Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is well known for its reflections on justice.  Quotes such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”, are well known and celebrated, but there’s another section of the letter focused on King’s disappointment with the White moderate.  He says,

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Formerly the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and currently a law professor at Rutgers Law School, where she runs The Inclusion Project, Elise Boddie combines the expertise of a lawyer with the heart of a community organizer to advance educational justice.  Focusing on the original promise of integration, the version hoped for by the Brown family in 1954, laid out in the Green Factors from Green v. School Board of New Kent County in 1968, and updated recently by IntegrateNYC and the 5Rs of Real Integration, her vision of integration aspires to create spaces where children can all live into their full humanity, not ignoring race, not defined by race, but in full view of race. 

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Transcript

In Full View of Race: Elise Boddie on Integration

Andrew:  Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is “In Full View of Race: Elise Boddie on Integration”. I want to take you back to April of 1963. The civil rights movement is focused on Birmingham, Alabama. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, an affiliate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian leadership Conference, is coordinating marches and sit-ins when circuit judge W. A. Jenkins Jr. issues an injunction against, “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing." 

King is arrested on April 12th and from his jail cell begins writing his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It contains many famous King quotes. Such ast, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”. But there's another section of that letter where King recounts his disappointments with the White moderate.  

[CLIP]

MLK Jr.:  I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.

I had hoped that the White moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. 

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. 

Andrew: This portion, though less likely to show up on a White politician’s Twitter feed on MLK Day, feels so relevant to our work in Integrated Schools. So when I came across a law professor talking about integration and saying that liberal White progressives are the biggest barrier to school integration today, I was hooked. 

Elise Boddie is the former director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and is now a professor at Rutgers, where she runs The Inclusion Project. She combines the expertise of a lawyer with the heart of a community organizer to advance school integration issues in New Jersey and around the country. From amicus briefs to op-eds, she's a leading voice for a vision of integration today that really resonated with me. 

Focusing on the original promise of integration, the version hoped for by the Brown family in 1954, laid out in the Green Factors from Green v. School Board of New Kent County in 1968, and updated recently by IntegrateNYC and the 5Rs of Real Integration. Her vision of integration aspires to create spaces where children can all live into their full humanity, not ignoring race, not defined by race, but in full view of race. 

I'm so grateful she agreed to come on the podcast and really excited for you to take a listen. 

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Elise Boddie: So first of all, thank you for having me on your show. I'm a really big fan and I appreciate the opportunity to speak with your audience. My name is Elise Boddie, I am a law professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark. In my past life, I litigated civil rights cases and directed the Litigation Program for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Andrew: And why, how did you come to care about these issues? How did you find yourself litigating civil rights and particularly with regard to the education piece?

Elise Boddie: Yeah. You know, I really came of age in the sweet spot of civil rights. I was born in 1968. So as I was growing up, I had the benefit of all of the civil rights infrastructure that had been put in place in the 1960s. So the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

And what that meant was that I was able to attend integrated schools my entire life. My parents had the opportunity to buy in neighborhoods that had stable housing, you know, wonderful resources, terrific schools. And I've benefited from all of those opportunities. I was able to go to college, I was able to go to law school. And I wanted to become a civil rights lawyer because I wanted other people to have everything that I had at least, you know, at least the opportunities. And so, that's what drove me to pursue civil rights litigation.

Andrew: Yeah. So your schooling experience was integrated. How did that come to be?

Elise Boddie: Yeah, it's interesting. So my father actually was in the Air Force. And so we moved around quite a bit but my sort of formative schooling experience was through a school desegregation program in Los Angeles, California. I was bused to Daniel Freeman Elementary School from 1973 to 1976. I was in an integrated classroom and that was really my first educational experience. I have very distinctive memories of being in that class, of  making friends with all different kinds of kids, kids from all different backgrounds. That was really crucial.  

From there we moved to San Antonio. They, my parents, put me in private school for a few years. I quit that private school. It was, it was, it was a little bit toxic, but in the sixth grade we moved to Houston and went to school in Houston. And that, that experience was a little bit tricky because we had moved into a neighborhood, it was actually the suburbs of Houston, overwhelmingly White neighborhood, overwhelmingly White school. And although I think, you know, I got a good education, just in terms of access to high quality teachers and a rigorous academic environment, it was, it was a hard place to go to school because I was so often the only Black student in my classes. 

And so for people who I talk to are adults, who have actually gone through school integration and they say, Look, I went through a period where I was the only one in my class and I don't want that for my children. And I tell them, I'm with you, 'cause I, I wouldn't, I don't want that for my child either.  

