Close Reading: “Resegregation In The American South” In The ATLANTIC

Here`s a long, serious article from The Atlantic that, when read closely, self-destructs. 

Several observations from reading the story:

  • Middle class blacks in Tuscaloosa made a deal with whites to get their black children away from underclass blacks.
  • The country is slowly running out of white children to use as buffers to absorb black dysfunction.

It focuses on three generations of the black Dent family in Tuscaloosa.

Resegregation in the American South 

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, show how separate and unequal education is coming back. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones/ProPublic

Though James Dent could watch Central High School’s homecoming parade from the porch of his faded-white bungalow, it had been years since he’d bothered. But last fall, Dent’s oldest granddaughter, D’Leisha, was vying for homecoming queen, and he knew she’d be poking up through the sunroof of her mother’s car, hand cupped in a beauty-pageant wave, looking for him.

So, at about 4:30 in the afternoon on October 18, Dent, age 64, made his way off the porch and to the curb along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the West End of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Central was not just a renowned local high school. It was one of the South’s signature integration success stories. In 1979, a federal judge had ordered the merger of the city’s two largely segregated high schools into one. …

But on that sunlit day last October, as Dent searched for Melissa’s daughter in the procession coming into view, he saw little to remind him of that era. More caravan than parade, Central’s homecoming pageant consisted of a wobbly group of about 30 band members, some marching children from the nearby elementary schools, and a dozen or so cars with handwritten signs attached to their sides. …

The reason for the decline of Central’s homecoming parade is no secret. In 2000, another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that had governed it for a single generation. Central had successfully achieved integration, the district had argued—it could be trusted to manage that success going forward.

Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects.

Is it all that awful for 90 IQ black students to get to grow up feeling superior to 80 IQ black classmates rather than feeling inferior to 100 IQ white classmates?

Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America. No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else.

I.e., from non-poor black students.

In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.

Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation—among the most extensive in the country—is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites.

This is the real story that almost nobody has noticed in reading this long article: Tuscaloosa`s black middle class leadership sold out its black underclass in return for its own interests.

… In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools—meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South now attend such schools ….

In other words, the North was traditionally segregated spatially, while the South was segregated socially.

For example, as a Catholic school kid in the San Fernando Valley, I noticed that Jewish kids at the park, who all went to public schools, looked down upon Catholic schools as alien. But when busing from Watts into the San Fernando Valley was ordered in the late 1970s, local Jewish politicians led the fight against integration, and Jews started an impressive number of private schools.

In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem, resulted from many hours of argument and negotiation in McFadden’s chambers. …

Now 45 and a single mother of four, [Melissa Dent] works on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz plant just outside of town.

A few minutes before first period on a Wednesday last October, D’Leisha Dent, a 17-year-old senior, waded through Central High’s halls, toes with chipped blue polish peeking out from her sandals, orange jeans hugging solid legs that had helped make her the three-time state indoor shot-put champion.

She eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.

Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.

D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.

He passed out an essay question about D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow. As the students began to write, a girl sitting to his left scrunched up her nose and raised her hand. She couldn’t spell a word she wanted to use in her essay. Jones told her to look it up in one of the heavy red dictionaries in the baskets below their desks.

“You know what I don’t understand?” the girl said, a pen poised at her lips. “You always tell us to look up the word. How are we supposed to look a word up if we don’t know to spell it?” 

Ouch.

… After Melissa Dent graduated, in 1988, Central continued as one of the state’s standout high schools. But over time, local leaders grew more concerned about the students who didn’t attend the school than those who did. 

Running out of white kids …

… White students once accounted for a majority of the Tuscaloosa school district’s students. But by the mid-1990s, they made up less than a third. Total enrollment had dropped from 13,500 in 1969 to 10,300 in 1995. Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools.

Tuscaloosa’s business leaders and elected officials had witnessed the transformation of other southern cities after their school districts had reached a tipping point—the point at which white parents become unsettled by the rising share of black students in a school, and pull their children from the school en masse. School districts in cities such as Birmingham and Richmond had seen their integration efforts largely mooted: just about all the white students had left. …

In some ways, all-black schools today are worse than Druid High was back in the 1950s, when poor black students mixed with affluent and middle-class ones.

The fundamental issue is that there is always a large black underclass that everybody treats as a hot potato. Controlling the boundaries of Appropriate Discourse is helpful in dumping this hot potato into somebody else`s lap without them having a vocabulary for explaining what you are up to.

Tuscaloosa’s residential population stagnated during the ’90s, and the school situation took on special urgency in 1993: Tuscaloosa was vying for the Mercedes-Benz plant where Melissa Dent now works, which officials hoped would draw people to the city. Just a few years earlier, Tuscaloosa had lost out on a bid for a Saturn plant. In an interview early this year, Johnnie Aycock, who at the time headed the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, suggested the schools had scared Saturn away. “We learned that lesson. We learned that lesson completely.” 

In other words, engineers and executives from Stuttgart aren`t going to send their kids to majority black schools. And let`s not even think about Hyundai executives …

Publicly, the city’s movers and shakers said the lack of neighborhood schools made the district unattractive and that schools languished in disrepair because the district had to await court approval for every little decision. Behind closed doors, they argued that if they did not create some schools where white students made up the majority—or near it—they’d lose the white parents still remaining. …

The roster of witnesses lined up behind the school board shocked many in the black community. It included some of the city’s most influential black leaders, including a city councilman, a state senator, and Judge John England Jr., whose credentials carried force. England had been a member of the first integrated class at the University of Alabama Law School, and he’d fought discrimination his whole career as a litigator, before taking on roles as a city-council member and then as a county judge.

