Letters 20.2

Segregation Then and Now

The excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation (Volume 20, No. 1) was a passionate, effective indictment of the state of public education and the political, academic, and corporate hustlers who are taking advantage of school failure.

However, I have a basic question about the underlying assumption of the article and the book. The subtitle of the book is The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. What restoration? The New York City schools were never desegregated. Nor were the schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and most other urban centers. Sure, there was white flight, but that happened before the schools could effectively be desegregated.

The reason I bring it up is that the premise that there has been a resegregation of schools posits a time in the not-too- distant past when the white community deigned to open up their schools and bus their children for the social benefit. This is simply false. Desegregation was attempted in some places, but the overwhelming responses to the Brown decision were indifference, resistance, and the creation of White Citizens’ Schools and white-dominated private schools. It lets the white community off the hook if we allow for a time when the schools were integrated. It reminds me of a statement by the black comedienne Moms Mabely: “The good old days: I was there; where was they?”

What we have to acknowledge is the persistent racism that motivates behavior despite legal dictums, media rhetoric, and well-meaning political efforts to force justice on an unjust society. This implies community-based school change, working with groups that are community-based, and developing networks of committed activists without expecting the majority white community to be activist or even of good intent.

I hope Kozol’s call for a new movement to create just education is effective, but I think it would be counterproductive to get people marching for a few months and then going home. It would be better to assist those groups with a history of working toward justice through education come together and work toward long-term strategies that are not based on dependency or the good will of the professional education community or politicians.

It’s going to be a long, hard journey, but certainly one that educators of conscience have to make.

Herbert Kohl
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Jonathan Kozol Responds:

First, my thanks to Herb for his initially kind words about the excerpt from my book. Thanks also to the dozens of Rethinking Schools activists and volunteers who helped to rally the troops when I was on the road this fall. More than 25,000 teachers, union organizers, future teachers, grassroots leaders, and a surprisingly large number of progressive administrators answered the call. The size and intensity of these dynamically committed crowds is, to a large degree, a testimony to the politically gusty teacher network of Rethinking Schools.

Herb’s somewhat puzzling argument that the integration era was, in large part, unsuccessful starkly conflicts with my personal experience and memory of history, that of NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director-Counsel Theodore Shaw, and the meticulous documentation Gary Orfield has compiled, particularly in “The Closing Door” and, with his co-author Susan Eaton, in “Dismantling Desegregation.”

New York, Chicago, Detroit, and some major Northern districts were, it is true, untouched by Brown. But tens of thousands of schools in other districts were integrated with remarkable success, and with an unprecedented decrease in the so-called “race gap” in achievement for the black and brown kids in these districts — during the period from roughly 1966 to 1990 in which Brown was earnestly enforced.

During the same period, voluntary integration programs also flourished with the strong support of many suburban educators who believed, and still believe, that integrated education benefits white children every bit as much as kids of color. In once-notorious Prince Edward’s County, Va., where one of the white academies that Herb refers to was established after Brown and the public system became virtually all-black and remained so up to 1972, legal actions and a transformation of community opinion subsequently brought white children back into the now-desegregated public schools. Today, 90 percent of the children in the district (40 percent white, 60 percent black) go to public school together.

Much of this progress came crashing to a halt starting in the early 1990s when the Rehnquist court began to rip apart the legacy of Brown and has even gone so far as to oppose many voluntary programs: in St. Louis, for example, where 10,000 children cross the district lines each day, white students staged a walk-out last year to protest a federal court decision that may terminate this program.

Herb’s hesitation to expect white people to be “activist or even of good intent” and, moreover, not even to depend on the potential for “good will in the professional educational community” strikes me as unfair to thousands of determined and politically unbroken principals and teachers of all races (many of whom rely upon historical materials provided by Rethinking Schools) who still believe apartheid schooling is inherently unequal, has never been equal in the century just past, and never will be in the century ahead. In the words of John Lewis, founder of the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and today a 10-term congressman from Georgia, “A segregated education in America is unacceptable. Integration is, it still remains, the goal worth fighting for. . . . You cannot give it up. We cannot give it up. As a nation, as a people, I don’t think that we have any choice but to resist acquiescence, to resist defeat.”