So I, I had, you know, really positive experiences with integrated schools and then you know, educational experiences that, academically strong, but could have been better socially.

Andrew: So yeah, you saw both, both the sort of potential of truly desegregated schools with, with actually diverse student bodies and then being kind of the only one, and the impact that had.

Elise Boddie: Yeah. And, to have an integrated school, right. That's not only just about making sure that we have a diverse student body, but also that we integrate students in the classroom, right. That we create opportunities for, for students to have access to all different kinds of classes and rigor. And that integration has to seep throughout the entire school, through the curriculum and the teaching staff and extracurriculars and the like.

Andrew: Yeah. Not just enough to put a bunch of different kids in the same building, but more involved. Really taking a really high level kind of view of it, why does that matter? Like, what's the importance of doing that, of doing that well, and what's the importance kind of broadly for, for society of public education and of providing that kind of opportunity like you had?

Elise Boddie: I think that integration is so key to a healthy society. The problem with segregation is that when we have groups of people who are separate from one another, right, who never come to know one another, it's really easy to create mythologies about how "those" people are, right? And then you come to know them and you realize, Well, actually they're nothing like I thought they were. And it's the same thing for school segregation, is that we just, we have this toxic separation across our schools where we have Black and Latinx students often in one school, White and Asian students in another set of schools.

And so we, we create these stories about how people are, and that's very divisive, not only for public education, but it's divisive for our democracy. Because the health of our democracy depends on, on our ability to see and experience one another as equals and as, as deserving of equality.

Andrew: Right. That for the consent of the, of the governed, to exist, we all have to actually be able to give consent. We all actually have to know each other to be able to do that. 

Elise Boddie: Right. So that's Elizabeth Anderson's work out of University of Michigan, she talks about this. That for a democracy to be healthy we need to have the consent of the governed but we can't have the consent of the governed unless we have the ability to come to, to know one another. Where people have the opportunity to come together and speak with one another and learn from one another and, and come to agreements about the way that the country should be. So the health of our political system, the health of our democracy, really depends on having those opportunities, creating those opportunities, and the best place to do that is in our system of public education.

Andrew:  Yeah. And so that was at least like the original promise of integration. The push to get us to the Brown v. Board decision, to get us to the Civil Rights Act, to get us to Fair Housing, that all of those things, the idea behind that at least was this sort of promise of integration that we can bring kids together, that we can actually get to know each other.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, no, absolutely. Brown vs Board of Education is often mythologized as sort of, Well, we're just going to put Black kids in a classroom so that they can sit next to White kids and it, and it was certainly about creating access to the resources that White children had by virtue of just White supremacy, that the White schools were better funded. But it was also about creating opportunity for kids to come to know one another, right. To learn, to, to share resources, to sit in classrooms and again, learn that those, you know, folks who we thought were so different from us are actually really, you know, similar to us in, in important ways. We certainly have our differences but that's healthy. And to be able to understand the benefits of being with people who are different and learning from people who are different, just expands our horizons.

Andrew: Right. Yeah, I saw you wrote somewhere. “The promise of integration was that schools would become places where children would learn to get along or not, by working through the practicalities of difference. In these spaces, children could disagree and reconcile their dissimilarities, develop meaningful or casual friendships, or discover that they really did not like each other at all, not based on race or in spite of race, but in full view of race.”

Elise Boddie: Yeah, thank you for reminding me what I, what I, what I wrote.

Andrew: No. Yeah, it was great. I mean, it, it spoke to me so well, because I think so much of, of how we have not done a really great job of, of meaningful integration is that we have tried to do it either, you know, ignoring race or trying to do it in spite of race, but to be able to do it in full view of race, feels like a really different approach.

Elise Boddie: Yeah. I think if we can just come to know one another in our full humanity, right? The parts of us that are wonderful and fully formed and the parts of us that are still sort of wrestling with who we are and what we want to be. And to create those experiences for young people while they're going through their educational experiences is, is really the right place to do that. And that's such a fundamental part of what an education is, right, is learning to be with and among people who are different and to grow through that experience. And to grow in ways that allow you to see the possibilities for yourself, the possibilities that could be on the horizon, right. When we come together and we learn from people who are different, it just opens new horizons on the way that we think about ourselves and the way we think about the world.

Andrew: Yeah, you touched on this a little bit earlier, but there is, uh, certainly reasonable pushback to the idea of that, particularly in communities of color nowadays, I think the, the harm, and I mean, you talked a bit about, a little bit about like being the only, the only one, that just by putting kids together, we don't actually create spaces where everybody can bring their full humanity. What do you think about some of those more common push backs to the idea of integration these days?

