Education Dreams and Nightmares of Bill White and Ray Black
|There is substantial agreement in the views of African Americans and whites regarding the public schools. There are also significant differences that must be talked about and bridged. A beginning point is for African Americans and whites to develop a better understanding of their respective hopes and concerns regarding schools for their children.|
The preceding chapter reported similarities and differences in African-American and white opinion as revealed in surveys conducted for the Task Force. If the citizens of Little Rock are going to be able to discuss public school problems, debate options, and fashion a community strategy with widespread support, then they must go beyond knowledge of percentages in survey responses. Citizens must develop an understanding of key differences in viewpoints and feelings.
We should note at the outset that, in general, African Americans understand the white perspective better than whites understand the African-American perspective. This should not be surprising, but it does need to be recognized. Whites have long been the dominant group in the United States, so all minority groups have had a great need to understand the values and the ways of whites. As the dominant group, whites have not faced a similar incentive to understand the culture and circumstances of life of African Americans or any other of the minority groups in this country.
We shall present similarities and differences by talking about a more-or-less typical white and a more-or-less typical African American. These two characters--Bill White and Ray Black--are composites.1 Bill White's views and feelings certainly do not represent those of every white citizen. Ray Black's views and feelings certainly do not represent those of every African-American citizen.
Bill White's dream for his children is a safe, well-maintained, well-run school with good teachers who have high expectations of the students. Bill White knows very well that his children simply must have a good education if they are to have a chance to make it in the world in which they are growing up. In his dream school, the teachers will teach basics very well and prepare his sons and daughters for a job or for college.
Bill's dream school includes a good extracurricular program, including athletics, drama, music, special interest clubs, and other things that round out a young person's development and also provide different avenues to getting recognition. Above all, he wants a safe school. His children are precious to him, and he would not feel he was a good parent if he left them some place where they might suffer harm. He also knows that the classrooms must be orderly so the teacher can teach and students can learn.
Bill White wants his children to attend school in the neighborhood. It is safe. There is less hassle in getting the kids to and from school. Also, the schools are good. He deeply resents it if someone tries to tell him that his children must attend a school a long way across town. It complicates his schedule and the schedule of his wife (who also works outside the home); and he worries about safety, both at the school and on the bus. One reason he chose to move into the neighborhood was so his children could go to the school there. It costs him a great deal--he is making house payments and will be for many years to come. He thinks the federal courts have overplayed their hand in the schools and have been the reason a lot of whites have fled the public schools. He thinks the sooner the judges get out of the education business, the better for both whites and African Americans.
It is okay with him if his children go to school with African Americans. In fact, it is more than okay. He thinks it is a good idea, good for his children. He knows that increasingly he sees African-American business people, nurses, physicians, secretaries, lawyers, legislators, teachers, police officers, military officers (General Colin Powell might be president someday), movie and TV stars, sports heroes, and church members. He himself increasingly works with and deals with African Americans. He knows it will be even more true for his children, so he is glad to see everyone going to school together.
Yet Bill does not think the whole school system ought to be turned on its ear in order to meet some court-imposed racial quota in each school. It seems obvious to him that the approach ordered by the courts is not working because pretty soon there are not going to be enough whites to go around. It appears to him that the attitude of some of the civil rights lawyers and judges is, stay on course and blame the whites. That makes no sense to him.
The other day he saw that the Little Rock School District is busing 14,000 pupils a day. That number boggles his mind. It requires a lot of school buses and a lot of gasoline. It's one thing to provide transportation because students need it to get to their schools. It is something else to move thousands of students around in order to have racial balance all over the district.
Private schools for Bill White's kids? He does not want to put his children in private schools. Private schools are expensive. He'd rather save the money for college for the children, or use it to replace his old car, or use it for a family vacation. He also does not believe private schools are better. But he does believe they are safer and have a higher level of discipline. Although he has been reasonably well satisfied with the specific schools his children have attended, he does feel the public schools have been slipping some. It worries him that a number of white friends and neighbors are leaving the public schools. He is hoping he can stay with the public schools until his own children get out.
A high percentage of whites would say "Amen!" to the dream school described above. In fact, they would basically see it as just a normal school, what every school ought to be for every child. It can be called a dream only because they do not believe it describes the public schools available to their children today.
What would surprise many whites, however, is that many African-American parents, listening to Bill White's description of a dream school, would react with concern.
So what does Ray Black want in the dream school for his African-American children?
