Bridging black-white gap

Published 11:17 am Thursday, August 27, 2015

The best response to the Black Lives Matter movement is the one solution we’re not considering: integration. Black and white Americans live largely separate but unequal lives, living in segregated neighborhoods and attending segregated schools that seem foreign to each other.

We lack the political will for forced integration—even though it worked—but we should consider a student exchange program to build bridges between our communities.

For a year, a black student could attend a white school and live with white families, and vice versa. This would be modeled after foreign exchange programs where schools and service clubs would send a local teenager to study in a foreign country in exchange for hosting a student from that country.

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I was a Rotary Youth Exchange student in West Germany where I did little to dispel suspicions that Americans were stupid. Nevertheless, that experience left me—family-by-family, friend-by-friend—better able to understand the world and my place in it.

An exchange program could do the same for black and white Americans. I realize how naive it is to think that creating mutual experiences could engender mutual understanding, but these days I’ll grasp at whatever straws of hope are within reach.

If we wanted to do what worked, we’d go back to forced busing, but there’s no desire to do that despite the fact that school integration cut the achievement gap in half. According to New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones on a recent episode of the “This American Life” podcast, the gap between the reading scores of black and white students went from 39 percent to 18 percent in the school integration era between 1971 and 1988.

“People say, well, we tried to force it, and it just didn’t work out,” said Hannah-Jones. “And typically, what people are thinking of are places like Boston, where busing was used, and where it was violent and ugly, and white people just left and didn’t want to deal with it.”

Without ever saying so, we returned to separate-but-equal after that. School districts serving children of color sued states for equal funding but not integration, reasoning that equal funding meant equal opportunity. That led to the bait-and-switch of the 1990s, when the business community substituted accountability for equity, blaming the poor performance of black and Hispanic students on the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Meanwhile, we left all the children behind in the same segregated schools where we found their parents in the 1970s. In a 2013 University of Texas study, education professors Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Jellison Holme discovered that Texas schools were as segregated as they were under Jim Crow. Urban schools were “intensely segregated” with student bodies made up almost entirely of Black and Hispanic students. They were separate but not equal; funding and performance were stubbornly low.

“So, 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the data reveals that very little has actually changed when it comes to the segregation of African Americans and Latinos in our schools,” said Heilig.

Hannah-Jones has found the same racial regression in her reporting of schools in Tuscaloosa and St. Louis, where white parents have what she calls a “barricading mentality” against black children attending school with their children.

Don’t look to her for hope. After she “laid out this incredibly adaptable racist system that is harming generations of black children, people want me to give them hope,” she said on the PostBourgie podcast. “And I understand it, because you don’t want to believe that it’s intractable, but it is, and it’s intractable because we have absolutely no will to do anything about it.”

There’s no hope if we’re talking about forced busing or cash reparations. The only ideas out there are grad-school fantasies such as giving black citizens five thirds of a vote—that is, make their votes count almost twice as much as others’—to make up for the three-fifths compromise.

Systems are intractable. People are not. Through a voluntary student exchange program, white and black Americans can walk a mile in each other’s shoes if even for a little while. We have a long way to go, and this could be a good first step.