Elise Boddie: Yeah, I think one huge problem is that we really don't have conversations around integration. And so it's, it's really easy to caricature what integration means or should mean. So we've not developed the habits of having integration as being part of the panoply of policy alternatives that we have available to us. 

And you know, there's some research that suggests that historically there was, you know, very deliberate attempts by public officials in the South to create narratives around integration that suggested they would be harmful to Black children, right? That was part of a political campaign to destabilize the goals of integration, the support for integration. 

And one of those narratives was around, Oh, well, you know, integration is just about sitting Black children in the same classroom and making sure they sit next to White children as if Black children don't themselves bring opportunity and intelligence and creativity to the classroom. That it's really just sort of drawing on the wonderful things about White students. And that's not what integration was really meant to do. So I think because we're not practiced in the conversations around integration, we still have all of these sorts of myths that encroach on the conversations in ways that are harmful.

Andrew: Yeah. That's so powerful. I think, right, the, the idea that, that White kids are magical learning unicorns, who by osmosis will just bring learning to those poor Black kids is, is certainly a problematic framing, to say the least.

Elise Boddie: Exactly. Black kids contribute nothing, you know? Right. Yeah. And that's not what it was about.

Andrew: And, and ties into, right, like if Black kids can contribute nothing, Black teachers certainly contribute nothing, Black school leaders contribute nothing, that we have good schools and okay, because the law has really forced our hand, we will allow Black and Brown kids into them, but they can't bring anything of themselves into that space.

Elise Boddie: Right. I think that's exactly right. And it's so unfortunate that the conversations have so long been in that space, because Black children have so much talent, you know, the talent is equally distributed. It's not that talent is the sole prerogative, of, of White children. And, and the harm, again, going back to sort of the mythologies that we create is that you don't see the talent and the complexity in Black children, right, you don't see all the different possibilities that Black children bring to the educational experience. So it skews our perception of what integration is and what it was supposed to be.

Andrew: So that's why it's important. And you mentioned all the Supreme Court cases and laws that were passed that set you up for more potential for success and let you live into your potential in a way. And there's no question that those kinds of policy things are really important, but I think I'd like to talk about New Jersey a little bit. Not, not just because Bruce Springsteen is a national treasure, and so we should all talk about New Jersey, but, but, but more broadly, you know, I think New Jersey has some relatively strong legal infrastructure to support school desegregation and to support integration.

And I'm wondering if you can just tell us where New Jersey falls compared to other states in terms of the legal infrastructure in place to support good policy.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, I mean, the irony of New Jersey is that we have, I think, some of the best state law in the country on school integration. We have cases that date back to the 1960s, cases that were brought in the wake of Brown vs Board of Education by Robert Carter, who was the number two in the Legal Defense Fund and argued Brown, created this wonderful law about, about why school integration mattered and had this very holistic understanding of the possibilities of integration. If you look at some of the language of these early cases, I mean, they talk about integration in the way that you and I have just talked about.  

And yet at the same time, New Jersey is, it's the sixth most segregated state in the country for Black students, according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, it's the seventh most  segregated for Latinx students. And so we have this irony of having terrific state law and among the most segregated schools in the country.

Andrew: How does that happen?  How, how have we worked around the good laws to maintain segregated schools? And by we, I think I mostly mean White parents.

Elise Boddie: I mean, I spend so much time thinking about this and I wish I had a snappy answer for you, but you know, a lot of it has to do with the structure of New Jersey. We've got, I don't know, 674 school districts, when you add up all the charter schools, and New Jersey is a relatively small state. So we have all these little fiefdoms that basically allow White people, particularly White people with resources, to segregate themselves in these teeny tiny school districts. 

So, New Jersey creates opportunity for segregation. And what that means is that it's, you know, that's what people grow up with,right? That's what people know. And they don't see themselves as segregated. And when I, you know, when I try to have conversations with people about segregation, they look at me like they don't know what I'm talking about because we're so accustomed to thinking about segregation as something that happens in the South, right? And then the other piece of it, I think, is so for the folks who kind of do know, I think, people have just grown accustomed to inequality, right? I mean, particularly for people who imagine themselves to be liberals or even progressives, that they're willing to oppose policies that lead to Black suffering, right? So, you know, people might support reforming police departments, for example, but I think what we're missing is that we don't look for policies that allow Black people and Latinx people to thrive. Right? So to have lives that are full and rich and not, and not rich monetarily, but just rich in terms of opportunity, rich in terms of exposure.

