Integration: Speaking the Painful Truth

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Integration: Speaking the Painful Truth

For more than 25 years, Dr. Charles V.Willie has been a major presence at Harvard University's graduate school of education. The Charles W. Elliot professor of education, who was a classmate of Dr. Martin L. King Jr.at Morehouse College, brings the same passion and insight to educational equity that King brought to civil rights. A highly regarded expert on school desegregation, Black colleges, and linkages between K-12 and higher education institutions, Willie has authored more than 25 books and 100 articles. The 71-year-old sociologist and educator, who earned his doctorate at Syracuse University, recently spoke to Black Issues publisher Frank L. Matthews about desegregation, integration, and educational opportunity in America. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

A lot of people argue that the premise of the Brown v. Topeka case was that an integrated education is better than a non-integrated education. Is there something fundamentally wrong with that premise?

No, and my answer is based upon a long history of desegregation. I've just come from Charleston, S.C., and I saw something down there that was just fascinating. Half of the schools are racially isolated and half of the schools are integrated. Now, 52 percent of the Blacks go to racially isolated Black schools, but only 10 percent of Whites go to racially isolated White schools. Eighty-five percent of Whites go to integrated schools in Charleston, S.C.

No, you don't have to sit next to a White to be educated. But if you understand community power relationships, and if the school board is dominated by Whites, then they will put the opportunities where other Whites are.

I looked for the students who were achieving above the national norm, using the Iowa Achievement Tests, and guess what I found? That in the Black racially isolated schools -- which are attended by 52 percent of all Black students -- only 25 percent, only a quarter of the students were scoring above the national norm. But as you moved up to the racially mixed schools, about a third of the students were scoring above the national level. And that was most interesting to me because it meant that the integrated schools benefited Blacks.

What about White Students?

What I found was that the White segregated schools were better for Whites. In the White segregated schools in Charleston, 90 percent of those students scored above the national norm. Only 10 percent of the Whites were in those schools. Eighty-five percent were in the desegregated schools and the desegregated schools helped everybody. The Blacks, when they were in isolated schools, did worse. The Whites, when they were in isolated schools, did better.

But most Whites were experiencing integrated schools and they didn't do that badly. In other words, two-thirds of all of the Whites in integrated schools were scoring above the national norm. But remember, only one-third of Blacks were. The integrated schools helped Blacks and didn't harm Whites. What every schools system ought to be doing is creating more integrated schools for everybody. The only reason I found desegregation [to be] a value is because the resources follow the White children.

Is the recent tendency on the part of the NAACP and others to throw in the towel on busing and desegregation misguided?

I think it's misguided for the reason that I just gave. But it's also misguided for another reason. Somehow, we let somebody hijack school integration from us. How did this crazy stuff of racial preference come into the lexicon of our speech? We let others hijack a movement that we started.

Who hijacked it? Did we give up the battle? Or was it external? Or some combination thereof?

I think it was a combination. It's always hard for what I call subdominant people of power. I call it dominant and subdominant because that means that everybody has power. …