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"Is Racial Integration Essential to Achieving Quality Education for Low-Income Minority Students, In the Short Term? In the Long Term?,"

by john a. powell September/October 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

My schooling gave me no training as the oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or a person in a damaged culture. . . At school, we were no, taught about slavery in any depth; we were not taught to see slave holders as damaged people. Slaves were seen as the only group at risk of being dehumanized My schooling followed the pattern which Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral. normative, and average, and also ideal. so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow 'them 'to be more like 'us. "' - Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Male Privilege."

The roles of segregation and integration have been central to understanding and maintaining or destabilizing white privilege. Much of the discussion about integration and segregation has been fought out with poignant focus on school and education. This is understandable, in that school plays a central role in the formation of the American citizenry. Common schools are the crucible of American identity. They are the place where our children spend a tremendous portion of their lives, where their values and identities are shaped. In my discussion about integration and segregation, however, I will start, not with schools or even housing, but by rethinking what we mean by integration and segregation and how our misunderstanding of these limits our imagination and practice with respect to racial issues in this country. What I am suggesting, then, is that our collective conceptual error has important implications for the movement towards a racially just society, a racial democracy. Recognition of this error should play an important role in our thinking about integration and segregation in the educational context.

Intergration is Not Cultural Assimilation

Today, there is requestioning of the relative benefits of integration and segregation. Despite this questioning, much of the discussion around these issues remains largely unreflective. The debate about the relative merits of integration and segregation has a long, rich history in the Black community. The pros and cons of each approach were thoughtfully and often sharply debated by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century. Washington's posited that Blacks should rely upon themselves for self-help, whereas Du Bois thought the most talented Blacks should learn from whites, and then bring these attributes back to the Black community. Much of today's discussions draws on some of the ideas raised by Washington and flu Bois without the benefit of the depth of thought they used to support their conclusions.

In order to deepen the discussion today, it is important to give pause and reflect on what integration and segregation mean in contemporary terms and what the implications for these two strategies are in the 21st Century. Part of the difficulty is that scholars and others have not been clear about what we mean by the words integration and segregation. Indeed, I would suggest that in recent times the debate has not focused on integration and segregation, but assimilation and segregation. The attack on integration, then, has largely not been an attack on integration but an attack on assimilation.

Assimilation is problematic because it is a product of racial hierarchy. Although there have been many distinct versions of assimilation and segregation, both of these concepts have been framed primarily by the dominant white society and operate under the implicit assumption that there is something wrong with the racial "other." The less extreme assimilationist would fix the racial other by acculturating him or her to the dominant culture. The more extreme assimilationist position is that the racial other must intermarry into the dominant race and cease to be. In either scenario, the voice of the minority is either ignored or eliminated.

The white segregationist shares this belief in white racial hierarchy. The segregationist also believes there is something defective about the racial other. But unlike the assimilationist, the run-of-the-mill segregationist takes the position that the racial other must prove that he or she has been fixed or modified before segregation can end. A more extreme segregationist view is that the racial other cannot be fixed, and affiliation with any of them will diminish and contaminate whites. The idea that one drop of African blood contaminates white blood is closely associated with this view. Both assimilationists and segregationists are disturbed by the otherness of the racial other. The extreme segregationist is also concerned about the other as well as otherness.

One may protest that this is the position only of the dominant society. What about racial minority groups that want to segregate themselves from the dominant society? While theoretically one can imagine that a racial minority might, for positive reasons, want to segregate itself despite openness from the dominant society, this is simply not the history of racial politics in the United States. Indeed, when Washington called for self-segregation, it was in part because he accepted the position that Blacks were unfit and must prove themselves to whites before segregation could end. The reality is that many African-Americans have adopted segregation as an accommodation and protection from white racism. While this is understandable, from a self-survival point of view, the problem is that it does not destabilize white hierarchy and it also has very little practical benefit. When one looks at middle-class Blacks who choose to live in Black neighborhoods, among the prevalent reasons cited is the desire to have space to retreat from white racism and the frustration of dealing with whites in the workplace. This does not mean that there are not positive things about the Black community or Black culture. This is another variation of the assimilationist position. What I am suggesting is that when one examines the roots of segregation, either self-imposed or imposed by the dominant society, white racism is central to understanding it.