So we don't have those conversations and then when we do talk about it, it's like, Well, we have to fix Black people, we have to fix Latinx people, rather than creating the structures and the opportunities that give people the best possible opportunities, just like White students, right,  and Asian students.

Andrew: Right. We expect that White students can be whatever they want, can do whatever they want. And so if they're not doing that, then we need to fix the system so that it allows them to do that. And that we don't bring those same expectations to Black and Brown kids.

Elise Boddie: That's right. Yeah. We don't see the full range of possibilities for Black and Brown children.

Andrew: So despite all of these kind of legal protections in this legal infrastructure, New Jersey is not, you know, Thurgood Marshall's vision of everyone learning together, and then being able to live together and understand each other.

Elise Boddie:  New Jersey is quite the opposite. And you know, what's interesting about New Jersey is that, we see that we not only have among the most segregated schools in the country but we have all this other dysfunction in our system, right. We have very high levels of residential segregation, which makes sense given the fiefdoms that I just talked about. We have huge disparities in the criminal justice system, we have a maternal mortality rate that is the fourth highest in the country, and I think a lot of these disparities are operationalized through segregation. And if we could dismantle those structures, I think a lot of the inequalities that we see in these other areas could also be addressed in a more meaningful way.

Andrew: Yeah. And probably addressed in a way that actually lifts all boats, right? There's some piece of it that is this, like, zero-sum thinking. That if we allow the Black and Brown kids to get ahead, that means that the White kids will have to then therefore fall behind.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, I, we sort of approach this as a zero-sum game, but, you know, in fact, I  think that there, a lot of this is again, just my speculation, but I think there are a fair number of White people who sort of fear the unknown, right. Black people too, you know, we fear the unknown. And, again, going back to the stories that we tell ourselves about people who  live in different places or go to different schools that, you know, those people are different from us and because they're different, we feel insecure, we feel threatened. And I think it's that fear that keeps us separate.

Andrew: Yeah. I w-, I wonder if there's a piece of it too that is, particularly as a White man, to look at the state of, of White supremacy, the state of our country, the ways in which we don't allow for the full humanity of other people, that the more that you acknowledge those marginalized populations as actual human beings worthy of living into their full humanity, the more weight it feels like you then have to carry for, for the history of the country. If they can be “those” people and you can blame it on culture, or you can blame it on laziness or all these other kinds of tropes, then it's much easier to live in and accept the differences that exist in terms of possibilities for people. And the more that other people become real human beings to you, worthy of living into their own full humanity, the harder it is to reconcile that with the story we've been told of America.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, that's, I think that's absolutely right. The more that we see people who are in many important ways, just like us, the harder it becomes to reconcile the deep inequalities, the deep harms that people experience in their lives. Because then we have to reconcile the fact that nothing is being done about it.

Andrew: Yyeah, so there's these tools that, despite the kind of good law, that we allow mostly White, also sometimes Asian, certainly privileged people, to access without having to confront the racism in it, right. Without having to grapple with the fact they are participating in, in perpetuating these kinds of racist things. And I think a lot of people, particularly like you were saying, liberal progressive people who would not think of themselves as participating in it or not want to be part of it, and yet, and yet we're able to ignore the ways that we are part of perpetuating racism.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, when White people, progressives, liberals, whatever, confront that system, you know, then you have to sort of turn the lens inward and look at, Okay, so all of the privilege that I've had, all the opportunities that I've had, are not just solely because I may be excellent, but also because I've had the benefit of schools that are well-resourced, I've had the benefit of living in stable neighborhoods, and that opportunity has been denied to other people. And so for people who are thoughtful about it, they might start to think, Well, maybe some of this privilege is unearned, right? Maybe I've had a leg up in my life and it's not just due to my innate...

Andrew: Wonderfulness.

Elise Boddie: Wonderfulness. Yeah. Right. It's that, that I've had advantage. And that's for a lot of people to come to that realization, you know, people don't want to see that, right. People don't want to wrestle with that.

Andrew: What, what do you think that is? Is this sort of culturally how we've, like, framed public education as a consumer good? That our goal is to get the best version of it is this you know, what is, what is the kind of disconnect there?

Elise Boddie: We have this sort of really disturbing, you know, trend is maybe not quite the right word, but sort of over the last maybe 30 or so years of public education as becoming a private good to be consumed, right. Public education is not a system that should be for everyone and that we should create funding and resources that are fairly distributed across schools so they benefit everyone. But it's sort of like a race to the top, right. A race to get the best for my kid. And for, and for other people's children, that's not my problem. I don't have to, I don't have to worry about that. 

