March 21, 2023

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley: Segregated schools, not ‘divisive concepts,’ are what divide us

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Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is an associate professor of educational leadership in the VCU School of Education. In this op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she explains that “divisive concepts” are not what’s driving a wedge between Americans. She starts with a history lesson, looking at the calls to desegregate in the  aftermath of Brown v. Board.

White resistance to desegregation, partly rooted in a failure to reflect on segregation’s damages to all, undermined its implementation. A decade after Brown, 98% of Southern Black students remained in segregated schools. It took the full weight of the federal government to turn the tide against racial caste in Southern education. First, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included Title VI, a provision prohibiting federal funding for any program that discriminated on the basis of race, color or national origin. Second, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 proffered significant federal funding to school districts. Federal threats to withhold that funding if Southern districts failed to comply with Title VI induced many to begin desegregating in earnest. The Supreme Court amplified legislative and executive efforts when it required districts to eliminate segregation “root and branch” in 1968.

By the early 1970s, concerted federal oversight and enforcement of school desegregation began to recede – before it even began in most places. Backlash to desegregation progress enabled by federal efforts grew, however. Conservatives initiated a decadeslong project to redefine discrimination and eliminate any legal or policy consideration of race. Even if, as was the case in school desegregation plans, consideration of student racial background was meant to remedy discrimination and subordination on the basis of race. There is no equivalency, for instance, between a student assignment policy that legally requires school segregation by race and one that voluntarily considers the racial background of students to bring them together in the same schools.

Today, white resistance to educational equity initiatives in Virginia and elsewhere centers on an ahistorical and perverted view of Title VI’s prohibition against discrimination. White resistance flourishes when we refuse to grasp how central anti-Black racism is to our history and contemporary society. It hardens when we keep our educational and social worlds racially separate. And it rears its head when white supremacy is threatened. Backlash to the racial reckoning engendered by George Floyd’s murder helps explain efforts to stoke white racial grievance, protect white students from guilt by circumscribing learning about our past and subvert serious education reform targeting segregation.

Read the full op-ed here. 


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