03/19/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Integrate Long Island Schools

In February, I was invited to be a Black History Month speaker on the "State of School Integration on Long Island." I was invited because I am a professor of education at Hofstra University and because I am a white man and parent committed to racially integrating public schools.

The session, sponsored by the Save-Our-Sons Network, was held at the Lakeview Public Library. Lakeview, technically an unincorporated village in Nassau County, is a small largely black community of suburban homeowners. In 2007, the population of Lakeview was approximately 5,600 people, about three-quarters of whom were black.

While Lakeview is included in the Rockville Centre postal zone, the community is part of the Malverne School District that includes Malverne proper. The town of Malverne has a population of approximately 8,900 people, 85 percent of whom are white. The demographic differences between Lakeview and Malverne date from the 1950s when middle class black families were "redlined" by banks and mortgage companies out of most suburban Long Island communities but were allowed to purchase homes in the lowlands west of Hempstead Lake State Park.

The Lakeview-Malverne area and school district have had a highly contentious racial history since the 1920s. According to the Nassau Daily Review (March 9, 1925), Paul Lindner, a Malverne farmer and real estate developer, was grand kleagle of the Nassau County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and a leading state level Klan official. Much of that history, assembled from local newspaper sources, is told in an online curriculum guide The Civil Rights Movement on Long Island.

In the 1960s, one of the sharpest battles in the struggle to racially integrate Long Island and New York State schools was fought out in the Lakeview-Malverne school district. In June 1963, Lakeview parents with children at the Woodfield Road School and representatives of the local chapter of the NAACP launched a campaign to desegregate the district's three elementary schools. White parents in a taxpayers and parents group and the Malverne School Board fought for four years to prevent reorganization of the elementary schools.

They were supported by State Senator Norman Lent -- a Republican who introduced legislation to prevent the state commissioner of education from busing students to another school "based on race, color, religion, or national origin" ("Fights Shifts Based on Race", Newsday, February 20, 1964 ). The bill was eventually defeated in the Democratic controlled State Assembly. During the struggle both black and white parents organized school boycotts. In August 1967 the Malverne School Board and the State Education Department finally agreed on a new "4-4-4" plan. Students were divided between two kindergarten through fourth grade schools and then assigned to a district-wide middle school and high school.

Racial conflict reemerged in 1969 when black students in the high school demanded a black studies program. Police were called, they broke up demonstrations, and arrested over one hundred student protesters. However, students were released without charges and eventually secured their demands.

Today, despite the fact that the population of the town of Malverne remains overwhelming white, over 75 percent of the students in Malverne schools are black and Latino. Many white families send their children to local religious schools or to public schools in surrounding communities.

In an era when school reform and budget savings are championed by representatives of both major political parties, Long Island cannot economically, politically, or culturally afford to maintain small racially segregated school districts. Based on demographic data available in New York: The State of Learning, an annual statistical profile of New York State school districts, Malverne schools and schools in surrounding communities do not have to be racially segregated.

In near by Rockville Centre, 80 percent of the students are white. If Malverne, Lakeview, and Rockville Centre were combined into one school district, the student population would be 53 percent white, 30 percent black, 13 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian. If we think even more broadly and Malverne, Lakeview, Rockville Centre, West Hempstead, Lynbrook, and East Rockaway were consolidated into a manageable district with under 11,000 students, the student population would be 69 percent white, 14 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian.

After my presentation I was asked two very important questions. Can't black children learn just as well when the children sitting around them are black? Don't parents have the responsibility to make sure their children are succeeding in school?

Ideally, it does not make a difference to a student the color of the skin of the child sitting next to them. Some day it may not. However, at this time, racial segregation still places a stigma of inferiority on the groups that are excluded. If it didn't, why are white parents on Long Island so worried about their children attending school with black children?

In addition, local funding means schools receive very different levels of financial support and black and Latino children tend to live in the school districts that have greater problems and fewer resources. As a result, learning suffers. One parent told the audience that his daughter was a top student in the Malverne middle school's honors program, but when she transferred to a local high school operated by one of the church groups where a majority of the students are white, she only placed on the middle level on performance examinations.

In response to the question about parent responsibility, the answer, of course, is yes. Parents have a great responsibility for the school performance of their children. But the reality is that parents are hard pressed by the need to earn a living in difficult economic times and there are other pressures on young people. It is unclear to me why children should be punished with racial and ethnic isolation and lower quality schools because their parents are poor, hard-pressed, or even neglectful. Children who need more support should get it from our schools, communities, and society.

The struggle for racial integration in Malverne and on Long Island has been going on for more than 60 years. Racial tensions have existed for an even longer period. If our children are going to be prepared for life in the 21rst century, they need to master technology, literacy, and a variety of content areas. But perhaps even more importantly for life in our globalized world, they need to learn how to work with and respect people from diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

On Long Island, our diversity is one of our greatest resources. It is time to finally racially integrate our schools.