I’m grateful to Herb for spurring me to reflect upon these issues and, especially, upon the dual nature of the struggle that so many of the bravest inner-city teachers now foresee: to do the very best and most humane job they can do within the schools as they now stand, but also to take up again the role of warriors for justice and to bring this nation to its knees once more, as Lewis and his fellow activists did 40 years ago, not by “marching for a few months and then going home” but by the patient building of a militant and self-sustaining movement, as disruptive of the nation’s equanimity as it may need to be. Thanks to the many empowered followers of Rethinking Schools for pushing me, throughout these recent months, not to retreat an inch on these beliefs.

Jonathan Kozol
Byfield, Massachusetts

Military Recruiting

I just wanted to write and say that I completely support your draft resolution to end excessive military recruitment (Volume 20, No. 1). Although I am not a resident of Portland, I believe that all young people should be free from excessive pressure to join the military.

Gen Kallio
Vancouver, Canada

I remember when I was fed lies about joining the military and I had nowhere to go to report them. I felt pressured and harrassed. It is sickening to see the recruiters going after the most vulnerable. I was approached by recruiters when I was attending a school where more than half of the kids lived in poverty. When I switched schools (so that I could play soccer) I was never approached and never saw any recruiters on campus. I would like to say thank you to everyone who is working together to keep the kids safe and to keep military recruiters out of schools.

Jessica Wood
Seattle, Washington

‘We Don’t Need Another Soldier’

I applaud your article “We Don’t Need Another Soldier” (Volume 20, No. 1). I am glad you had your former student come talk to your current students. High school students, especially those labeled “trouble-makers” or “disadvantaged,” are their targets. Like “Satch” in the article, my brother and his best friend fell for how wonderful the military sounded. Like your former student, they were both shipped to Iraq and stationed in Ramadi. How ironic that I received the magazine exactly one month to the day after my brother’s friend lost his life fighting in Ramadi. I am glad you had your student come and speak about the military and how it’s not for everyone — there are other options. You may have saved some lives! I pray for your former student and all others currently serving in the military. Thank you for all that you do.

Jamie Sienko
Baltimore City, Maryland

As I learned from my husband’s brief encounter with the U. S. Army, everything the author described — from the deceptive statements and outright lies recruiters use to influence people to join, to how the military actively discourages its soldiers to think critically — couldn’t be more true.

Julie Morris
Billings, Montana

I commend Rethinking Schools for covering a perspective on how teachers and educators can support critical thinking and understanding about the dynamics of military recruitment in our schools. In the Los Angeles County schools we also had increased military recruitment since 9-11 and the war in Iraq. But over the past two years, a grassroots coalition of students, teachers, school staff, parents, and community organizations has significantly increased students’ activism and decreased the military recruiting on school campuses. Karl Meiner’s account of a former student who joined the Marines left me feeling that more needed to be said to “Satch,” the student who returned to the classroom to tell about his experience with military recruiters.

Meiner ended the article with regrets, understandable regrets that more wasn’t done to support Satch in exploring other alternatives and taking a different route. But he could have given Satch something that could one day make a difference in his life. Every soldier needs to know about the GI Rights Hotline and to be given their card, which lists the free and confidential hotline number, 800-394-9544, and the website, www.girights.org. It also includes legal rights on how to get a discharge and informational websites. I always keep a couple of cards with me, to give out to soldiers I meet. Request the cards at girights@objector.com.

Second, teachers need to be aware that active-duty soldiers do not have free-speech rights in relation to speaking out against the military. Teachers should consult with a lawyer before asking a former student to speak to a class in uniform. They are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but when off-duty, out of uniform, off base, and in the United States, they have legal rights to say what they think and feel about the military (DoD Directive 1325.6).

Finally, every teacher should know that students who have signed up for the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) can get out easily with no negative consequences. For practical purposes, they are not in the military until they actually go to active duty, and are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) until then. Recruiters go to great lengths to threaten and intimidate students that all manner of terrible things will happen to them if they try to leave the DEP. Again, for information on these issues, consult the GI Rights Hotline.

Although we may feel helpless in the decisions our students make, we educators may be the ones to throw them the life preserver. Let’s not forget about what we can do after as well as before our students enlist.

Arlene Inouye
Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools Coordinator
South Pasadena, California