Two in-depth articles came out on Wednesday (9/6/17) covering the story of Gardendale, which we’ve been reading about for a while now. This (overwhelmingly white) suburb of Birmingham, Alabama has been lobbying for years to secede from the Jefferson County School District (not overwhelmingly white) and create their own smaller district. Though “local control” is the publically stated motivation for secession, it is difficult to see anything other than racism.
We have lots of work to do to support meaningful school integration. At the classroom level, even in schools that look integrated on paper, we see segregation. We need to address the ways that magnet programs (ostensibly designed as desegregation plans) do not, in fact, promote integration in many places. When even well-intentioned white/affluent folks show up to majority-minority schools, “school gentrification” (yeah, colonization) is the all-too-common result; that needs to change. We are a long, long way from getting any of this right.
But staring down these articles on Gardendale is a necessary reminder of what happens when we don’t even try. Gardendale — and the many districts across the country just like it — is what happens when we allow opportunity hoarding to go unchecked, when we give a tacit pass to the notion that parents just have to look out for their own kids. Gardendale writ large is what happens we let (racist) test scores tell the story of “good/bad” schools. And it is on us all to call this out. And especially if we are white/privileged. Because this is us, too.
In her NYTimes Magazine article “The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What one Alabama town’s attempt to secede from its school district tells us about the fragile progress of racial integration in America, Nikole Hannah-Jones details the long history of Gardendale’s secession movement, beginning with the anti-integrationists that began redrawing district boundaries after Brown v. Board.
“There could be no forced integration if there were no black children in the school system to integrate with.”
But having to contend with federal desegregation orders, by the 1970s, “white communities changed tactics, this time claiming that they wanted to secede not because they were fighting integration, but because they wanted “local control.” This race-neutral language championed the pursuit of individual rights and, importantly, freedom of association, which provided cover for their efforts to preserve the whiteness of their schools… The nation proved ripe for this race-neutral rebranding. Most white Americans were willing to ignore stark segregation and racial disparity as long as it came wrapped in so-called colorblind policy.”
This latest battle for the right for Gardendale to become its own district was no different. “Secession supporters,” reports Hannah-Jones, “had argued that their tax dollars should go to educate their own children instead of children who lived outside their community, that their shared responsibility stretched no further than the arbitrary borders of their town, even though for the vast history of the state, black taxpayers paid for white schools that their own children could not attend.” Just being good parents looking after their own kids, that’s all!
Though “local control” was the rallying cry (lit torch?) of secessionists, Judge Haikala saw through that ruse and called it out in her ruling: “The Court finds that race was a motivating factor in Gardendale’s decision to separate from the Jefferson County public school system.” However, citing practical concerns (retribution for a no-vote foisted on black students being bused in, the eventual lifting of the desegregation order which would allow Gardendale to secede without court oversight), Haikala allowed Gardendale to have ownership over its two elementary schools for a trial year.
Felton’s article in The Nation includes a poignant story of Leslie Williams, a black mom whose kids have attended Gardendale schools.
Attending a public meeting, Ms. Williams summons the courage to make her appeal against the secession. She had been listening, as Felton reports, to “speaker after speaker complain[ing] about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for “our” children”.
“When she got to the front of the room, Williams faced the audience instead of the all-white school board and tried to level with them as parents. “I just want my kids to have the best opportunity, whether it be Jefferson County or whether it be Gardendale,” she said. “Like you, I just want my children to have the best.”
After the meeting ended, two parents approached Williams in the lobby. One mother tried to convince her that the separation effort had nothing to do with excluding black kids like hers. Looking back, Williams wishes she had made a different argument that night.
“The one thing that would help keep my kids—or any child—off the streets is access to good education,” Williams said. “You are trying to take that from them. I don’t care how you word it; I don’t care how you try to dress it up. The bottom line is you are taking that from them.”
While initially trying to relate parent-to-parent, Ms. Williams quickly realized that there could be no common ground. When “doing the best for our children” doggedly ignores that it requires stepping on another’s own, there can be no mutual space. And the two women who approached her after the meeting – just, no. NO from every possible angle.