This paper recently published two commentaries on the ongoing lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota (“A general mess,” Oct 7, and “ ‘Education Clause’ lawsuit simply asks the Legislature to do its duty,” Oct 13). Unfortunately, both miss the mark.
Unlike Katherine Kersten, I believe that school integration is a goal worth striving for. Yet, unlike the four co-authors who responded to Kersten, I believe that it would be reckless and shortsighted to strive for that goal — again — on the backs of communities of color, or by assuming that a school with some elusive racial makeup is automatically good.
Finally, unlike all five of these commentators, I say this all as a black woman who grew up in the segregated South and raised my children in the segregated North. If my experiences have taught me anything, it’s that integrating schools is complicated work — work that is bound to fail children of color if we do not keep their educational success and the agency of their families at the forefront.
As a little girl in Selma, Ala., I bore the burden of integrating my community’s schools. After Brown vs. Board of Education, I saw my black-led school, where I felt affirmed and challenged, close. I saw my black teachers and black school leaders lose their jobs, and our community suffer.
I saw my mother make sacrifices to send us to what she hoped would be an “integrated” school. I learned from white teachers, and saw that my white classmates had access to more and better opportunities than I did. Opportunities that I once had at my old school before it closed, allegedly to help children like me.
As a parent in north Minneapolis, I saw my children denied spots at their neighborhood magnet school because it had to hold seats for white children. I saw the racism that my children faced daily in the “integrated” school to which they were bused instead. I saw, through the many choices I made in search of a high-quality education for my kids, that it is arrogant and paternalistic for anyone to ever tell a parent — and especially a parent of color — what school is best for their child.
As an educator and eventual superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, I saw schools that looked “integrated” on paper, yet sent white children to the Advanced Placement and honor classes on the beautiful, bright top floor, and black and brown children to the special-education classes in the dark, dingy basement. I saw that, even within diverse classrooms, students of color still had a different experience than their white classmates. Meanwhile, I saw some schools serving predominantly students of color, and serving them well. Schools that the current Cruz-Guzman lawsuit, which seeks court-ordered metrowide racial balancing in the Twin Cities region’s public schools, could risk closing, allegedly to help children of color.
Today, I see hypocrisy. I see an unwillingness to learn from our history. And I see lot of white people trying to tell families of color what our children need.
Some oppose school integration because they don’t want their white children to sit next to black and brown ones. Others support school integration at all costs because it won’t happen on their backs or those of their kids. They’ll never be forced to send their child to a school that doesn’t meet their needs, or where their classmates and teachers don’t value their humanity and potential.
While those two camps talk past each other — as they recently did in the pages of this paper — and debate the pros and cons of surface-level school “integration,” we’re failing to have the real conversations we need to be having.
How do we improve academic outcomes for children of color inside school and classroom walls? How do we learn from, not close, the schools that are already serving these students well? How do we honor, and deliver, what their families want for them so that they can live dignified and ambitious lives?
If we’re not ready to ask those questions — and to let communities of color answer — then we’re not ready to talk seriously about real school integration. That, I see plain as day.
Bernadeia Johnson is a former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. She is now an assistant professor at Minnesota State University Mankato.