Actually, Ray Black's dream for his children is very similar. He wants a safe, well-maintained, well-run school with good teachers who have high expectations of the students. Ray Black knows very well that his children simply must have a good education if they are to have a chance to make it in the world in which they are growing up. In his dream school, the teachers will teach basics very well and prepare his sons and daughters for a job or for college.
Ray Black's dream school includes a good extracurricular program, including athletics, drama, music, special interest clubs, and other things that round out a young person's development and also provide different avenues to getting recognition. He wants a safe school. His children are precious to him, and he would not feel he was a good parent if he left them some place where they might suffer harm. He also knows that the classroom must be orderly so the teacher can teach and students can learn.
Ray Black would like for the schools his children attend, particularly the younger children, to be nearby. Obviously it is harder for children to be involved in sports and other after-school activities and for parents to be involved in PTA when the school is across town, particularly for families without cars.
But when white parents start talking about neighborhood schools, it makes Ray Black very uneasy. To him it sounds like a return to unequal schools for African-American children. He knows that many neighborhood schools will be mostly white or mostly African-American because that's the case with the neighborhoods in the city.
Ray Black cannot help but remember that he bought his house where he did because the neighborhood had a good mixture of whites and African Americans in it. Now the whites are all gone. The other day Ray's next door neighbor told him that when it came to the whole climate of race relations, she was sick and tired of being sick and tired of the situation. Sometimes he feels similar frustrations.
This is where the divergence begins in white and African-American perspectives. Here is where Bill White's dream can become a nightmare for Ray Black. Not only is it okay with Ray Black for his children to go to school with whites, to him it is extremely important. Not because a school whose principal, teachers, and students are all African Americans cannot be excellent. It certainly can. In fact, for some minority children such schools may very well do a better job of building self-esteem. He knows that many outstanding adult African Americans are the products of the old segregated schools and of historically-black colleges and universities.
Ray Black very much wants his children in an integrated school, for two major reasons. First, he believes that if white children are in the school, the school will get its fair share of resources. Without white children, it won't. It is that simple. This is one good reason he sees for the courts to continue to require racial balance in the schools.
Second, he wants his children to attend racially-integrated schools to avoid the disadvantages of racial isolation. To be where the dominant group attends is to be where the action is, where the information flow occurs. To be confined to an all-minority school cuts minority students off from activities and information which can help equip minority students, when they grow to adulthood, to move into the mainstream of development and decision making in society, which the white majority dominates.
For these reasons, Ray Black and other African-American parents place a very high value on racially-integrated schools for their children.
Ray Black recognizes that he and other African-American parents face a growing dilemma on this issue of racial balance. On the one hand, the court requirement for racial balance in each school assures that African-American children, whichever school they attend, have the advantages of an integrated school and are protected from racial isolation. He likes that very much. It is extremely important.
On the other hand, he realizes that the whole set of polices that are geared to achieving racial balance have caused the withdrawal of many whites, and in the long run that jeopardizes the future of the whole district, including all of the specific schools his children attend. He and his fellow African Americans fear that they have won the battle (for integration with racial balance at every school) but are losing the war (for high quality schools for minority children). It is very troubling. The courts were able to destroy the old discriminatory system of segregated schools, but they have not been able to replace it with a lasting solution that provides stable, high quality schools for African-American children. The shining city on a hill, though it got closer for a time, appears now to be receding.
Ray Black's dilemma can be posed more pointedly. Insistence on two-race (racially-balanced) schools is producing a one-race school district. Either he accepts neighborhood schools, many of which will certainly be essentially one-race schools, and gets in return greater white enrollment in the overall district, with the political and financial benefits of that to all the schools; or he holds on to the racial-balance requirement as long as he can, with all of the advantages he sees in that, and gets in return a school district that grows weaker overall as white participation declines. He cannot help but be torn at the prospect of such a choice. But as he looks at his children, he knows that after they graduate, their employers will ask, "What were your grades? What do you know? What can you do?" They won't ask, "How integrated was your high school?" He needs a school district in which all high schools are good, and employers and college admission officers know they are good.
Another point of divergence between the perspectives of Bill White and Ray Black is Bill's eagerness for the schools to get out of court. Maybe court requirements do create a straitjacket for school officials; but all the hurry to get out of court comes across to Ray as white efforts to get free of court-imposed requirements that assure a reasonable equality of treatment of children of both races.