England testified as to how the city’s racial views had changed over the years. Building a school “across the river,” England told the court, was “the best thing for the community as a whole.”

Rumors spread within the community that England’s and others’ support had been part of a secret arrangement with white leaders. Dennis Parker, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, asked England during his testimony whether he’d said at a public meeting that a deal had been struck to improve a West End school in exchange for support for a new school in the whitest part of town. …

In an interview last fall in his chambers at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, Judge England said on the record for the first time that he had privately agreed to support the Rock Quarry [elementary] school during the trial—which would ultimately lead to the district’s release from federal oversight—only with the assurance of investment in West End schools, though he denied having made a quid pro quo deal. (Several others confirmed that white business, school, and city officials met privately with select black leaders to gain support for the district’s efforts to end the court order and free it to return to neighborhood schools, in exchange for new black schools and development in the West End.)

In other words, democracy: whites provided tax money to middle class blacks, and middle class blacks dumped poor blacks into their own high school.

What happened was rapid and continual resegregation, in particular the sequestration of poor black students in nearly hopeless schools.

Why are the schools hopeless? Because they are full of poor black students.

It is no small irony that efforts to woo the very plant that allows Melissa Dent to earn enough to support her family also played a part in ensuring that her children would attend nearly all-black schools.

In 1999, less than a year after Blackburn’s public hearing, the school board voted to abandon its three single-grade, citywide middle schools in favor of more-traditional middle schools.

So, under the old desegregation order, all the sixth graders in the city went to a single school devoted only to sixth grade. The next year they moved to a single school devoted only to seventh grade, and the same for eighth grade. And The Atlantic wonders why parents complained?

It carved out two integrated schools to serve sixth-through-eighth-graders in the northern, central, and eastern parts of the city, and returned Westlawn Middle, in the West End, to its familiar historic state: virtually all black.

The school board commissioned a biracial committee to figure out what to do about the high school. White parents, the commission suggested in its May 2000 report, would not want their children to attend schools once they turned 70 percent black. By its reasoning, the district had already reached the tipping point. The only way to create the necessary school ratios in a district where black students outnumbered white students almost three to one

You know, that is kind of a problem …

was to cluster a large number of black children in schools without white students. …

After the commission issued its report, the district created a plan for two large integrated high schools—Northridge, in the whitest and most affluent part of town, and Paul W. Bryant, along the city’s eastern edge—as well as a much smaller high school that would retain the name Central. School officials drew Central’s proposed attendance zone compactly around the West End, saying that an all-black high school couldn’t be avoided, because the district couldn’t help where people lived.

Today, Northridge HS “in the whitest and most affluent part of town” is 61% black and 35% white. Paul W. Bryant HS is 75% black and 19% white. Central H.S. is 100% black.

… Nonetheless, in August 2000, the seven-member board ordered Central’s dismantling, 21 years after its creation. One black member joined the board’s four white ones in voting in favor.

And so the district built its new high schools—but white parents did not flock to them. By 2007, white enrollment had fallen to 22 percent

Running out of white children …

But some parents were unhappy with the plan for a different set of reasons. The historic district around the University of Alabama, a predominantly white and middle-class area that’s home to college professors and other professionals, lies south of the river. The district’s plan would reassign children in this neighborhood to their closest schools, which were heavily black.

College professors, no matter what they might say in the lecture hall, don`t want their kids being sent to highly black schools.

The day before the school board voted, the president of the historic district association sent an e-mail to his fellow association members assuring them that after “lengthy negotiations with the school board attorney” and “discussions with school board members and the superintendent,” students in the district would be able to continue to attend the north-of-the-river schools….

A 2012 Stanford study examined school districts with at least 2,000 students that had been released from court order since 1990, finding that, typically, these districts grew steadily more segregated after their release.

As opposed to other schools? From 1990 to 2012, the whole country has been running out of white children to buffer minority dysfunction.

… Indeed, in some ways all-black schools today are worse than Druid High was back in the 1950s, when poor black students mixed with affluent and middle-class ones, and when many of the most talented black residents of Tuscaloosa taught there.

Feature, not a bug, to middle class black leaders — they`re rescued their kids from the black underclass.

D’Leisha Dent has retaken the ACT three times to try to raise her score. At a practice session with students from other high schools, she observed, “They knew things we didn’t know. They had done things we hadn’t done.”…

Though its students may arrive bearing more burdens, in many ways Central is like any other high school. It’s got its jocks, its nerds, its mean girls and band geeks. D’Leisha herself is the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player. … The school is housed in a lovely modern brick building outside of the West End, within view of the towering University of Alabama football stadium. …

Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling. She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16

21st percentile among ACT takers. Of course a lot of students who have already dropped out or who know they aren`t college material don`t take the ACT or SAT. For whatever it`s worth, here is somebody`s ACT / AFQT (military entrance test) concordance, which puts 16 on the ACT at equivalent to scoring at about the 45th percentile among all young people.

, the second time a 17

28th percentile among ACT test takers.

Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21

55th percentile.

, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.

34th percentile

“My biggest fear right now is the ACT,” D’Leisha said. “I don’t have a good score. It’s been on my mind a lot.” She described an ACT study session she’d attended last summer at a community college. “We were with kids from Northridge, and they knew things we didn’t know,” she said. “They had done things we hadn’t done.”

Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”

For black students like D’Leisha—the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision—having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.

Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16.

21st percentile

So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again.

21st percentile.

She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point. 

Is it really all that terrible that a nice girl like D`Leisha got to enjoy four years of being a big fish—class president, honor student, homecoming queen—in a small pond?