Opinion: New York City Schools Got A Little Less Segregated This Week. The Winner Is Everyone.

This week, 2,500 sixth-graders will show up at a group of Brooklyn middle schools that are far more integrated than they were a year ago.

No one marches under a banner reading “10% Less Segregated.” And no one should. Segregation is central to the ideology of white supremacy and the reproduction of America’s racial caste system. It should be opposed root and branch.

So when the high school activists of IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge march, they rightly carry signs reading “Separate But Equal Is Inherently Unequal” or “Segregated Schools Can’t Teach Inclusive Democracy.”

Thanks in part to their activism, this week, 2,500 sixth-graders in Brooklyn will show up to middle schools that are far more integrated than they were a year ago. In previous years, the 11 middle schools of Brooklyn’s Community School District 15 were highly segregated, despite the overall diversity of the district, thanks primarily to academic screens for admissions. This year, the schools eliminated those admissions screens and adopted targets that will result in student bodies that much better reflect the diverse demographics of our district.

These 11 middle schools educate only about 1% of the public students in New York City’s public school system, which is one of the country’s most segregated. It would take 10 more plans like this one just to get to a system that is 10% less segregated. But like those protest marches, the District 15 plan is a critical part of building long-term support for deeper school integration.

There’s a tension between these approaches — the protest and the pilot program. But both are necessary.

We will never integrate without protest. As Frederick Douglass knew, power concedes nothing without a demand. We’ve grown far too comfortable with segregated schools that announce themselves as a meritocracy but function as a system for hoarding white privilege.

Those of us who have benefited from the system ignored it for decades, and it wasn’t until public outcry (along with incisive journalism) that public officials in NYC even started thinking about doing anything. A much larger movement will be required for broader change.

The politics of school integration are highly polarizing, as we’ve seen again in recent months. Integration efforts are often met with backlash as white (and now sometimes Asian) parents feel something is being taken from them.

In the past, that resistance has been allowed to quash efforts that we know are necessary for justice, and that can no longer be the case. We cannot wait to integrate our schools until we’ve assuaged the feelings of white liberals. That’s a hollow concept of justice, and we’d never do it. (I don’t mean this self-righteously. As someone who sent his kids to largely segregated elementary and middle schools, I’m guilty of this too. I say it simply as a matter of fact.)

Integration in our public schools is owed to students of color, and especially to black students, after centuries of inequality. And it is necessary if we intend the promises of the Constitution or the idea of “equal opportunity” to mean anything at all.

But that moral clarity does not resolve the political dilemma, because in a democracy, it’s necessary to build majoritarian support for serious change. At this moment in our history, we certainly can’t rely on the courts or the Justice Department to compel it. Amid tribalized politics, media, culture, and geography, it often feels the zeitgeist of the country is headed in the exact opposite direction of integration.

There’s little political leadership at the national, state, or local levels. Even the lightning-rod moment on the presidential debate stage, when Sen. Kamala Harris confronted Joe Biden over his opposition to busing, faded quickly when it became clear that Harris herself is not proposing large-scale integration programs.

But here’s the good news and maybe a hint at the solution: When we get past the polarized debate and make things happen, integrated classrooms aren’t just morally correct. They are delightful. And they might even change us for the better.

Every year, I make it a point to go to the fifth grade graduation at the Brooklyn New School, where it’s been practicing integration (through targeted admissions criteria that draw from across the district) for 25 years. The graduation takes place at 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, so all the families can attend, including those who can’t get off work. Instead of choosing a few students to speak, each class does a joyful dance/spoken-word performance that explores a theme they’ve been working on. The principal’s speech mentions every student by name, and you can tell they’ve been seen for who they are.

Surrounded by beaming families that really reflect our city, amid the joy of graduation, you can feel the bright promise not just of integrated public education, but of inclusive multiracial democracy. Most parents would be delighted to have their child graduate from a school like this.

On top of the educational benefits they offer, there’s good evidence that attending a diverse school can help reduce racial bias, that students who attend integrated schools are more likely to seek out integrated settings later in life, and that diversity results in more productive, effective, and creative teams.

It will take the hard work of principals, teachers, students, and families to achieve what the young leaders of IntegrateNYC, knowing that just moving bodies around is not enough by itself, call the “5 Rs of real integration.” But what we’re doing in the District 15 middle schools starting this fall offers the possibility of expanding opportunity to 10,000 middle school students over the next four years. I’m already looking forward to the eighth grade graduations in June of 2022.

There are lessons in how we made this decision as well. After parents and students pushed for change, the Department of Education put the resources forward for a nine-month community planning process, with dozens of meetings across the district.

We did not ask whether we would integrate; it was clear from the start that this was the goal. But we did take families’ concerns seriously: not just white parents’ anxiety about whether we would lose something we felt entitled to, but also Latino parents’ worries about whether this was just another effort to gentrify their neighborhood and black parents’ concern that this would send their child to a school where they would face racial animus from teachers. Through that process, we gained the collective courage to do something bolder than we first thought possible.

Instead of a false choice of mandate vs. engagement, protest vs. backlash, elusive sweeping change vs. small pilot program, we have the opportunity to build a feedback loop that moves from insistent organizing through participatory planning to implementation with integrity — and then insist on taking the next step, even bolder than the one before. (And indeed this week, building in part on the District 15 work, the School Diversity Advisory Group appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio put forth a bold agenda to eliminate gifted and talented programs that result in segregation.)

If we do this in the middle schools of 10 more community school districts, we will have 100,000 more New York City public school students in integrated schools: 10% less segregated.

That will be no excuse to stop marching to desegregate the other 90%. Quite the opposite: It will be a powerful cohort to keep marching with.

Brad Lander is a member of the New York City Council and the board chair of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials.

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