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Readers Ask: At Segregated Brooklyn School, Is It Race or Class?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 05:12 PM

This week marks the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the court case that struck down state-sponsored school segregation in the United States. But after six decades, a look at New York City public schools shows a system still divided by race.

An article in the Metropolitan section of The New York Times on Sunday, “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?,” by N.R. Kleinfield, looks at the issue through one school, Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

More than 98 percent of the students there are black or Hispanic, and in poignant interviews many students described what it was like to attend such a segregated school. Among other things, some Explore students said they saw white students -- and whites in general -- as somewhat of a mystery.

Hundreds of readers responded with comments, with many questioning whether schools could be integrated in a public school system where only about 15 percent of the students are white.

Many also deviated from the central focus of the article to express concerns about an after-school snack that the school provided of Doritos, Oreos and soda.

One of the most frequent responses was a point that is often raised in discussions of race: that the matter is one of class, not color. Said Maria Espinal from the Bronx (some of the responses were lightly edited):

Why did Rev. Al Sharpton send his daughters to a private school? The same reason other rich people do. It has nothing to do about race. It's class.

Other parents said it was about choice. Wrote Delia from Harlem:

What Hispanics like myself, along with other minority parents, just won't admit is, if we had the money to send our kids to private schools, WE WOULD and do. My son was going to a private school until I was no longer working. Now he goes to a public school. It's not that terrible, but it's no private school either. These charter schools mention and often remind kids of how devastatingly different they are because of their 'poorness' — often, for all kinds of reasons.

MH from Brooklyn also described it as a class issue:

I live in a borderline neighborhood in the city and spend a very high percentage of my income to send my two kids to private school. It is not that I don't want them interacting with other races. But I do want to avoid having my kids interact with kids who have more challenged family and socio-economic situations. There are two black kids in the class and their parents are professionals - as are the Indian, Asian, white and other kids. I am almost certainly contributing to the "segregation" of the public schools but I am very comfortable with that.

Some argued that not all segregation is bad, like Robin Johns from Atlanta:

Discussions about segregation always seem to portray black segregation as bad, and white segregation as elite. I have friends that send their children to Hebrew school. Another sends her child to a Chinese school. This is more an issue of class and economic status. Upper-middle-class blacks have also abandoned the public school system in favor of private schools, or public schools with elite or accelerated programs.

Others focused on the makeup of the teacher corps at Explore Charter School, as well as at so many other minority-dominated schools. Richard Irvan, who said he was a teacher at a New York City charter school, wrote:

As a white teacher in Harlem, I know many parents who are grateful for the quality of instruction regardless of the color of the instructor. That said, should students of color have more teachers that look like them? Absolutely. How can we encourage more black college students to consider a career in education? Until there are greater numbers of black teachers, like the fantastic colleagues I work with in Harlem, complaints of overly white staff seem moot and certainly overlook academic gains that can be made with teachers of any color.

One commenter, Midtown from Virginia, said the students, parents and teachers at Explore were making conflicting arguments:

It seems they are of two minds: they want to force out white teachers and replace them with blacks, but they also want more diversity. It doesn't make sense.

The Times article did not focus so much on the quality of the students' education as on the quality of their experience. But Regan Connolly, another reader from Harlem, said the focus should remain on whether the schools are any good:

Segregation is not the problem. It’s lack of resources. It’s about our schools, class size, the quality of our teachers and their working conditions; books, technology; enrichment programs; the look of the place and what that conveys to students about their worth. Let’s quit focusing on race and let’s focus on providing the most fantastic education that is obtainable in the world for all of our citizens.

Dcet from Baltimore said she is a black woman who attended majority-black schools:

This has to be the most dispiriting article I have read in a long time. I truly do not understand why this school, these administrators, these parents, and these kids are so worried about exposure to white people. The focus needs to be on the ACADEMICS and making sure these kids have the resources to be COMPETITIVE. Not whining about the lack of integration.

Until high school, I attended majority black schools. The lack of resources was stunning, but my teachers were competent and my education was valued in my home. It was a great experience but more importantly I received a solid education.

And many of those who commented expressed concern about hostility to achievement that some students and others at Explore Charter School had described. Wrote Josh Hill from New London, Conn.:

To me, the saddest thing in the article was the girl who was pressured to stop being articulate. Middle class parents, whether black or white, can usually keep their children out of such an environment by moving to a prosperous school district. But how do we free talented inner-city kids from this class-based fly trap?

Some argued that it is that hostility to achievement that causes some parents to avoid schools like Explore. Wrote HT from New York City:

If you had a choice, would you put your kid in a school where the other students ostracize him/her for using a full vocabulary and getting good grades? Didn’t think so.

Some who commented said Explore Charter School's administration was to blame, at least in part. Chris from the Bronx wrote that the school's administration should be doing more to change the atmosphere and make it a place to which parents want to send their children:

This is just not a good school. Plain and simple. Calling kids "scholars" won't make a difference, especially when a smart kid is ostracized and has to hide it. The teachers are aware of this and no doubt the principal is. What kind of academic culture is this? It's failing, yet its founder is opening new ones.

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