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Integrate Long Island Schools, Don't Just Desegregate

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A recent post calling for the racial integration of Long Island New York schools drew a number of both supportive and negative comments. One writer was very critical of White people who want to force other White people to send their children to interracial urban schools but whose own children are safely ensconced in segregated suburban schools or private schools. For the record, my White son, stepdaughters, and grandchild all attended or attend Brooklyn public schools in very diverse or largely minority communities

I also received an email from a young man who had had a bad experience when his Long Island high school was desegregated about ten years ago. He agreed to let me post portions of his email and write a response, but asked me not to identify him or his school district. I have assigned the two districts mentioned in his email fictional names. I will call the predominately White district and schools Franklin and the predominately Black district Astor.

I live very close to Franklin Elementary school, so I had never really taken a bus to school until middle school. When I started middle school in 7th grade at Franklin Middle School there were no problems with my bus. It went around my neighborhood and picked up my friends, and then went to the school. Before 8th grade started, someone had made the decision to integrate our bus route with one from the town next to us. Keep in mind the other bus route which was integrated with ours had been going to the same school previously, this was not an effort to integrate the school. The first day of 8th grade the bus came down my block and it was already half full with black kids yelling and shouting at the bus driver telling him he was going the wrong way because 'this bus didn't pick up any white people.' And behind that bus was another bus half full of kids from Astor. They had changed the route so that instead of one bus to Astor and one to my part of Franklin, both buses went to Astor and Franklin, on almost identical routes, at times following each other.

Needless to say this caused daily fights between the Franklin and Astor kids on the bus. The fights weren't caused by some race distinction, they were caused because we were from different towns, and much different people. And when I say daily fights, I mean the bus driver who barely knew a word of English would just stop the bus in the middle of the road because she didn't know what else to do. Cameras on the bus started to be viewed and people were taken down the to the Principal's office, but that didn't stop anything. At one point the Principal brought everyone from both buses into a meeting and yelled at all of us to get along, telling us that the bus wasn't white or black, it was yellow. This also did nothing.

By the end of the year there were less fights, it was no longer a daily occurrence. That still doesn't change the fact that in this instance, the integration of the two buses cost tax payer dollars in making the routes almost twice as long, made the kids get up earlier and be on the bus longer, and caused countless kids to get beaten up and get in trouble. Integration is a great goal, but at some point, it is not necessary anymore. None of the Franklin people made friends with the Astor people. It didn't change the ultimate destination of the kids, they were all going to the same school. Here I was, a relatively good student, being exposed to kids kicking the crap out of each other every morning and sometimes getting caught in the crossfire.

What this young man eloquently describes is the difference between a school desegregation plan and a racial integration plan. In this case, kids were thrown together on the same bus or in the same building, often not even in the same classrooms, without any effort by district officials to help students explore similarities and differences, build common identities and goals, and learn to be friends. There were not even any adults present to deal with tensions and conflicts.

This was a desegregation plan designed to fail. It was designed to fail because it did not value the educational and social benefits of diversity. Officials did not care if students developed mutual respect for each other. They did not supply parents, teachers, and students with the time and structured experiences that would have made behavioral and attitudinal change possible.

These kinds of supports are necessary in any racial integration plan, but they were especially crucial in this case. They were necessary because the area where "Franklin" and "Astor" are located along the Nassau-Suffolk County border is one of the most racially segregated on Long Island and probably in the United States. Massapequa, a town on the Nassau side, not "Franklin" but a different town, has a population that is, according to the 2000 federal census, 97.4% White. The high school is 99% White. However, a small enclave in the area known as East Massapequa has a significant African American population but although these children live in Nassau County, they attend school in a Suffolk county district that is predominately Black.

A good example of an integration plan rather than simply desegregation is in the movie Remember the Titans starring Denzel Washington, which is based on true events. During the 1960s, two Virginia high schools and two football teams are thrust together, one Black and one White. Tension is high, students fight, and adults are angry. However the staff and student leaders are eventually able to build a common team identity and a desire to come together to win.

Gary Orfield co-founder of the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, has carefully documented racial segregation in United States schools and also within supposedly desegregated schools. His research shows that racial segregation in public schools has been increasing since the 1970s.

Racial integration is certainly not easy, but it is possible, and it offers students the ability to live and work with people who are different from themselves, a valuable skill in a very diverse and rapidly changing world.