Sunday, September 19, 2021

Not Another Commission

Since yesterday's post about "good" schools, I've listed to the first two parts of the Nice White Parents podcast. Part 2 focuses on how the New York City school system has claimed over the decades to make progress on desegregation without actually desegregating. One way of doing that is by having commission after commission look at desegregation, but never enacting the recommendations.

Some details from the episode: In the late 1950s, after Brown v. Board of Education, when the Board of Education was publicly proclaiming its schools were already desegregated, the all-Black and Latino Harlem schools didn't even have flushing toilets and there were only two bathrooms for entire schools. Not only that, half the teachers were not certified, and there were up to a thousand kids per hallway within the buildings, leading officials to hold split school days so the kids only had 3-hour instruction days. Meanwhile, white kids only blocks away were getting whole days (plus flushing toilets and accredited teachers.)

Parents of color organized a city-wide strike in 1964 that took half the kids in New York schools out for a day, but it got almost zero coverage from NYC media. After a commission, a plan to begin desegregation was met with a smattering of white parent protest. That got a ton of media coverage and (guess what!) the plan was shelved.

By coincidence this morning, I happened to hear Jelani Cobb on the New Yorker Radio Hour discussing his new book, The Essential Kerner Commission Report, which looks at the March 1967 report from the biggest of all the commissions. Enacted by Lyndon Johnson after the Watts and Detroit riots, it recommended real changes that would have made a difference... but were never enacted.

Cobb talked with 91-year-old former Sen. Fred Harris, D-OK, who was on the Commission. Harris describes how the panel members came to describe the cause as white racism (rather than some vaguer term), and how Dr. Kenneth Clark — whose testimony in Brown v. Board is well known — was a downer because he testified that he was skeptical another commission was going to make a difference. 

As it turned out, Dr. Clark was right.

The solutions suggested by Heather McGhee at the end of her book The Sum of Us are the way forward. The findings of all the commissions are not wrong, but their story comes from the wrong direction. What we need are Truth (imagine that!), Racial Healing, and Transformation. Which takes organizing and connection (and is also covered in McGhee's book) to build political will.

Meanwhile, though, we live in the midst of concerted and well-funded Backlash.

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