few figures to illustrate how bad it used to be. Citing another book (Clotfelter’s AFTER BROWN: THE RISE AND RETREAT OF SCHOOL DESEGREGATION, 2004, currently on my “hold” list at the library), she mentions that in 1945 in Mississippi, there were over 2000 old-fashioned one-room, one-teacher schools, and 95% of the black students in the state were in them. 54% of the white teachers in that state were college grads, but only 10% of the black teachers were. In Durham, NC, in 1950, most white schools had gyms and art and music rooms. No black schools did. Of the two high schools in Durham at the time, the white one had 136 pieces of lab equipment and the black school had 21.

    So yes, in terms of resources, teacher training, equipment, etc., integration benefitted black students greatly; I think that’s undeniable. It’s also almost certain that academic achievement has improved in several respects since then — though a lot of that is simply because American society has changed in so many ways since then. More of us *need* to graduate from high school now, since you can no longer get by without at least a GED or diploma. More of us *need* to be literate, since we’re now an information/service-based economy instead of a manufacturing/farming one.

    It’s also clear that there have been gains in the most recent couple of decades — though again, it’s hard to say what this is attributable to. The achievement gap has been closing since the 1980s — but a lot of that is affected by changes in housing patterns and general economic improvement since the 80s. Back in the 80s blacks were disproportionately concentrated in cities due to white flight; those cities were poor because the white folks took a lot of income and property tax revenue with them; and the national economy was so sucky that all schools in poor districts suffered (wealthy districts could afford to take care of their own needs, but poorer districts relied more on federal funding, which was sorely lacking). I can remember when New York City was pretty much bankrupt, during my childhood here in the 70s. Most of the schools here suffered as a result — under-resourced, with unsafe facilities, and violent due to the crack epidemic and widespread poverty… it hit predominantly-black and -Latin@ schools harder, but *all* the schools in the city were pretty bad back then. And all of this is a far cry from the New York I live in now, which is run by a billionaire and is rapidly becoming a playground of the wealthy, too rich for the poor to stay in.

    So have there been improvements post-integration? Obviously, yes. But are those improvements *due* to integration? That’s a tougher call. The improvements could just be because we’ve become a wealthier, more economically stable, better-educated country overall since then.

    So I’ll focus on the thing that concerns me most: the achievement gap you mention. Black and Latin@ students graduate from HS less often than white and Asian students; B&Ls get into college less often, and into community colleges (as opposed to 4-year schools) at a disproportional rate. This is partly because *poor* kids go to community college at a disproportional rate — got this one from Tamara Draut’s STRAPPED: WHY AMERICA’S 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS CAN’T GET AHEAD, which looks at how the middle and lower class has been increasingly blocked from access to wealth over the past 20 years. (Good book.) And the kicker: high school exit exams and SAT scores, which have pretty much become the standard by which our K-12 educational system is judged. I remember reading Herrnstein & Murray’s THE BELL CURVE a few years ago, in which they argued that B&L kids did more poorly on standardized tests because, basically, they’re not as smart. (It was couched in a lot of rationalization about cultural differences, but that was pretty much the size of it.) This touches directly on something that I mentioned before — black students’ attitudes toward achievement. I think this is where we’ve seen the biggest loss since integration, and here’s where Tatum’s recent book is especially helpful.

    For one thing, she dissects the racist roots of our cultural attitude toward intelligence. Digression — I can remember recently having a convo with a mainland Chinese friend who’s a hardcore mathematician doing research in a Wall Street corporation (for a six-figure salary). We were talking about the whole “girls can’t do math” ideology. She raised an interesting point — during her childhood in Shanghai, she was always told by her family to “get smarter” (emphasis mine). There was no sense of innate abilities or intelligence; the assumption was that if you weren’t good at something, it was because you weren’t trying hard enough or weren’t learning it right. She said she was amazed to come to America and meet so many people who labeled themselves as “not smart” or who dismissed their own abilities as some kind of finite, unchangeable thing — “people like me aren’t good at stuff like this”, end of story, Q.E.D., no need to keep trying. She said her family would’ve considered this kind of thinking preposterous.

    Tatum pretty much takes the same line on the subject. She points out that this philosophy of intelligence — that it is hereditary and unchangeable — is uniquely American, and that it’s been largely shaped by the eugenics movement, which had a vested interest in labeling certain ethnic groups as mentally deficient or superior. For example, she describes how early social scientists used the first IQ tests — which were designed by a Frenchman named Binet who explicitly warned that they should *not* be used as the sole measure of intelligence, and that they be used as a signifier of intelligence *at that point in a person’s life* (Binet believed that intelligence could improve over the course of time; he designed the test for the sole purpose of early-identifying kids who might need extra help to improve). But an American named Goddard used the test — and nothing but the test — as the core of a new screening process for Ellis Island immigrants, to weed out the “mentally defective” who might weaken the American gene pool. In 1912, Goddard’s team identified 83% of Jews, 87% of Russians, 80% of Hungarians, and 79% of Italians as “feeble-minded”. They were deported as a result.