And I think about, I've been going back to Dr. Noliwe Rooks's book about Cutting School. Right. People actually, you know, make money on the backs of, of poor Black and Brown children, right, through this system of hedge funds and private equity, who are literally profiting off of segregated schools through the creation of charter schools and the like. So it's, we have, you know, our orientation around public education has changed to be kind of a commodity, public education is a commodity to be, you know, bought, right. And, and then also we have systems that have commodified public education. 

Andrew: Right. Yeah. So you either buy it by paying for a private school, you buy it by buying your house in the quote unquote, good school district, or you buy it by getting your kid tutoring so that they can then test into the advanced placement classes or the gifted and talented program, or you know, that you buy it by driving your kid every day to the magnet school, that there is no transportation for other kids or whatever. And then, and then I guess you have the, the flip side of that, which is then if it's a commodity, if it's something that people can buy, then it's also something that people can steal.

Elise Boddie: Yes. So, I mean, to that point, so we have this burgeoning industry of, of these school districts hiring, what I call the residence police, to make sure that students who are attending local schools actually live in those districts. And when they're discovered, right, and they're tossed out of school because they're stealing public education. There was a story recently in New Jersey of a family being charged $40,000 for enrolling their child in a district in which they didn't live, right. So these are the systems that we've created. And when you think it's acceptable to treat education as a consumer good, then it means it's okay to deny education to people who can't afford it and that's a real, that's a real problem.

Andrew: Yeah. I mean the theft of public schools, just like, I feel like that, like, it doesn't even make sense, like linguistically . . .

Elise Boddie: It’s public. 

Andrew: How do you . . . it's public schools 

Elise Boddie: Right, yeah. 

Andrew: Long-term kind of, what's the harm in that idea of public schooling as a consumer good. How does that harm our democracy? How does that harm the future of the country?

Elise Boddie: Yeah, I mean, that's such an, such an important question. I, I think, again, it goes back to this notion that it's okay to commodify, to put a price tag on something that is really fundamental to the health of our democracy and to the health of our children's futures, right. So, if we think of public education as a consumer good, rather than as something that everyone should have regardless of their ability to pay, then that means that it's okay to, to exclude children and families from certain kinds of public schools, you know, the public schools where they don't live.

And that, and that the consequences of that are also okay, right. That we're perfectly comfortable isolating Black and Brown children in districts with unbelievable levels of poverty because those people quote unquote can't afford it. And if they just worked harder, right, then they would be able to have what we have, right. Rather than kind of examining the systems that have given people unjustifiably a leg up on, you know, really on the basis of race and class.

Andrew: Yeah. Then we also accept the inequality that kind of perpetuates in, in our society. So we just continue with this sort of cycle of growing income inequality that is also so closely tied to racial inequality.

Elise Boddie: Right. And what people have, well, that's, that's what they deserve, right. Because again, going back to the sort of the trope of, Well, if they, you know, worked hard like we do then we, then they would have the same things that we have you know, again, not examining the systems and structures that have benefited the people who have and have disadvantaged the people who don't have.

Andrew: Yeah, I feel like this is King's White moderate, that, that he warned us about what, 50 years ago. I've heard you mention that the kind of White liberal is the biggest barrier to, to advancing that. What do you think that is?

Elise Boddie: So the White moderate, going back to people who imagine themselves to be liberal, to be progressive, to be forward-thinking and yet are unwilling to examine the privileges that they've inherited, right? Not just by benefit of their virtue or, or intelligence necessarily, although they may have both of those things, but by virtue of just, sort of, the intergenerational accumulation of resources, benefits, opportunities for White people that have the effects because of the systems we've created of perpetuating themselves.

Andrew: Yeah. Thinking back to King and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, like w-, we need to frame school integration as, like, positive peace as opposed to negative peace, right? It's like the presence of justice, not, not the absence of tension. How do we convince people that school integration is a way towards positive peace? And may come with tension may, you know, may, may require some tension to get there, but that is actually justice, rather than, you know, negative peace.

Elise Boddie: I wish I knew the answer to that question. I think about it a lot. The only thing I can really say is that I think for, you know, for White people in particular who have been in integrated environments and I mean, you know, truly integrated environments, it's, you know, at least what I've heard folks say is that it's, it's like a, a burden is lifted or they start to see themselves in a different light, right. It's liberating. And again, going back to the sort of the notion of fear, right? That people, you know, fear the unknown.

And to confront that and see, you know, actually we've got a lot more in common than, than we thought we did, opens up new ways of thinking about, not only other people, but thinking about, you know, yourself, right. That I can be in a place where people don't have the same lived experiences and that's okay, right. There is a liberating quality to that.

