Yesterday, Moral Monday CT convened a discussion that examined the ideology of white supremacy in education at the Trinity College Liberal Arts Action Lab in downtown Hartford. Put simply, panelists and attendees critiqued the pervasive belief that white people are superior and should dominate all aspects of society.
Panelists included Richard de Meij, a Hartford Public Schools teacher, Michelle McKnight, a Manchester Public Schools teacher, and me. The conversation with audience members ranged from racial segregation, lack of Black and Latina/o teachers, lack of culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy for Black and Latino/a students, problems of educational testing and school choice, and a number of other areas. An especially spirited thread of the discussion focused on magnet schools in Hartford.
As one of panelists, I led the audience through a very, very brief history of magnet schools in Hartford. I brought up the challenges faced by Black and Latino leaders in getting resources for Hartford students in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. As a possible way of thinking about this challenge, I brought up the idea of interest convergence (Bell, 1980), or the idea that Black and Brown progress in civil rights tends to happen when white interests are also served. Well into the 1980s, Hartford was largely on its own when it came to state politics and school funding. Magnets were seen as way to bring white, black, and Puerto Rican interests together across city-town lines, confronting racial isolation of white students as much or more as Black and Puerto Rican students. Magnet had the potential to break the political divisions sustained by town-city lines.
When we got to the open discussion, that’s when things got interesting. Joining our discussion was one of the plaintiffs in the Robinson v. Wentzell case seeking to undue the “race-conscious” magnet system as currently designed. The leadership plaintiff Ms. LaShawn Robinson asked me, “why do you like magnet schools so much? And what would you do if you kid didn’t get into a magnet school?” I only had time to answer the first question, but here was my response as best as I remember it!
First, I clarified that I don’t believe that magnet schools as the only way of delivering equal educational opportunity. But I see magnets as an important tool from a historical lens.
Second, the people that thought to make magnet schools believed that kids of difference races would one day work together and they thought schools would be the place to practice racial integration. I admitted that this might seem a bit “polly-ann-ish,” but it was also the 60s. In other words, magnet schools in Hartford began at a time when people arguably had more hope for this country than they might do now.
Third, by bringing together kids from different towns and cities, magnets can be a tool for bringing white, black, Latino, and Asian interests together. If you believe in the permanence of racism as current Critical Race Theorists and many past leaders of color did, then you view little reason for whites do anything for Black and Latinas/os for greater educational opportunity beyond their own self-interests.
Indeed, whites (and some people of color) in the suburbs can go to their well-resourced and responsive schools, in their neighborhoods, and go to their jobs, then look over at city neighborhoods and underresourced and culturally irrelevant schools as “dysfunctional” or “low-performing” without having to question how things got to be the way they are. As other scholars have noted such Gary Orfield (2013), racial segregation in housing and schools sustains these beliefs of white superiority and limits any interest in doing much about racial inequality.
There might be people that believe in the idea of racial equality, but there needs to be some mechanism for making that reality. The Sheff case made the State of Connecticut spend money on magnet schools and they play a role in bringing disparate interests together in the region. Magnets succeed along some lines, but not others. (For an example of things gone tragically wrong, see the dispossession by the State and Hartford Board of Education of local Batchelder School to give the building to the Montessori Magnet School.)
Finally, I explained that there is nothing stopping the State of Connecticut from making non-magnet schools well-funded, fantastic places for kids and adults to learn and grow. There’s nothing stopping the State from making public schools more culturally relevant and responsive places to kids of color. If the State wants to make all schools fantastic, well-funded, and responsive to people of color, then do it! The Sheff plaintiffs aren’t stopping the State from improve all schools in the cities.
But the State simply won’t do more than the bare minimum as evidenced in the recent Supreme Court decision in the CCJEF case. In addition, recent school reforms such as school turnarounds, “Alliance” District funding, and Common Core have fallen flat. And right now, the current leadership wants to expand privately-managed, publicly-funded, also hyper-segregated charter schools rather than racially-diverse, magnet public schools.
To close the discussion, I raised the question of what will make white people, including the State, interested in Black and Latino progress in schools? If it’s not magnet schools under Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation, then what? If it’s not a lawsuit like the CCJEF school funding case, then what? Right now, the hot, monied interest is in school privatization through charter schools that takes money away from the public school system and even diverts money from charter school students through fees to management companies.
I wondered whether there was an over-emphasis on just changing “hearts and minds”, which may be necessary, but not sufficient for change. What protest, political force, direct action, or legal challenge will force the State and white people in the suburbs and cities into doing anything than the bare minimum offered to many urban schools today?
Notes: The event was organized by Moral Monday CT which is led by Pamela Moore Selders and Bishop John Selders. Jesse Turner, CCSU Professor, also contributed to organization of the event. I’m sorry if I missed other collaborators! Thanks to Moral Monday CT for the forum. Thanks to the audience for sharing their stories and ideas.
This Saturday, 11/17/18, the Sheff Movement will host a conversation on school desegregation entitled, “Integration Matters.” The panel and discussion starts at 10 a.m. and goes until noon. Join us at the 75 Charter Oak Avenue. RSVP here because space is limited.
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.