On Thursday, May 12, Civil Rights era icon Ruby Bridges spoke to students at Lincoln Elementary School and Edgewood Middle School.
In 1960, after court-ordered desegregation, six-year-old Bridges was the first black student to attend an all white elementary school in New Orleans. Because of racist, angry, and hateful protestors waiting outside the elementary school, Bridges had to be escorted into the building by federal marshals. Parents pulled their children out of the school and all teachers but one, Mrs. Barbara Henry, refused to teach Bridges.
Ruby Bridges and her story symbolize the Civil Rights era’s struggle against segregated schools. While today legal school segregation does not exist, many schools in the United States remain racially segregated. For example, as of 2010, Lincoln School was 95 percent White, while Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx enrolled 99 percent students of color. Furthermore, urban schools with large minority populations are often in poor physical condition, are overcrowded, have a high teacher turnover rate, and utilize a militaristic and business-like pedagogy. These statistics and inequality are concerning because Brown v. Board of Education ruled, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” I emphasize the word “inherently” because the Supreme Court is saying that segregated schools are detrimental to children regardless of whether this segregation takes place because of a law or because of factors such as White Flight, housing discrimination, and racial economic inequality.
Why is racial integration in schools important? First, having a diverse student body–in terms of race, economic status, religion and other factors–brings multiple experiences and viewpoints which facilitate more diverse and meaningful discussions, debates, and critical thinking. Being aware of different experiences and viewpoints helps students better understand American society. Socializing with students of different backgrounds will lead to better racial integration in the "real world" because people will be more comfortable interacting with those of a different background, leading to more diverse and representative neighborhoods and work places.
I find it ironic that Ruby Bridges, who’s story symbolizes racial integration in schools, spoke at the most highly segregated District 112 middle and elementary schools. According to 2010 school report cards, white students make up 53 percent of Illinois public school students and 75 percent of District 112 students. However, Lincoln is 95 percent white while Edgewood is 90 white. These students barely have the opportunity to engage with a diverse population.
While Highland Park and Highwood students eventually end up at Highland Park High School, which has a relatively diverse population (As of 2010, 21 percent are students of color), students often do not have an opportunity to take advantage of this diversity. This is because friendship groups have often already formed in the more segregated elementary and middle schools before students arrive at the high school. Furthermore, school courses and clubs often end up segregated by race due to varied and complex reasons such as the racial achievement gap, the exclusive reputation of certain courses and clubs, and the fact that some students work every day after school and therefore can't join clubs.
One student listening to Bridges said hearing her speak will allow himself and his classmates to “make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.” Unfortunately, history is already repeating itself. While schools desegregated and the racial achievement gap narrowed for several decades after the Civil Rights Movements, schools have now become re-segregated and the achievement gap has widened. According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, as of 2005, “The proportion of Black students at majority white schools was at a level lower than in any year since 1968.” The most segregated states in terms of education are, contrary to what one might think, not in the South. New York, Michigan, Illinois and California are the four most segregated states for black students.
In this article I simply want to point out that the progress made, legislation passed, and dreams dreamt of the Civil Rights Era are not complete and in some cases, have reversed. Elementary and middle school students learn about the victories of this movement while never exploring current day social movements, struggles and inequalities (I leave out high school because some HPHS social studies courses do cover topics like these). Curriculum should be adjusted so that students can apply their history lessons to the current day.
Hopefully our country will continue to make progress in the struggle for equal education and racial equity. To read more about these topics I recommend checking out the website for The Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly based at Harvard) and reading works by Jonathan Kozol and Pedro Noguera.