    Hmm. This is getting long, and I don’t think WordPress does autosaves. Gonna break this up.

  29. nojojojo says:

    Ohhhkay. Also gonna wrap this up; didn’t mean to get so long-winded.

    Anyway, so this kind of thinking has been reinforced again and again over time by racist and politically-motivated “scientists” who have either tailored the data to fit their preconceived notions (a big no-no in social research, not-so-ironically called bias), ignored data which contradicts those notions, or fabricated data out of whole cloth. (Seriously. The one who pulled that stunt was a prominent British researcher, so it wasn’t just us Americans.) But here’s the thing: when later researchers repeated the same experiments without bias, the data actually suggest very little connection between heredity and intelligence. Genetics is one of the factors involved, yes, but so are a smorgasbord of “environmental factors”, like proper nutrition, access to resources, challenge and stimulation, and so on. In other words, intelligence is *not* fixed, and *not* linked in any way to race.

    But our (US) kids believe otherwise. Heck, most US adults believe otherwise. We believe that you’re either smart or you’re not, and that if you’re not you never will be. Tatum cites a number of key studies which show that when children *believe* they’re smart, they do well in school. When they don’t believe it, they do poorly.

    So here’s the problem. Those of us who have been historically stigmatized by race in this country are encouraged to believe that we’re not smart. With effort, we can shake off this belief; this is why creating an identity-affirming, positive environtment is so crucial for students of color. Before integration, this task was fulfilled by black teachers, and also by the pre-integration black community where doctors and lawyers and scientists lived right alongside plumbers and janitors. The mentors were there, the encouragement was there, the examples of successful achievement were there.

    After integration, most black teachers and school administrators lost their jobs, replaced by (primarily) white females. Tatum says the mismatch was worst in urban school districts, where currently students of color make up 76% of the population — and about 76% of the teachers are white women. I am in no way suggesting that all or even most of those teachers are racists — but a whole heck of a lot of them, particularly right after integration, were. And even the most well-meaning of the rest probably weren’t prepared to deal with students of color; teacher education programs didn’t start examining things like racial identity development or diversity training until the 70s. So what happens when a white teacher, whose sole exposure to blacks has come through the media, who has probably absorbed the quintessential racist notion that blacks and Latin@s are mentally inferior, and who may never have confronted her own white privilege, teaches a class full of black and Latin@ students? In short, the teachers don’t expect much of the students and don’t try very hard to teach them. Moreover, the students pick up on the teacher’s disengagement or hostility — and usually they pick up on *why*, too — and react by rebelling against her and anything she’s trying to teach.

    (Note: I’m excluding Asians in this instance because Tatum notes they have a different problem — the model minority stereotype. They’re assumed to be inherently smart — and so teachers ignore them, thinking they never need help.)

    Tatum cites some really powerful anecdotes here to illustrate the problem, and a couple of devastating (to me) studies. The one that really jumps out at me is a series of studies by social psychologist Claude Steele, conducted in the late 1990s/early 2000s, illustrating something he calls “stereotype threat”. In one experiment at Stanford, the researchers took high-achieving black and white students matched them in pairs by SAT score. Then they put each pair into a stressful standardized testing situation and told the students it was a “diagnostic” of their intellectual ability. The white students outperformed the black students. Then Steele gave the same test to a new group with a different set of instructions, explaining that it wasn’t meant to measure intellectual ability, just a survey of their problem-solving skills. Under this condition, the black and white students performed equally well.

    What the researchers eventually concluded (after repeating the test many times in different variations) was that when tested on something “stereotype-related”, students experienced greater anxiety and performed more slowly (which on a standardized test means finishing fewer questions, and a lower score). For example, the students reread the questions and rechecked their answers more often on the “intellectual” version of the test than on the “non-intellectual” version. This led Steele to believe that they were conscious of the “blacks aren’t smart” stereotype, and were literally trying harder — too hard, considering it had a negative impact — to prove themselves. The disparity got even worse when, prior to the test, the students checked off a box indicating their racial group membership. When there was no checkbox, or when the box came after the test, the black students performed better.

    (Similar studies have been performed with women, BTW, re gendered stereotypes on math performance.)

