When I was a child, I lived in a city that was predominantly black. It was a quaint little burg called Los Angeles.
I took for granted that it was a black city because black people were virtually all I ever saw in my neighborhood. The few whites who passed through my day were cops, schoolteachers, social workers. I had no idea where they lived – the moon, for all I knew. But the one thing I could say for a certainty is that they did not live in L.A.
I was disabused of that notion one memorable day when I was maybe 9 and went on a school field trip to the L.A. Zoo. More fascinating to me than the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (“Gorilla beringei graueri”) or the Eastern Grey Kangaroo (“Macropus giganteus”) was the Suburban Southern California White Kid (“Caucasianus americanus”), giggling blond herds of which roamed the zoo that day. I stared after them in amazement, wondering – this is true – how their parents could tell them apart.
When I started college six years later, it was the beginning of a long, often awkward lesson in learning How To Be with white people. For example, there was this guy who lived in my dorm – big, friendly white guy named Eric. One day he came in after spending hours in the sun; his skin was bright red and he held his arms out gingerly from his side.
I said, “Nice tan.” He thought I was making fun of him and got upset, but I was in earnest. I thought that was the look he was going for.
I tell you all this to explain why I oppose LB 1024.
That’s a bill signed into law recently in Nebraska that will, in effect, re-segregate schools in the city of Omaha. The measure, which is meant to resolve a school district boundary dispute between the city and its suburbs, will split the district into three. One will be predominantly white, another predominantly black, and a third largely, though not predominantly, Hispanic. State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is black, says the measure only acknowledges reality – the schools already operate under de facto segregation – and will give black parents more control over their children’s education.
As I’ve said, I disagree.
I disagree because it’s a fallacy to assume black kids’ education will improve simply because you put black people in charge of it. Because there’s a likelihood the law will eventually be judged unconstitutional. And because of what the Supreme Court said in May 1954: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
But mostly I disagree because of Eric’s “tan” and those exotic flocks of “Caucasianus americanus.” In other words, because isolation breeds ignorance. And ignorance, unchecked, breeds fear.
Both of which this country already has in plentiful supply.
The massive immigration protests of recent days are vivid proof: The nation is changing; the death knell of the old order is sounding. In the near future, success will require a facility with, an ability to do business in, diverse communities. The kid who doesn’t know How To Be with people unlike him or her will be at a distinct disadvantage.
You want to improve education? Bring the physical plants up to a basic level of comfort and safety. Allocate money to hire, train and retain good teachers. Streamline the process for getting rid of bad teachers. Give students challenging work. “Require” parental involvement. Find ways to stabilize unstable homes. Turn off the television. Offer incentives for schools that perform well. Give parents flexibility in choosing the public school that best fits their child’s needs.
But don’t – even with benign intentions – turn back onto the dead-end road of segregation. That’s an act of desperation and surrender, a repudiation of a fundamental American principle: equality under the law.
I’m pretty sure they still teach that in school. Even in Omaha.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]