Andrew: Yeah. There is a sense of liberation that comes from that, that, that is like, you know, I think equally matched by what we were talking about earlier, that sort of sense of obligation that the more you kind of see shared humanity, the more liberating it is, but also the more important it feels to try to do something about the injustice that exists.

Elise Boddie: Right, because when you, yeah, when you see yourself in other people and you see that the other people don't have what you have, then it motivates you to, to think about what you could do to things better, to make things right.

Andrew: Yeah. What, what might it look like to do a better job to, to have more meaningful integration in our schools? I think it feels to me like every decade or two, there's kind of a new version of it. We had this vision of integration that led Thurgood Marshall and others at the NAACP to fight for Brown v. Board. We had this vision of integration that came out of the Green case, the Green Factors, we had the, the Booker case. Now we've got IntegrateNYC and the Five R's of Real Integration, we have to like be reminded every 10 or 20 years of what it means to actually have integration.

Elise Boddie: Yeah. I mean, I think for, you know, for those of us who do this work and are living in this space, I think that the conversation is moving in positive directions about what integration should mean, right. What, what integration meant in the 1950s and ‘60s after Brown vs. Board of Education is, is not the same vision that's being articulated by groups like Teens Take Charge and, and IntegrateNYC. And thank goodness because I think the vision, that these new visions that the really the young people are, are bringing are so holistic and fresh and they are examining these issues through the lens of not, it's not a deficit lens. It's a lens of, you know, look what we're missing by not being in the room in these educational settings with other folks who also have talents and abilities and experiences that are important and that we can learn from. And I think that frame is so, is so critical to moving conversations around integration forward in a way that's productive and positive.

Andrew: Yeah, talk a little bit about The Inclusion Project. What is it and what are you trying to achieve with that?

Elise Boddie: Yeah. So thanks for the question. Yeah, the Inclusion Project is, is focused on first on how do we identify systems that drive inequality? And then what can we do about them using research as well as, uh, community engagement and having conversations with people who are the most affected by these systems of inequality.

Mostly that's focused around public schools in New Jersey and the frame for the work of The Inclusion Project is that you have to bring everyone to the table. Well no, you don't, actually, sometimes you have to go to their table and sometimes bring them to your table. But if you're not in conversation with stakeholders and people who are in the system, driving the system, benefiting from the system, being harmed by the system, if you don't have all of those perspectives, you're not going to get to the right, I won't say solution because that sounds too final, but you won't have the right approach, right. You won't have the right mentality for trying to make things better. 

So, yeah, so the work is, it's interdisciplinary. I work with the researchers, I work with folks in the community, we're now, actually we're working with faith leaders, we're working with students, and it's, it's, it's a lot of work. It, it stretches me, pushes me in a lot of different directions, but t's really been eye-opening and I've learned a lot from all the people that I've worked with.

Andrew: Yeah, it says on your website that you seek to implement your ideas through law policy and community practice. I’m wondering if you say a little more about the community practice piece. Because I think the, you know, the law and the policy piece, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I know that that's a real common approach to try to solve some of these problems is like, let's get better laws, let's, let's get policies, but what's the community practice piece of that.

Elise Boddie: Yeah. So, I think of community practice as the practice of speaking with people about something that at least I've identified as, as a problem, right. As objectively as a problem and then, having conversations with people who I perceive to have a stake in that system, either because they're being harmed by it or that they want to make it better.

And that work is so important because I come to this work with my particular experiences and perspectives and quote unquote research. But you just can't understand a problem or an issue until you've really sat down and heard from people who are affected by it and have and have their own views about it right? 

Some may, you know, some don't necessarily see quote, unquote segregation as a problem, right? Some people think, Well, we like to be in control of our schools. And so then you have, then when you have that conversation, then you have to sort of probe, okay. So you want to be in control of your schools. So yes, that's we understand that that actually is objectively a good thing. But, but then also you, you hear that part of what's driving that is Black people feel, in parts of New Jersey, that they've been the objects of education reform rather than, rather than participants in education reform

And so, when you have the opportunity to really sit down with people and hear from them, I've, I've learned so much about school segregation and integration.I've thought differently actually about what we need as a result of those conversations. And so I, I think that's the most important part of, of my work. It's the hardest part of my work, because it means you have to have really hard conversations, but it's also, it's the best part I think of what I've done.