    OK. So getting back to the point: *are* black students worse-off now than they were before integration? In terms of material resources, no, they’re way better off now. In terms of certain measures of achievement, like literacy and high school graduation and college attendance, they’re way better off now. (But so are all American students, regardless of race.) In terms of less-quantifiable measures of achievement — no, I don’t think black students are better-off now. I think it’s a lot *harder* now for black students succeed in spite of racism, because they’ve lost a crucial weapon: a supportive environment. Not across the board, of course; some schools are better than others, some teachers are better than others, sometimes the lack is made up by family and/or subculture (for example in the case of African immigrant families, who are performing just as well as whites by some academic measures — I hate citing Wikipedia but this is where I first saw it). But in general, I think it’s harder now for black students to succeed academically. They’ve exchanged the overt racism of segregation — which was easy to fight, relatively speaking — for the more insidious subtle racism of integration, which takes a much heavier toll on the mind. And in the context of education, I think that toll is manifesting in the form of the racial performance gap on standardized tests, a gap in college attendance and quality of college attended (*Tatum notes that in a survey of 25 “selective” colleges in ’98, black students averaged only 7% of the population), and probably a whole lot of other measures as well. Overall, I believe the greater racism students of color have endured since integration has retarded their progress. They might be doing better, but if not for racism they’d be doing *much* better. That so many *do* succeed under these conditions is a real testament to those students, IMO.

    And let me reiterate — I am *not* advocating a return to segregation. I think that overall, we’re *all* better off for the chance to interact with other cultures, regardless of race. But it’s clear that whatever we (African-Americans, I mean in this case) may have gained materially, we lost even more psychologically when we gave up the support system that once existed in black schools. I still think integration is worth that price, but we must acknowledge that the price is being paid.


  30. Janis says:

    I know this is an old post, but I had to note this — this is eerily similar to the experience of deaf people in education as well, and what a disaster mainstreaming has been for them as well, when TPTB at a given institution try to pretend that differences don’t exist, or try to make them go away by simply wishing hard instead of thinking that maybe judicious black/deaf/woman-only spaces are a good thing in a world where you are considered subhuman or the possessor of a broken brain just for existing.

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  33. Adam Sheehan says:


    There are some other good resources that shed light on what has been discussed.

    “Savage Inequalities” by Jonathan Kozol. (1989)

    “Showing My Color: Impolite Essays on Race and Identity” by Clarence Page. (1996)

    These two books contain some profound insights on the educational and racial climate in the U.S. One from educator, the

    As for that Supreme Court ruling, I have been puzzled by it for months – the majority opinion actually cited Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) in support of their decision.

    Thank you for permitting me to enter comments.

    Southside (Chicago) Iron Irishman,


  34. Adam Sheehan says:

    Excuse me, I did not complete one of my sentences as my phone rang while typing.

    I meant to say that one book offers the perspective of an educator, the other, a journalist.


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  37. frodo441 says:

    There is no better example of the duality of social life that exists in society than in the conflict of the African American. While American society prided itself on the order theory of society, conflict arose when the African American community began to organize itself and reclaim the civil rights that had been taken away in 1895. Conflict in the sense that societies institutions have evolved resistant to change because change is uncertain. The conflict theory of society posits change as constantly in flux compared to the order theory of society which premis is tha change must be an orderlty process. Social mores are good examplles of the divisions that wexist iun society that lead to societal constraints. The order theorists would dsuggest that barriers in society serve a pyurpose toward efficient operation of the functions within society. The conflict theorist s believe that change is a constant and is endemic to all societies. The result is sycretism which exists to manifest change in society.

    The synthesis of the divisions which exists in society result in segmentation which leads to stratification of society. For example, the specialization of labor results in further segmentation according to the size of a population in that it structures categories of people. Another division that exists in society is that of race. Race is a quintessentioal aspect of the cdivision tha have come to haollmark society. The sybtgesis approach to the order and conflict theories of society seeks to amalgamat e the various constituenceis into a synergistic whole. Interdependence is achieved with the realization the no one group is entirlely self sufficient. The conflict model manintains that change is an ubiquitous process which is the basis for the belief that conflict is endemic to all organizations.

    In the world of order theorists the course with the segregationists began the segmentation of re gentrification.

    The decision to make a moderately calibrated rate of change can only aggregate the situation of the process of syncretism. Conflict is manifested as a blockage in the demirge and chaos ensues.

    To not act upon the inclination to the concept of equality…the polarization of public opinion would be self evident…stagnated and homogenized.

  38. Katie says:

    Wow. No offense, frodo, but you need to cut back on the jargon.

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