09/28/2012 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Segregation Now, and Segregation Forever

Here's something that your high school history teacher never told you: in the North, segregationists won. While George Wallace was recanting his views, people up here were accepting the status quo.

There has been a lot of hoopla here in Boston about the Gawker article that came out calling us one of America's most racist cities. And there will be a lot of bickering over the next few days over Won't Back Down, the critically panned film coming out this week about transforming inner city schools through parent trigger laws. I just hope it's not like Freedom Writers, where every teacher goes out to buy a marble-patterned journal for kids to write down their feelings. Oh, Hilary Swank and Maggie Gyllenhaal, how do we teach these kids?

But all of this sensationalism distracts from the larger issue, the third rail of education reform, the indisputable, overwhelmingly obvious fact that schools in the North are extremely segregated. And they were never desegregated in the first place. After the Boston bus riots and the complete lack of public support, people gave up. Nobody wanted to integrate, and the federal government was not going to make them. After living here for four years, I know now that most of the problems we are talking about in education today stem from this one fundamental and complete moral failure.

When I first started graduate school, all of us future teachers were required to take a class called Everyday Antiracism. And let me tell you, that class thoroughly confused me. Its objective was to encourage teachers to think about race, critically and often. As a Southerner, I thought I was already doing this. Wasn't everybody else? I had been thinking about race since I was old enough to go to school and had to deal with it on the kindergarten playground.

So the concept of "everyday antiracism" seemed laughably obvious to me. I thought my professor was lacking in common sense. But once I started seeing schools up here, I was stunned to see how relevant her work was. What I realized, much later, was that the vast majority of the future teachers sitting around me went to segregated schools. They grew up without Black friends. There were no people of color in their literature circles. Nobody taught them on the back of the band bus why it took three hours to get a proper weave, and why weaves were a symbol of White oppression. The North has such an extensive network of private schools in its cities and White public schools in its suburbs that you don't have to mix with The Other.

And what I also learned, very quickly, was that Race in Massachusetts, with a capital R, was Not a Problem. Not up here, no ma'am. And to talk about it openly, and thoughtfully, and bluntly, was taboo.

I ran a little experiment at my suburban, predominately White school last year in my creative writing class (I switched districts for a year). The day after Martin Luther King Jr. day, I gave my students a very simple prompt: Write about a time when race, either yours or someone else's, affected you.

Let me paint this picture for you clearly: me, a White teacher, asking his White students to write about race. There was one Black student enrolled in the class, but he wasn't there that day.

You would have thought I asked them to write a dissertation. It was the hardest assignment I gave them all year. They were literally squirming in their seats; some even refused to write. Here, paraphrased, were some of the sample responses:

"I don't see race." "I don't feel comfortable writing about this." "Race doesn't really affect me. Almost everyone around me is White." "I've never really thought about this before."

Some of these students were seniors in high school, and not once had they been asked to address, full-on, their Whiteness. When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, I asked bluntly, "Why are most people in this room White?" And we discussed real estate practices, and how the GI Bill excluded African American veterans, and all of the reasons why they were living in a suburb and sitting in that classroom at that moment in time. No one had asked them before -- and never before had they even considered -- the basic question, why are you here, and why are other people not here?

And before I get comments about how the South is not some Harper Lee fantasy, let me explain myself. Yes, I grew up with overt, concrete racial injustice all around me. Black people in many Southern towns still live on the other side of the railroad tracks, physically and metaphorically. But the key difference is that we all went to the same school. All of us. The Mexican immigrant, the White lawyer's daughter, the Black preacher's son. And because we all went to the same school, we all had to deal with and navigate and un-learn the prejudices that we inherited. We had to talk when somebody wore a Confederate flag t-shirt to school. We had to question, and we had to grow together. But only by being in the same building and having to deal with race from an early age did we learn how to talk about it. And that is the first, biggest step.

The North never took that step. It's too busy running away from its own pseudo-liberal shadow. Schools are getting more segregated up here every day. People frame it as "school choice," which is a complete misnomer. I know that people who fight for neighborhood schools aren't thinking in terms of race, but that's exactly the point. They aren't considering the long-term sociological impacts. If a neighborhood isn't integrated, the school won't be either. And we are therefore actively practicing segregation, whether we say it and put it in those words or not.

In the South, communities are re-segregating under the banner of "choice" and "freedom," when it's anything but. And until the North gets serious about its own tortured history, we will have segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.