Andrew: Hmm. Yeah. You're right, to go and like you said, go to their table or find a way to get people to come to your table, to actually be able to sit down and have the conversations and then yeah, maybe it, it sort of throws everything up in the air. I feel like that's, you know, every, every conversation I have with somebody in this space, I feel like I leave with like, Oh crap, this thing that I thought I knew, I actually don't know in the same way or this thing that I thought I believed I need to, to reevaluate. And there's, there's discomfort in that, but also maybe hope and in getting to something better

Elise Boddie: Yeah. I mean, it can be tremendously destabilizing, right? When you come to conversation and people don't see things the way that, that you see them, and then you realize, well, there's a, you know, there's a reason behind that. And a lot of this work you have to build trust. Because in, especially in, the public education space in New Jersey, there's, there's a lot of distrust. There's lot of rawness in terms of the way that policies have been imposed on communities. And that creates resistance, justifiably, yeah. So you have to, you know, you have to have those conversations

Andrew: It, it feels like you, you have been, you've been at this work for, I'm not calling you old by any means, but you are, you already said the year you were born, I don't really understand. Um, but, but you have been in this work for a long time. You've been doing this and, and we can point to some wins for sure. But it feels like there is still so far to go. And maybe part of that is that, you know, we've, we're, we're pushing back on 400 years of history and, and maybe not even pushing back with all of our might yet. But how do you keep going? What do you, what sort of nourishes you, or keeps you in the fight and prevents you from kind of throwing up your hands and saying, Screw you all, I'm out of here.

Elise Boddie: Well, sometimes I do have those thoughts, not the screw you part, but just why, why do I, the why  do I do this part. You know, I go back to, when I feel really sort of despondent and discouraged, I, I go back to history, right, and I look at, you know, all those folks in the South who were mobilizing for the right to vote in the early 1900s. And, you know, just kept pushing and persisting.

Or the people, I think of Martha Jones’ work around birthright citizens, and the people who sort of, you know, the Black folks who, who pushed for citizenship before even the end of enslavement because they had a vision. And John Peyton, who used to lead the Legal Defense Fund, used to say that it's uh, you know, this is a relay race and it's intergenerational and the, this work, I really do see this work as intergenerational. I don't think that I'm here to quote unquote solve problems, and then I can just sort of wash my hands of it and it's done.

I think that the difficulty is that these problems resurface, they reproduce themselves.   And so when I hand off the baton to the next generation, I will pass on the lessons that I've learned, but the next generation is going to have to develop their own approaches and methodologies. And that's part of the process. I think that's what's so hard for people is that they think, Well, there will be a time when we can just walk away from this and we're done. And that's not really the history of America. That's the problem. 

You know, in the civil rights movement, we used to say, there's joy in the struggle. You know, I, I have people I work with who - they’re, you know, struggling too. You know, their work is not necessarily focused on public education, but they're focused on improving you know, voting opportunities, they're, they're focused on making our criminal justice system fair, or looking at public health. And so when I'm feeling really low, I reach out to them. We commiserate with one another.

Andrew: Right. right. But I do love that, that, that metaphor of, of not a marathon, but a relay race that, that you, you run as hard as you can for as long as you can, and then you have to hand the baton on. And hopefully, you know, you've set up the next crop of people. And I guess that's, to me why there's such power in schools, is that better to have the next generation start running now? And start running with a bit of a headstart in terms of seeing each other's shared humanity, in terms of, you know, recognizing the importance and the value of, of having each other, because then maybe they can run a little further and a little faster and get us a little bit further than, than they otherwise would have. Knowing that we're running against, you know, White supremacy, which is also running a relay race, which is also changing its tactics and growing and morphing and getting more and more sophisticated. And I think about the Mothers of Massive Resistance that Elizabeth McRae writes of that, you know, the, that the, the fact that we don't think about some of these things as being about race was totally intentional, was the way that it was intended to be so that White supremacy could, could perpetuate itself without having to claim that it was White supremacy.

Elise Boddie: Yeah, that's so well said. And I do deeply feel that if we could tackle segregation, like, I feel like segregation is the, it's the nerve center for White supremacy. And if we could dismantle that, I think a lot of these other systems would crumble. It would open up opportunities in so many different ways and in part, because, you know, again, we'd be creating opportunities for, for people to see the humanity and the possibilities in each other. And that means that people would be less willing to tolerate all of this injustice, which is maybe too, maybe that's not the right - maybe it should be more positive. Maybe they'd be more willing to seek justice.

Andrew: Yep. There is some hope. I think I heard you say the arc of the moral universe dosn't just bend towards justice, we have to actually bend it.

Elise Boddie: Got to bend it, yeah, I, I would like to think that we could reach some really positive milestones in the litigation and just in this work. And, and quite honestly, I, when I, you know, when I do start feeling really kind of down about it and I think about how far we actually have come in New Jersey since I started this work, because when I first started talking to people about school segregation, they thought I was crazy. And now they're, these are the people who are all in and are kind of helping me. So, you have to, you know, you have to claim the small victories, too,  just to keep yourself going. 

