Monday, September 24, 2007

The True Meaning of Racial Integration, Then and Now

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

On Monday, September 23, 1957, more than 1,000 white residents of Little Rock, Arkansas gathered in front of Little Rock Central High School and screamed their rage at the nine children who would soon become its first black students. Police secreted the nine into the building through a side entrance, but the threat of a riot later compelled the students to flee.

What was the meaning of racial integration that provoked these white citizens of Little Rock to such a hateful response?

Much has changed. Today, the Little Rock Nine are widely hailed as heroes of the civil rights movement their courage helped catalyze. Whereas in 1956 only two in ten white Southerners with a high school degree supported school integration in principle, by 1986 nine in ten did. This is good news.

Sadly, the distinction between now and then fades as we move from questions of principle to practice.

Most black and Latino students today attend majority-black and majority-Latino schools, respectively. In many large metropolitan areas like Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Chicago, large majorities of nonwhites or whites would have to change neighborhoods for the groups to be equally distributed across the region.

What, then, is the meaning of racial integration for us today?

Many of the answers to that question are well-known, even if we hesitate to acknowledge them. Many whites fear that an influx of minorities will precipitate declines in property values; school overcrowding and deterioration; increases in crime, noise, and untidiness; and so on. Such fears have led many whites to avoid, or leave, neighborhoods and schools perceived to be integrated or integrating.

In turn, anticipated and actual hostility from their would-be neighbors can leave racial and ethnic minority group members reluctant to enter neighborhoods and schools in which whites comprise large majorities.

We cannot and should not discount these concerns. But we must recognize that the skepticism expressed by many attaches only to the very thin expression of integration typically found in some neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. There is an alternative vision of what integration might mean. We might call this vision “true integration.”

In the context of our schools, true integration moves beyond desegregation – beyond removing legal barriers and merely facial alterations in the racial make-up of schools – to implementing the founding ideals of this country.

Rather than erasing racial and ethnic differences, true integration legitimizes the historical, intellectual, and cultural contributions of all groups. It recognizes that identities are constantly evolving and need to be embraced, rather than threatened. Truly integrated schools equip students with the tools they need to participate in our increasingly pluralistic democracy. True integration celebrates the very diversity that segregation tries to contain and assimilation tries to negate.

Something akin to this vision of integration is well worth the struggle.


  1. "Truly integrated schools equip students with the tools they need to participate in our increasingly pluralistic democracy."

    "True integration celebrates the very diversity that segregation tries to contain and assimilation tries to negate. Something akin to this vision of integration is well worth the struggle."

    So writes Dr. Andrew Grant-Thomas; many of us "progressive thinkers" concur; the question is -- who are the ones doing the struggling? Regardless of the good intentions of many, and the work being done by organizations such as the Kirwan, The Jamestown Project and others, the main problems remain national, systemic, structural racism and integral racism of the human being. The type of insidious racism that is manifested in statements by Bill Riley and many others in positions of power and influence. How do we struggle and win against that? When will that kind of racism practiced by so many in our halls of govt., in our school systems and powerful corporations across America end so that there is true integration and a level playing field?

    How do we insulate the minds of black and brown children against the effects of this insidious type of racism? As we struggle, what are the costs? How many generations will it take? Practically, else can be done to bring about positive and "real" change as soon as possible?

    It is hopeful that only 1 out of 10 now oppose school integration. Do we know how many of the representative - 9, who now support school integration verbally, are in positions to sabbotage its effects practically? A closure look might reveal a distinct difference between what people tell interviewers and what they practice.

    There are still large gaps in educational achievement between black, brown and white children; something is happening differently for each group. This writer believes that the lack of real integration, the type that Dr. Grant-Thomas writes about, is at the root of many of the problems. We are far from being an integrated society and the cost of the struggle for the black and brown people are huge!

  2. This election year is providing real opportunities for the USA to live up to its creed that all people are created equal. Will Americans vote for Mr. Obama? Will all the people who support him in words do so in the ballot box in Nov? What criteria are being used to judge each candidate? What exactly is the "press" up to?

    We can no longer rely on the mainstream media to bring us factual, reliable information, and we cannot trust them to be honest with us. We see the inequities demonstrated by the media coverage or lack of when it comes to each candidate. They are not all covered in the same manner, and they are not all challenged or questioned to the same extent.

    Mrs. Clinton has been pilloried; one has to wonder -- were she a white male, how differently she would have been treated? All of her negatives would most likely have been interpreted as positives.

    Secondly, we still face the real challenges of inequity in our socio, political and economic systems. Where exactly do women rank in our economic & political systems? There is ample evidence that what people might say in words is not always what they practice in deeds. The bottomline is: while Mr. Obama's candidacy gives us reason to be hopeful, we are a far way from being in an integrated society; we are far from being in a gender equal society. It is difficult not to see how the media treats Mr. Obama as just another form of bigotry. Afterall, he speaks so well; he is so smart and sophisticated -- my goodness, he is just like.....! If he does not live down to our usual stereotype of the black man, he must be someone special!!!!

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