Ray Black is pretty certain that the things whites have been complaining about doing while under court order they certainly will not do if not under court order. He fears they will simply turn the clock back to an earlier and discriminatory day. Maybe the court will release the school district some day, but why should he agree to it before he has to? The fact of the matter is, he does not trust whites in general to do right by all the children of the city--specifically minority children--if the federal court is not involved and requiring it. In short, Ray Black and his fellow African-American citizens feel vulnerable in the absence of the federal court. As one of them remarked, "What else have we got to protect us?"
There are some additional concerns as Ray Black thinks about what would make a dream school. Bill White is probably completely unaware of these. One is "tracking": school polices and programs that seem to result in two segregated schools under one roof. For example, gifted and talented programs and special education classes have sometimes appeared to be tracking mechanisms. The numbers of white students in gifted and talented programs have been in excess of usual definitions of gifted and talented. Similarly, the numbers of minority students in special education programs have sometimes been in excess of the numbers one would expect, given the characteristics of students for whom special education classes are designed. Another concern of Ray Black is that discipline--expulsions and lesser forms of punishment--fall heavier on African-American students. Also, he does not believe that standardized examinations are fair to African Americans.
of Bill White and Ray Black
Can Bill White and Ray Black talk? Could they come to understand the aspirations and the fears of the other? Could they come together and agree on a strategy for the future of the schools? We believe so, but it requires that they both understand the realities (which are described in this report) and that they both recognize where their perspectives diverge and why. Trust starts with good communication. They must talk and be flexible enough to come together behind a community strategy that is win-win. The rest of this chapter will offer several blunt reflections on the differences narrated above.
Of all the people living within the boundaries of the Little Rock School District, 65 percent are white and 35 percent are African-American. However, the pupils in the LRSD are 65 percent African-American and 35 percent white. As shown in Chapter Three, the LRSD has been trending toward an all-African-American district.
Although not noted in the narrative above, here is one thing on which Bill White and Ray Black both agree: The LRSD's outlook would be better if there were more whites in it. Although Ray Black would sometimes like to shout "good riddance" to the whites leaving the school district, he knows you cannot have integrated schools in a one-race school district. Bill and Ray both know that if white parents abandon the school district, then white political and business leaders will in time do the same. This in turn will tend to limit the financial and political support the schools receive. In the long run, whether the court remains in the middle of the situation or not, this means a poorly supported school system. Bill White and Ray Black both share a strong interest in retaining and retrieving white students, and the more the better.
Actually, it needs to be said that Bill White and Ray Black share a strong interest in retaining and retrieving middle class students of both races, because there are indications that middle class African-American parents are also beginning to send their children to private schools. Their reasons appear to be the same as those of white parents, with safety and discipline being principal concerns. If middle class African-American families also leave the LRSD, then what will remain will be a school district poor in many ways.
Therefore, it appears that one price that Ray Black is going to have to pay is the acceptance of neighborhood schools, schools that will be racially identifiable. He must recognize that the courts are not just heading in that direction. In a number of urban desegregation cases, as noted in Chapter Two, they are already there. In a number of cities, court-required racial balance and cross-town busing have ended. Judges are apparently concluding that the federal courts have done about all they can do in this arena, and, indeed, that court orders aimed at desegregation have contributed to resegregation. It appears to be only a matter of time until the LRSD is also released from such requirements.
Ray Black will indeed regret that each school in the district is not racially balanced, but he will have won something important if the result is that the district as a whole remains biracial and financially healthy. In such a district there will be many opportunities for white and African-American children to go to school together, whereas in a one-race district there would be none.
What Bill White must understand is something very different. He must understand that the key is trust; specifically, many African Americans do not trust whites. Trust has to be earned. Bill must find a way to earn Ray Black's trust. If Ray trusted Bill, then it would not matter to Ray if they were out of court. They could together devise a strategy for providing equal educational opportunity for the children of both races, and then move ahead on it. Ray Black would not have to worry that Bill would abandon or subvert the strategy in the future, to the detriment of African-American children. He would not suffer that recurring nightmare that whites or the court or someone is going to turn the clock back and wipe out all the gains African Americans have made in public education.
|Inset: Clearing the Air for Community Discussion|
From Ray Black's point of view, this is an issue--trust--on which it can be said, "Whites just don't get it." They do not understand that many African Americans are deeply skeptical about the good intentions toward them of most whites. Ray recently heard a white man say, "This is not a sacrifice I volunteered for"--with reference to putting up with his children being bused out of the neighborhood. True, Ray thought. But neither did African Americans volunteer for slavery nor later for inferior segregated schools.
