MAXWELL:  REALITY AND IDEALS COLLIDE ON INTEGRATION
10/25/2007 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
I wrote a column a few weeks ago about the controversy surrounding the Pinellas County School Board student assignment plan. In light of a St. Petersburg Times article last Sunday reporting the results of a survey the newspaper conducted, I am writing about the issue again.
My intention is not to offer remedies, simply to reflect.
As a black person born and reared in the racist South, who attended public schools in this region’s so-called separate-but-equal public school system, who graduated from a historically black college in the South and whose two children attended integrated Southern schools, I have no illusions.
Sometimes I marvel at our nearly three-decades-old struggle with court-ordered – “forced” – school integration. And like 70 percent of the 604 black and white Pinellas parents recently polled by the St. Petersburg Times on this matter, I believe that the racial makeup of a school is less important than the academic quality of the school.
If mostly black schools in the black community have the same resources as mostly white schools in the white community, the goal in all schools should be excellent instruction and effective learning. Some people believe, of course, that integration – at whatever economic and social cost – is essential to operating our public schools.
I am convinced that the idea of integration is so hard-wired into our individual and shared concept of what it means to be American, many of us have great difficulty contemplating the reality that the overwhelming majority of us discriminate as a natural part of our lives.
All of our “old parchments,” our most cherished documents – the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act – specify our irrevocable rights and privileges as individuals, thus defining us as a people.
Given the spirit of these documents, the concept of human equality underpins our sense of our national character. Few of us, I suspect, can identify the exact moment we became aware of being an American. It just happens: You automatically recite the Pledge of Allegiance each school day morning. You sing America the Beautifuland God Bless America and the national anthem without thinking.
When most of us hear of or see blatantly harmful discrimination, we recoil. Such acts violate our ideals of justice and equality.
But we cannot live by ideals alone.
The messy realities of day-to-day needs, desires and natural encounters and preferences control our actions, meaning that we discriminate after all. The neighborhoods where we choose to live define us, often determining where our children attend school, if we have such a choice.
Some of us easily accept this discriminating side of ourselves. Others do not. A concerned, thoughtful reader weighed in on the issue by e-mail:
“It is easy to say that integration works when in reality, it is one of our greatest struggles. We first have to acknowledge the inconsistencies and conflicts in our behavior versus our beliefs in order to ever address the race issue. … We can hardly bring ourselves to state there is a difference between blacks and whites. … Our instantaneous observation of skin tone is as natural as our instantaneous notice of the different shades of green outside.
“What we morally struggle with is our assessment of these differences and our behaviors regarding this information. We have to address how and what resources we use to develop ourselves as human beings and be aware of our thoughts and behaviors that are not necessarily warranted by the person in front of us.”
Like this reader, I do not have definitive answers to the crises facing our School Board. I do know, however, that despite the many good things noted researchers tout about integration, the days of “forced” integration are gone, probably forever.
As such, the time has come for Plan B: We need to focus on quality, equal resources and inculcating parental responsibility.