I benefitted from NYC’s practice of school segregation, and I have to come to terms with that. Like many liberal white Jews, I find the process of admitting my privilege very easy at times and very complicated at others. When it comes to the issue of my education, this is an easy one – I benefitted from the incredible privilege of attending some of NYC’s best academic programs, and I knew this even at the time. Now my childhood neighborhood is up in arms about a proposal to change the way disadvantaged children will have access to the city’s public schools – public schools, mind you – and I really can’t feel any sympathy for the white parents of this neighborhood because their reaction just reinforces what I observed as a little kid.
My background: I attended a public elementary school in Manhattan’s Upper West Side (UWS) and a private prep school on the Upper East Side (UES). My elementary school had not one but two levels of “gifted and talented” (G&T) programs – entry into these programs was determined via an IQ test administered when prospective students were 4 years old, and those scoring in the 85th percentile and above went into one program while those scoring in the 97th percentile and above went into another. Everyone else went into a general track, plus the school had one special education classroom for students with intellectual disabilities or deafness. I was in the highest track program from Kindergarten through 5th Grade, along with about 50-60 other kids – this still being a public school, the classes were about 30 students each, with 2 classes in my program per grade level. After 5th Grade, most of my classmates went to a public middle school that, while considered accelerated, was not as selective as my elementary school program had been, and was generally considered to be a kind of dangerous environment – everyone took the test to place into Hunter, the only public middle school with an admission exam, but very few were offered a spot. The expectation was that these high-achieving kids would suffer through three years of a less rigorous environment until they could move on to one of the city’s specialized high schools, all of which have an entrance exam. I did not go this route – I was intimidated by what I’d heard about the “dangerous” environment at the local middle school and the pressure of the entrance exams, and so I followed my closest older brother to the same private school. Private schools, of course, also have an entrance exam, but for some reason this seemed easier to me. I ended up applying and getting into the performing arts high school, but my parents and my friends convinced me to stay in the sheltered private high school environment (which I hated) until I desperately escaped the whole East Coast academic scene for the Midwest in college.
Is the NYC school system segregated? Unquestionably yes. Part of this is because of the mild segregation of neighborhoods – whether you call it a fluke of housing pricing or the intentional result of city planning policies like redlining and the placement of housing projects, neighborhoods in New York have pretty distinctive racial and ethnic divisions. But they’re not – or at least weren’t always – as bad as the schools are. I grew up at the very upper end of the UWS, on the border of Morningside Heights and Harlem, back when those neighborhoods were distinctly poorer and more majority Black, before Columbia University successfully bought up even more real estate from the north end and rich Orthodox Jews began to move in from the south end. When I was a kid, my neighborhood was majority Spanish-speaking – it was a mostly Puerto Rican area, and this was clear in the local businesses, the language of the billboards in the area, and in the makeup of the “general” track in my elementary school. It’s that obvious makeup of the neighborhood that emphasizes how – whether intentionally or not – my G&T program was skimming the white students out of the general school population and placing them in a different class.
I remember one day in 3rd Grade or so when my class and one of the general track classes combined for gym. We were terrified of them and they knew it – they were loud and unruly and played rough. After school that day, at a friend’s house, my friend and I were telling her mother (who was Cuban) about it. We couldn’t say exactly why we were so intimidated by these other kids, we just told her that we didn’t think they wanted to be our friends. She gave us a knowing look and said “maybe you guys weren’t being so friendly to them.” I knew exactly what she meant, but still didn’t know how to overcome it. I knew how I looked to those other kids – stuck up, genteel, white girl, allowed to play quietly, treated with the benefit of the doubt by teachers and administrators, yelled at less – but I also knew that I didn’t know how to convince them that I both didn’t see myself as more deserving of that good treatment than they were but also wasn’t used to playing rough or talking loud. I carried that anxiety with me through college and even now – it’s my recognition that being treated differently makes you act differently, and that even though I want to bridge the gap of experience, I feel like I’m putting on an act and pretending not to be privileged when I am.
My class was disproportionately white and Jewish (lots of kids were “half” Jewish – they had one Jewish parent and were raised largely secular or even Christian, and mostly liberal). One of the few Black boys in the class was often referred to as “aggressive” or “angry” and I have literally no memory of his voice or him ever saying anything. But even within this class, some of the parents were still anxious that their precious babies weren’t getting enough attention. A few kids in my class had math tutors at home and the parents insisted on an accelerated math curriculum for them within the classroom – the student teacher took them into the hallway during the math period and taught them a separate lesson. We also had different reading groups by reading ability. Somehow, in my hyper-rarified environment I still managed to feel like the village idiot – I was a late reader and had a lot of trouble memorizing basic arithmetic. A lot has been written about the negative effects of not just this kind of learning environment, but this exact school – telling kids they do well because they are gifted, rather than because they are qualified through their efforts, sets up an anxiety around failure and an expectation that any less than stellar behavior will destroy that truth that they are smart. The point here is not that I was treated unfairly – I did fine – but that this environment was already ruled by anxious parents who were never satisfied with the advantages their children received. So it’s not particularly surprising to me to see parents reacting like the sky is falling at the thought of any policy that would loosen their tight grip on the school environment they’ve so tightly grasped.
But if students were segregated within my school, that’s nothing compared to the segregation between my school and the high school directly across the street. In the ’90s, my elementary school was next-door neighbors with the worst high school in the city, which was eventually shuttered in 2009. My earliest memories of Brandeis were a rumor that a cop had been shot outside the school by loitering students (probably spurred by two real stories of gun violence from the ’80s and ongoing stories around the neighborhood long after) and the fact that the school had metal detectors at the entrance long before the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Kids were always loitering right outside, flouting their truancy to the cops who often patrolled the block. When I was in 2nd Grade, some of them threw a glass bottle over the fence into our play yard and it shattered in front of me. Like the kids in the “general” track of my elementary school, these high schoolers had a reputation for being violent, were all from ethnic minorities, and were treated by all adults in the vicinity as criminals. How do you explain the worst high school across the street from the best elementary school? As part of a larger misguided effort to prevent segregation in New York, this particular school was districted to the south Bronx when it first opened, and kids were bussed into Manhattan to attend a school in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
I can’t help but assume that when the parents in the video above react so negatively to minority students being given access to their children’s schools, what they are imagining is another Brandeis – Black and Dominican troublemakers being bussed in, spreading violence and truancy (and some, they assume, are good people). To some extent, they’re right to be afraid of this new policy – superficial efforts to desegregate NYC’s schools have done nothing to help in the past. But where they’re wrong, and what’s troubling about this, is the underlying racism in this anxiety, the zero-sum approach to schooling that leads to labeling non-White kids as potential problems. I grew up in an environment that marked all those kids as less-than by proximity – they were treated as criminals and they clashed with adults in response. It’s certainly not the case that giving kids an opportunity they don’t currently have will somehow spread their social diseases to privileged kids – but the parents will find ways to make these kids a problem. Desegregating NYC schools is about so much more than providing opportunity – it’s about changing the expectations of parents about the nature of competition in schools, perhaps even limiting the roles that parents play in deciding how the schools are run. It certainly means improving the public schools in the city, and perhaps changing the entrance exams for the specialized high schools. But on some level it’s just about getting parents, teachers, administrators, and police officers to be less racist.