John McWhorter says Segregated Schools Don’t Have to Fail

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Getty
As we mark 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, we hail integration—but let’s not assume that black kids can learn only if seated next to whites.
As we reach the 60-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision Saturday, a great many will complain that after all this time, segregation is still rampant in America’s schools. That is, we’re supposed to bemoan the fact that black kids are in school with one another instead of with white ones.I say it’s time we reexamined this take on what segregation means, because it verges on a grievous insult to black people. What Brown sought to undo was blacks attending classes with other black kids in schools that were so often vastly inferior to the ones white kids went to. That, of course, was right and just.

However, the desegregation imperative in the wake of this has led, through a kind of mental mission creep, into a general horror at the very idea of all-black schools, period. That’s an eerier notion than we are often told.

We are meant to cringe at the sight of a photo of an all-black classroom and ask cynically where the white kids are. Oh, no one puts it just that way. But this is indeed the zeitgeist—one need only consider typical pieces on school re-segregation in our times, where the mere fact of black kids learning together is considered unfortunate and backwards, such as here and here.

But the lawyers arguing Brown did not demonstrate that black kids need white kids next to them to learn better. This is not a renegade observation; it is a commonplace among experts on the case. And today, the general consensus among experts, as quiet as it’s kept, is that learning with white kids has only a modest positive effect on black students’ performance, including almost none on math (and less as students get older). Take a look at this study, which shows that beyond the cohort of especially high-achieving black kids, having white kids around loses its mojo completely.

Blacks at the time of Brown brought into our present day would be baffled, and even irritated, by the idea that black kids are automatically worse off when white kids aren’t around. Long before the 1960s, and deep in the heart of Jim Crow, students at all-black Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., often outscored the city’s white schools on standardized tests as early as 1899—that is, when Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 was a current event.

Most big American cities had schools of such caliber where a white student was never seen. My mother went to Booker T. Washington in Atlanta in the 1940s. There were Frederick Douglass in Baltimore, P.S. 91 in Brooklyn, McDonough 35 in New Orleans, and so very many others. And note: None of these schools were anything like awash in funds.

The idea that a classroom full of black kids is something to shake your head at is not wisdom incarnate. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now, when there are schools such as the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies where whole schools of brown faces kick serious scholastic butt.

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Source: The Daily Beast | John McWhorter

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