Is Segregation Undermining NYC Schools?

Critics argue that segregation and racism are still rampant in New York City public schools. Farai Chideya discusses charges of segregation in public schools with urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

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ED GORDON, host:

How much does school segregation and racism still exist today within public school systems? Urban sociologist Pedro Noguera says, exploring that question takes some historical perspective.

He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

Mr. PEDRO NOGUERA (Urban Sociologist): New York is a lot like many large cities around the country, and even some not so large cities - where increasingly, the schools are very segregated, not only by race but also by class. In New York City, the public schools largely serve the poorest children, who are disproportionately children of color.

FARAI CHIDEYA, reporting:

There were some recent TV reports about how crazy it is, even to get your kids into preschool. And of course, this means the wealthier white kids.

Tell us a little more, in vivid terms, of what the path for, say, Upper West Side, wealthier white kid, versus black or brown kid in the Bronx, in New York. What happens in terms of getting kids into public schools.

Mr. NOGUERA: Well, unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to who you know, and how informed you are, about the - which are the best schools and what the options are. So, always - and this is true, I think, in many systems - the more affluent people who are better educated and who have more time on their hands, have a real advantage, because they're able to get the better information. Those kids are more attractive anyway, because they are often doing better in school, and so they end up with a huge leg up.

And so what you end up with in New York City, is a very small number of very good schools that serve largely middle, and upper middle class kids - and then a large number of not-so-good schools that serve mostly poor kids.

CHIDEYA: In a lot of the country, there has been literal white flight, from the cities - white people moving out of the cities. In New York, it seems to me, that's not as much the case. You still have white New Yorkers in the city, but there seems to have been a white flight from the public school system. Is that correct?

Mr. NOGUERA: Absolutely. And again, that's the - San Francisco is like that as well - but in New York City... You know, New York City is a very strategic place to live. And so, lots of people need to live here because their jobs are here. And so you're actually seeing a growth in the number of white people coming back to the city in recent years.

But they are not coming and putting their kids in the schools. Even those who have children, largely are not, because either they perceive the schools not being good enough, or simply because they don't want to put their children in schools with children - poor children - of color.

CHIDEYA: Let's turn to racism. Teacher Aja Kweliona, her commentary really talks about the need for, perhaps, racial sensitivity training, or some kind of intervention, when teachers or administrators don't seem to respect students of color.

How do these issues tend to play out when a student either alleges, or is proven to have been, abused on a racial basis by his or her school?

Mr. NOGUERA: Well, it's difficult in New York City. It's difficult because there is no elected board of education. There's very little in the way of public debate, within New York City right now. The mayor has complete control of the schools.

So, if something happens that you're not happy with - parents often find they have very little recourse. You can go through the channels that exist, but if your case is dismissed, you'll find yourself pretty much shut out and forced, either to go to a lawyer and file a suit of some kind, against the district, or basically forced to take your children out of the system.

Which really is inadequate, as a response. The system should have other means through which parents can get a response. Not to say that all parents have legitimate concerns, but there should be some method through which parents' concerns can be addressed.

CHIDEYA: Turning to the national scope, we've got this proposed schools plan in Nebraska. It would divide the Omaha public schools into three, racially identifiable, districts. And the NAACP is now suing the governor and other state officials, saying, hey, this is sanctioned discrimination.

Tell us what kind of reference we need to bring to a case like this. And it almost suggests that we have reached a point where the government has given up on desegregation.

Mr. NOGUERA: Well, it should be pointed out, in the Nebraska case, that the -one of the leading proponents of this is an African American state senator. And part of the reason for that, and I think you hear this in many African American communities, is there's this kind of romanticization of segregation. A feeling that maybe when things were segregated, it wasn't really that bad, and that maybe if we really pushed for a separate but equal, it would be better than what we have now.

And while I understand where that comes from, and where that perspective is based in, I think it'd really be a mistake because it really overlooks our history. The fact is that segregated schools, almost always had fewer resources, from textbooks to teacher's salaries. And there's no reason to believe that if we allow, deliberately allow our schools to become more segregated, that we would end up with schools that are equitable. In fact, it doesn't work like that anywhere in our society, that we have racially segregated institutions that are equal.

So, I think that - while I understand those who would like to see more control over the schools their children attend, and believe that, perhaps, if they were more segregated they would have this control - I think there's a huge risk there, that we will just return to the kind of Jim Crow schools where black students were relegated to an inferior education, and the government is no longer accountable to address that.

Right now, you could argue that we have de facto segregation in many schools, like we have in New York City. But at least there is accountability. At least there is recourse.

For example, the state of New York has been required to provide funds to equalize funding in New York City. That's only possible because of the principle of desegregation in public education.

CHIDEYA: Pedro Noguera, thanks for joining us.

Mr. NOGUERA: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhart School of Education at New York University.

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