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Dream in MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech Dies With Segregation in Raleigh Schools

I Have a Dream Speech

The dream in MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech is fading in Raleigh, NC.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be celebrated Monday, but perhaps less so this year in Raleigh, N.C.  The Wake County School District there “has abolished the policy behind one of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts” in an attempt to “say no to the social engineers,” The Washington Post reports.

The Post describes the district as having a “majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives” and “embracing the provocative idea that concentrating poor children, who are usually minorities, in a few schools could have merits.”  Naturally, opponents of the plan are calling this out as a thinly veiled attempt at segregating schools.

“Without a diversity policy in place, they say, the county will inevitably slip into the pattern that defines most districts across the country, where schools in well-off neighborhoods are decent and those in poor, usually minority neighborhoods struggle.”  According to board member John Tedesco, however, “he and his colleagues are only seeking a simpler system in which children attend the schools closest to them,” adding, “If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful.  Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it.”

Diluted the problem?  Diluted the problem???  I don’t understand what you mean, sir.  What exactly is “the problem?”  Poor people and people of color are not a problem – not for me, anyway.  Do you mean that you’ve spread poor and/or students of color throughout your school system, so it’s harder to see the ways in which their needs are not being met?  Or are you upset that it’s easier to see that in a desegregated system those students are not collectively failing and therefore you have no minority population to point fingers at?

The Post nails exactly why this new “neighborhood school” approach is such a problem in Raleigh.  They write:

The story unfolding here is striking because the school district… sprawls 800 square miles and includes public housing in Raleigh, wealthy enclaves near town, and the booming suburbs beyond….  Usually, such large territory is divided into smaller districts with students assigned to the nearest schools.  And because neighborhoods are still mostly defined by race and socioeconomic status, poor and minority kids wind up in high-poverty schools that struggle with problems such as retaining the best teachers.

Officials in Raleigh tried to head off that scenario.  As white flight hit in the 1970s, civic leaders merged the city and county into a single district.  And in 2000, they shifted from racial to economic integration, adopting a goal that no school should have more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the proxy for poverty.

That makes excellent sense.  All students benefit from diversity, not just poor students and/or students of color.  Yet wealthy local parents are convinced that the district’s diversity goals are hurting their kids.  One mother, Kathleen Brennan, who started a parent group “to challenge the system” says, “These people are patting themselves on the back and only 54 percent of [poor] kids are graduating.  And I’m being painted a racist.  But isn’t it racist to have low expectations?”

As if the “expectation” is that only 54% of [poor] kids should graduate.  Ha.  (I wonder what her original word choice was there.)  The NAACP has criticized this plan to concentrate poor and minority students in neighborhood schools as a “separate but equal” mindset.  The Rev. Earl Johnson, pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh, rightfully noted that, “People want schools that mirror their neighborhood, but the bigger picture is my kid in the suburbs is connected to kids in Raleigh.  We’re trying to connect to the world but we’re separating locally?  There is something wrong.”

In a day and age when the popular youth culture is black culture, how is it that we are still trying to isolate poor kids, black kids, Latino kids?  43 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, are we really still trying to ensure that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers?” Well, some of us are. And some of us are still fighting vehemently against that.

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