Whites know African Americans suffered slavery and that it was horrible and wrong. "But that is history, and this is today," they protest. Many whites do not recognize how very recently atrocities against African Americans were still common, despite hundreds of books and dozens of movies depicting those experiences (such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning, and, most recently, A Time to Kill). Such atrocities were occurring during the early years of many living African Americans. Whereas few whites have experienced discrimination on the basis of skin color, probably every African American has personally experienced such discrimination, sometimes in insignificant ways, at other times in significant and even frightening ways.
Ray Black trusts a number of whites he knows personally because they have shown themselves to be trustworthy. They communicate. But because he and all of his friends and relatives have experienced discrimination, he does not generalize this trust to whites in the community as a whole. On the schools, Ray Black would need to see some convincing show of good faith, some demonstration of commitment to equal educational opportunities, that he could comfortably believe would be lasting. Then he could become comfortable with the idea of getting out of court.
Bill White and his friends may never stop and think about it, but Ray Black can trace educational deficits of many African Americans today right back to the Civil War and the doorstep of slavery. At the time of the Civil War, most African-American slaves had no education at all and could not even read. So the children of the freed slaves were born to families who could not read. Indeed, teaching slaves to read was a crime in some places. Then for the next eight or nine decades each succeeding generation was born to parents who had attended grossly underfunded and inferior schools. As a whole, no generation of African-American babies has ever been born to an even start with the same generation of white babies in terms of educational environment in the homes or access to quality educational opportunities. Fortunately, with each succeeding generation an increasing number of African Americans have overcome the drag of the past, and then their children have been born into homes that could give them an even start. The growing African-American middle class is clear evidence of progress.
In any event, Ray Black knows--and Bill White should--that the consequences of oppression long ago are still running their course through each generation into the next.
It may be a challenge for Bill White to come up with something that will really engender confidence and appear to offer a win-win situation to Ray Black. Bill knows that a disproportionate number of African-American children arrive underprepared for kindergarten. As a result, their achievement scores permanently lag behind those of their white classmates. This is not exclusively a minority problem, but here it is predominantly a minority problem because in Little Rock a disproportionate share of poor families are minority families. Therefore, a commitment to a broadbased school readiness program could be a ticket to trust. Such a program would be especially helpful to African-American children.
If Bill White and the businessmen he knows understood the situation, they would also see a significant economic benefit to their businesses and to the city in such a program. Specifically, Little Rock (and the nation) will experience labor shortages as the baby boom generation begins to retire. Some area businesses already are affected by the low unemployment rate. Where are qualified employees going to come from? Either you grow your own, or you import them. All cities will be in the competition and will be trying to hold their own. The alternative is immigrants--nothing new in American history--but that is an uncertain source for many reasons. It makes far more sense to grow your own.
For perspective: it has been a half century since the Second World War. By the time the next half century comes to an end, the proportion of whites in the United States will have dropped to approximately 50 percent, and still be headed downward. White business owners would do themselves and their children and grandchildren a great favor if they made strenuous efforts to accelerate the rise of the middle class among people of color by means of excellent public schools. A school readiness program is a necessary component of such an effort.
A commitment to a broadbased school readiness program is fundamental. A commitment to it could be confidence building. But Bill White could do some other things. Recalling that he and Ray Black both prefer that their children attend integrated schools, he could insist, even after the school district is out of court and beyond compulsory approaches, that there must be creative strategies, with strong commitment to them by school officials, that result in integrated educational experiences for the maximum number of students of both races. This would also build confidence.
In a nutshell: Bill White and Ray Black need to work together to develop a new consensus of what "nondiscriminatory education" means today. That was the aim of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It is not going to mean that all schools will be racially balanced; indeed, some schools will be made up overwhelmingly of one race or the other. It must mean, however, that all students are treated fairly and have the equal protection of the laws in the public education arena.
Neither Bill White nor Ray Black should despair. They hold numerous common views and aspirations for the schools. There is no reason that Little Rock cannot have schools so strong and exemplary that they draw parents of both races into the district, as they did in an earlier day. But in order to end up coming together, whites and African Americans must first understand that they bring different sets of fears and experiences to their joint thinking about school issues. Then it will be possible to bridge the differences for the benefit of their children.
1.The content of this chapter reflects data from Task Force telephone surveys but goes beyond that survey data. It also draws from the interviews of community leaders conducted by individual members of the Task Force and the discussions of those interviews by the Task Force as a whole. This chapter also draws on the comments written by the 467 LRSD teachers and 26 LRSD principals who responded to our mail surveys.