Jim Crow 2.0


I like to use an educational technique that I call The Serendipitous Curriculum. I’ve been ribbed about it by administrators in the past, but I believe it is one of the most powerful tools in education. The process is simple. Whenever an unplanned opportunity arises to elevate the learning experience in the classroom, regardless of the planned curriculum, I jump at it and follow it’s momentum.

Just such an opportunity arose the other day in my Cambridge US History Class. For the last couple of weeks we have been learning about the years and conflicts leading up to the US Civil War. So we’ve had plenty of opportunity to discuss race and to tie the lessons to contemporary issues on the racial divide.

Two days ago, one of my students raised his hand and, when called upon, began with this observation, “Mr. Andoscia, you grew up during segregation, didn’t you…?”

Um…I was born in 1970 (holy crap! I’m forty-five! How’d that happen). Technically, when we study segregation in school, we are talking about the Jim Crow Period lasting from the late Reconstruction Era until the mid-1960’s. We really only use the term “segregation” when discussing the Civil Rights Movement arising after World War II. Sometimes we go back into the 1920’s.

Regardless, by historical standards, I was born somewhat after segregation. I entered school in 1975, graduating high school in 1988. So, of course, I made a dramatic scene of it. Many of the students started to laugh. I acted as if a knife were driven into my chest as I collapsed onto a clear table, then played dead. It was a performance worthy of a Shakespearean play.

But this was one of those Serendipitous moments that make my career worth while, because, despite the clear designations imposed by our history books, the lived experience of segregation was still very real in my life. In 1974, my family moved from Providence, Rhode Island into a small house in Cranston so I didn’t have to go to school with “those people” who were moving into the city. This is what the textbooks refer to as “white flight.” Consequently, I rarely ever interacted with a black child in any meaningful way in my youth.

This was true right through my early teens. Looking through my junior high school yearbook (Go Cobras!), there are no black teachers, no black administrators. There was one Hispanic–the Spanish teacher. Among the student body there was one black student, a young woman. She was pleasant enough, but for some limited time in a mixed up study hall, I really didn’t have much quality interactions with her. Remember, this was the early 80’s, in a New England school. Not exactly the heart of the Old South.

In 1984 my family dragged me down to Lee County Florida where I began my high school career. Yes, that’s “Lee County,” as in General Robert E, whose portrait, in full Confederate regalia, hangs in our County Commission office. Thirty years after Brown v. Board of Education, Lee County was still debating school desegregation and busing. As a result of legal action taken up by black students in 1964, Lee County was still under federal oversight to desegregate its schools. That black students were being bused to my high school was still a contentious topic in my new home. This was, however, my first significant interaction with black peers, though I had relatively few black teachers.

So, did I grow up during segregation?

The lesson did not stop there. According to a government report, Lee County’s population is over sixty percent white, fifteen percent black and twenty percent Hispanic. According an article in the local News-Press, Florida is one of the most segregated nations in the country for black students. The high school in which I teach is about eighty percent minority with almost eighty percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

segregation by stateMy high school experience took place under federal supervision. Great strides had taken place in desegregating schools from the time that I entered school until I graduated, However, according to a report by ProPublica, the courts have largely abandoned their diversity mission in the last thirty years, with grave consequences. “Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.” The number of black students attending schools in which over 90% of the student body is minority shot up in the last twenty years, peaking at over 3 million students between 2003 and 2010.

In 2006, Jonathan Kozol tried to shame the nation by pointing out the growing disparities of what he called “apartheid schooling,” that is schools with less than 1% white populations. According to ProPublica, “most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South and nearly a quarter in Alabama now attend such schools—a figure likely to rise as court oversight continues to wane.”  Currently, according to the same report, over half of African American students are attending schools in which more than 90% of the student body is minority.

And resegregated public schools is not the only place where we see racial relations in the US sliding backward into a Jim Crow 2.0 system. School segregation tracks closely with housing resegregation. Economic opportunity continues to trend along racial lines, with Hispanic unemployment half again as high as white unemployment, and black unemployment almost twice that for white Americans. This blog has commented often on racial disparities in criminal justice and policing. The long litany of data does not have to be repeated here.

So did I come up during segregation?

The answer becomes more complicated and the opportunity to learn a little bit about our roles in living history becomes more clear. The Age of Segregation has never really ended. Despite some progress that may have been made during my generation, the students sitting in my class are living in an age every bit as segregated as the one I was born into.

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