Archive for Monday, May 17, 2004

Integration issues remain

May 17, 2004


The spectacular boom in America's black middle class is testament to what integration and the end to separate and unequal schools helped accomplish over the past 50 years. Coupled with the civil-rights laws of the 1960s that sought to open college opportunities and jobs to people of color and women of all races, there's no denying that America is a better place today.

But -- yes, there's always a but in a world run by imperfect humans. As much as people of all races today say they embrace diversity in our schools, there are troubling trends exposing the sores of pride in our own heritage and prejudice in our hearts.

Many whites take umbrage with blacks' embrace of historically black colleges, for instance, or of Hispanics wanting to keep their mother tongue even as they learn English. Many blacks, Hispanics and Asians stay within their own racial or ethnic comfort zones outside of work or school.

So 50 years after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., where are we heading?

Back a few steps even as we press forward. There's no official segregation as there was in 1954, but the progress forced by desegregation court orders throughout 1960s and 1970s began to stall by the 1980s and into the 1990s as white families moved out of urban centers and into the suburbs, as did many upwardly mobile black families. And the spectacular growth in Hispanic immigration the past 20 years poses new challenges for both whites and blacks.

The flight of upper-income whites to private schools explains the disconnect between polls that show whites overwhelmingly welcome diversity in public schools by a 2-to-1 margin and the reality posed by higher birth rates among minorities and other demographic shifts. Hispanic students, in particular, are facing greater segregation than black students at many schools, a Harvard study shows, and with that come all sorts of drawbacks, including too few minority students represented in gifted, honors or other challenging college-track programs.

Florida ranked ninth-most- segregated for Hispanic students in 2000, and 20th for black students, according to the Harvard study. At the same time, most minorities want more community schools and less busing. Are they being "reverse" racists or simply practical after 50 years of bearing the brunt of busing?

It's a question we need to delve into, particularly as districts in Central Florida push to get out of desegregation court orders, arguing they are no longer necessary.

It strikes me as hypocritical to proclaim success when state figures show that minority children continue to lag behind whites in reading, writing and math.

It's short-sighted, too, for Orange County, Fla., to try to save money by ending busing of top-notch students headed for magnet programs, particularly Hispanic students, who unlike blacks, have no court order to fall back on to attend mostly white non-Hispanic schools. As it stands, predominantly white schools still have many more teachers who have master's degrees and lots more experience than minority schools. Blacks and Hispanics often have teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they are teaching.

Equality of opportunity?

Fifty years from now maybe we can claim success. Not yet.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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