Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Segregation in the Schools

I recently heard a woman interviewed on the radio. I forget her name, but she was part of the Little Rock Nine - the group of students who were the first black students at Little Rock Central High School and the subject of many protests and threats. I knew that the US National Guard was sent to protect the students, but I hadn't realized that the Arkansas National Guard was first deployed to keep them out of the school, until Eisenhower sent the US National Guard. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try to go to school and have one set of troops trying to keep you out and another trying to get you in.

But I can imagine segregated schools. Actually, I don't have to. I worked at one for 8 years. In California. In the 21st century. It wasn't segregated by law; it was what is called de facto segregation. Or to quote the students, "Ain't no white kids." They didn't mean just in the school, they meant ain't no white kids anywhere near. The city I worked in is extremely segregated. You have the flatlands, which are near I-880 (where the air is the worst because the trucks can go on that freeway), and the hills, which are usually above I-580 (no trucks on that one - heaven forbid the hills air should be contaminated). There are also the in-between areas, which I don't think have a name.

In the hills, you find white children, and a few Asians. There may be black or Latino families who live in the hills, but I've never heard of them. The schools tend to be mostly white, and there are very few children who don't speak English as a second language. And their test scores are much higher.

In the flatlands, you don't find white kids. You find black kids, Latino kids, and Asian kids (mostly Southeast Asian). I think my school fluctuated but usually had about half and half black and Latino kids - with some Asians. There used to be a much higher Vietnamese population but not as much now. But there aren't any white kids.

In the in-between areas, I think it's pretty mixed. I really only have firsthand knowledge about the flatlands, so that's what I'm going to stick to.

There aren't any white people. Except for social workers and teachers, of course, who usually don't last long. After I was there for two years, I was totally accepted because I had been there "forever." The lack of white people is so extreme that the following exchange took place when I was teaching first grade:

First student: There are three kinds of kids.

Me: What are the three kinds of kids?

First student: There's black kids, Chinese kids*, and Mexican kids**.

Second student: What about white kids?

First student: Silly, there's no white kids. There's only white teachers.


But the thing is, she was right. There were some very light-skinned Latino kids, who could pass for white but definitely do not identify as such. There were two white kids once; they were Bosnian refugees.

Same class - my first year of teaching - on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We were talking about the civil rights movement, etc., specifically desegregation of schools. One of the kids looked very confused and said, "But black kids don't go to school with white kids." She had never seen it.

I have two more stories for tomorrow on this theme.

*In first grade, to these kids, all Asians are Chinese. The funny thing is that I don't think any of the Asian kids at the school were actually Chinese. Cambodian, Tongan, Samoan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong... but not Chinese.

**In first grade, to these kids, all Latinos are Mexican. They were mostly Mexican, but there were also Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, etc.

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