Social interaction is constitutive of the individual and the collective identity of the community. Assimilation envisions the absorption of minorities into the mainstream. Real integration is measured, however, by the transformation of institutions, communities and individuals. Real integration involves fundamental change among whites and people of color, as people and communities. Segregation is not just the exclusion of people, but also the limitation of their opportunities and economic resources. It creates and maintains a culture of racial hierarchy and subjugation. Integration, as a solution to segregation, has broader meaning: it refers to community-wide efforts to create a more inclusive society, where individuals and groups have opportun-ities to participate equally in their communities. Inclusion give us tools to build democratic communities, the ability to approach complex issues from a multitude of perspectives. Integration, then, transforms racial hierarchy. Rather than creating a benefactor-beneficiary distinction along lines of race and class, true integration makes it possible for all groups to benefit from each other's resources. Homogeneous education fails to prepare students of all races for a multicultural society. Integrated education necessarily implies a curriculum that respects and values cultural difference, while building a community of equals.

Although I cannot do justice to this issue in a short article, it is important to consider the situation of Native Americans. There is a strong feeling among American Indians that if they integrate, they will lose their culture and be overwhelmed by the dominant society. The discussion about segregation and assimilation in many ways is not germane for Native Americans. First of all, the issue of segregation and assimilation is a discussion that takes place within a nation. The debate for Native Americans is about how to build or maintain a nation within a nation. Native Americans have not been pushing to be part of this nation, but rather to preserve their own nation. If they cannot maintain their nation, it is likely that these other issues will become more important. In addition, when one asserts that Native Americans or other groups that are not allowed to segregate may lose their culture and identity, one is essentially making a claim that if not allowed to segregate, a group may be forced to assimilate. Given the two alternatives, maybe segregation is more desirable.

But this is not the issue that Blacks face in large numbers. While it may be possible for a few African-Americans to assimilate, that is not possible for large numbers. Blacks in the United States are unassimilable-what one writer calls "the designated other." This leads us to segregation or something else.

Before considering something else, I want to assert that segregation is morally, pragmatically and ontologically flawed. It is morally flawed because it cannot be reconciled in our society with the fundamental value of equal respect and dignity of all people. It is pragmatically flawed in that it can never produce equal life chances for whites and "others." It is ontologically flawed in that it damages and distorts the identity of all members of the racist society where segregation is practiced.

Problems Caused Segregation

Segregation prevents access to wealth accumulation by residents of isolated, poor communities of color, thereby establishing barriers to market participation. Lack of educational opportunities, poor job accessibility and declining housing values in isolated, low-income communities are symptoms of the problem. Further, racial and economic segregation damages the whole metropolitan region, including both the urban cores and the suburbs. Segregation geographically polarizes metropolitan communities along lines of race, income and opportunity, and separates urban centers from the surrounding suburbs, The experience of attending desegregated schools is likely to increase participation in desegregated environments in later life. When students attend integrated schools, they are more likely to attend desegregated colleges, live in integrated neighborhoods, work in integrated environments, have friends of another race and send their children to integrated schools. Conversely, students from segregated schools are more likely to avoid interactions with other races and generally conduct their lives in segregated settings. As Peggy Mc-Intosh points out in her article, "White Privilege: Male Privilege," her schooling as a white attending an all-white school led to strained interactions in the workplace as an adult. Once she entered an integrated work space, she realized she wouldn't be able to get along if she asked her non-white co-workers to adapt to her world view. One thing is clear to me: that racial neutrality or "color blindness" is more likely to work toward maintaining the status quo than destabilizing it.

Toward Incorporation

Traditionally, desegregation in education has meant either removing formal barriers or simply placing students in physical proximity to one another. These remedies are limited. Segregation is not just the exclusion of people, but also the limitation of their opportunities and economic resources. Properly conceived, integration is transformative for everyone involved. Integration embraces a multi-cultural concept of social interaction. Much of the focus on the benefits of integration has been on how integration will benefit Blacks and other "others." What has been missing is an understanding of how integration, as well as segregation, affects us all. If we are to be successful at integration, we move much closer to David Goldberg's notion of incorporation. He asserts that, "incorporation, then, does not involve extension of established values and protections over the formerly excluded group . . . [T]he body politic becomes a medium for transformative incorporation, a political arena of contestation, rather than a base from which exclusions can be more or less silently extended, managed, and manipulated." Incorporation allows the views and experiences of both the dominant group and minority groups to meet, informing and transforming each other. With incorporation, no experience is the exclusive one. In this respect, incorporation clearly differs from assimilation and desegregation models. The ultimate goal of integration is this transformative incorporation Goldberg describes.

Building a Participatory Democracy

If we accept this reconstituted way of viewing integration, it provides a positive strategy for how to start thinking about integration in relationship to schools as well as a critical perspective on how integration in the past has failed. Most of the efforts of the past and even today are half-hearted, leaving students de facto segregated or token assimilated. Too often the assumption is that if we can fix the other by having them go to schools with whites without addressing the underlying assumption of white privilege, including cultural privilege, we have successfully integrated. In assessing integration efforts, we too often look at the racial composition of a school, and not at what happens in the school. But if we look at integration in the way suggested above, it requires that we look at what goes on in school as well as outside of school. It requires that we link housing, school, employment and cultural opportunities. Linking housing and education policies, rather than focusing solely on integrating schools, directs attention to the importance and benefits of racial integration in multiple settings. By contrast, the approach of desegregating schools in isolation from other important institutions disregards the significance of building and strengthening communities. A qualitative analysis of the social effect of integration makes clear that achieving broad integration remains a central goal in, and a necessary step toward, making a fully participatory democracy a reality. The social value of integration embodies the founding ideals of this country. Making it possible for everyone to participate actively in our democracy should be a fundamental goal woven into the fabric of the nation's public policies. Another necessary element of participation is for residents to feel connected to the community as valued members of the polity. Segregated society has continued to exclude community members, even when formal rights to participate exist. The school setting provides both academic and social tools for participating in society. The less formal environment of our neighborhoods and social circles provides equally important tools for everyday life. Integration of both schools and housing demonstrates for all of us how the practice of living and learning together can inform our understanding of the world.

The Legacy of Brown

More than forty years ago, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, recognized the unique harm experienced by Black students forced to attend racially segregated schools. The Court declared the circumstances unacceptable. Today, after a half-hearted effort at best, most American schools remain segregated. While the explicitly segregationist policies of the Brown era seldom exist today, a more subtle network of social and institutional barriers persist, working to maintain segregation in our schools and communities. Desegregated schools may be the only institutions in which African-Americans and Latinos students have access to the abundance of college and employment contacts that whites and wealthy students take for granted. William Julius Wilson and other social scientists have noted that the greatest barrier to social and economic mobility for inner-city Blacks is their isolation from the opportunities and networks of the mostly white and middle-class society. School desegregation has a profound impact on Blacks' ability to acquire knowledge that would enhance their academic and occupational success via social contacts and integrated institutions. Integration can be a tough concept to embrace when one considers that it cannot claim many examples. Integration has been attacked by both ends of the political spectrum. In 1995, in his concurring opinion in Missouri v. Jenkins, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that "[I]t never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly Black must be inferior." Several Afrocentrists recall early attempts at integration that resulted with assimilation. The implications of assimilation have appropriately been criticized by a number of scholars.

The Link Between Housing and Education

The spatial isolation of minority poor students concentrates the education disadvantages inherent to poverty. Racial segregation, moreover, denies all students the benefits of an integrated education. For parents fortunate enough to be able to choose where they live, their selection is often determined by the quality of public education for their children. America's metropolitan areas increasingly have become characterized by a poor minority core, with a white, middle-class suburban ring. More often than not, the public schools considered best are in the middle-class and upper-middle class neighborhoods. Negative perception about urban schools contribute to the unwillingness of white families to move to urban neighborhoods. Part of the reason urban schools have a poor reputation is, of course, because they are segregated by race and class. The two most commonly expressed concerns about integration are "white flight" and mandatory busing, both of which can weaken communities, resulting in the drive for many school districts to return to neighborhood schools. The return to neighborhood schools, for which many policy makers are now calling, may, in fact, maintain or increase the racial segregation of communities that are isolated by race and class. Integrating schools while simultaneously creating greater housing opportunities makes true integration the goal, while it recognizes the social and economic barriers to integration. Building more integrated communities seems possible and desirable when people of different racial and economic groups begin to recognize that, without ignoring their differences, they share many goals and concerns. When housing and school policies work together, integrated communities maintain a stable, yet diverse, population.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:


This is Part 2 of a symposium begun in our July/August issue with contributions by Elaine Gantz Berman, Phyllis Hart/Joyce Germaine Watts, Lyman Ho & PRRAC Board member Kati Haycock. (Those of you receiving P&R for the first time can receive a copy of this symposium by sending us a stamped, self-addressed envelope.) Here PRRAC Board member john powell and Sheryl Denbo/Byron Williams add their thoughts oh the subject. We welcome additional commentary.


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