Andrew: Do you see potential in this moment? I feel like, you know, one, one of the challenges of past attempts is, is this a way that we have not looked at race. That we have, you know, pretend that, like, color blindness, that we have pretended that if we can just, if we just ignore race, then we can, you know, have a kind of multiracial democracy without the race part. And I mean, maybe it's like kind of wishful thinking, but I do feel like there is a, there has been a shift among White people, over the past year, particularly in the wake of George Floyd, of at least being willing to see race where, where they maybe ignored it in the past. Does that give you any hope or is that wishful thinking?

Elise Boddie: It does give me hope. I do, because, I think we have seen a shift in, in really important ways. I mean, the fact that you know, we have just you know, Black, South Asian vice-president, you know, woman is, that's something right. That's something I, I think the question is whether in this moment we can move beyond that kind of formal diversity to really kind of penetrating the systems that drive not only lack of diversity but actual inequality. And that's where I just feel like we're going to keep bumping up against the systems of White supremacy. So it it's, I think it, I don't want to be misunderstood. I think it's extremely important that people are starting to look at who's in the boardroom, right, Who is in positions of power, who are the people who are making decisions. But then at some point we also have to look at the policies and practices that are really at the root of so much injustice in this country. And that's - when we're there, when we're there, I think then we'll, we'll get to a better place.

I think we're in a very different place than we were this same time last year. The question is whether we can kind of keep moving that conversation forward or whether people will do as we often see, just sort of lapse into, Well, that's just the way things are and there's nothing we do about it - that sort of attitude...

Andrew: Or, We tried right? We had that whole six months after George Floyd, like didn't - didn’t we fix it with that?.

Elise Boddie: Right. I have a Black Lives Matter sign in my lawn . . . 

Andrew: Right. I read, I read like four books and it didn't solve racism, so I feel  like we should just throw in the towel.

Elise Boddie: Right. Exactly. Yeah.

Andrew: Our audience is largely people with racial or economic privilege.

What would you ask of our audience and sort of our participation in trying to be part of that community practice, part of moving the ball forward and not throwing up our hands and saying, well, we tried, we're done?

Elise Boddie: I think to do just in, just the way that you described it. You know, we need White allies in this to stand up in those community meetings and those school board meetings and say, you know, we think this is unfair and we're going to use the resources and the power and the clout that we have in this community to do something about it.

That's huge, I think to have people who are, who are willing to do that to stand up. And I, you know, I really do appreciate your listeners, because I know your listeners are, you know, many, many folks are already engaged in this work and just keep doing what you're doing. You know, keep your eyes on the prize, as they say.

Andrew: Right. Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time for, for sharing with the audience, but also, you know, much more importantly for, for all the work you're doing for New Jersey for, you know, for The Boss. But also for, for the whole country, setting an example and being out there and being such a, a vocal proponent for, for justice, for moving us forward for collective liberation, I'm really, really grateful for you.

Elise Boddie: Well, thank you. Thank you for, for having me and thank you for all you're doing through this podcast and elsewhere. It's really important work.

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Andrew: Many thanks to Professor Boddie for taking the time to share. It will never get old to me that people like her are willing to come on the show and she was even a fan before we reached out. I, I just feel very fortunate. 

This idea of doing integration in full view of race has really stuck with me since our conversation. And, you know, we've talked about issues with colorblindness a bit here in the past, but, but something about the need for people to bring their full selves to the table for our democracy to work feels like a very powerful framing to me. You know, the, the idea that to obtain the consent of the governed requires that we can discuss matters as equals, but to do that requires that we acknowledge race, requires that we acknowledge structures of oppression and, and that we lean into equity to get us to a place where we can discuss things as equals. 

And this is true across the country, right? Like this is not some Southern thing. The idea of New Jersey, a state with some of maybe the best laws around school integration, can still be so segregate, shouldn't be surprising, right? They did it by using these tools of Northern segregation, gerrymandering, a bunch of small districts, deciding where schools get built, you know, it's less explicit, but more insidious than the ways the South went about it, but the results are the same. 

And, and so I’m just left thinking that if, if great policy alone, won't get us there, we are really just pushing back against King’s White moderate, right? The fear, I've heard Professor Boddie describe it, of too much justice. The fear that to achieve the positive peace of true integration will require giving up the negative peace of the status quo, will require tension and discomfort. But as Dr. King said, right, progress never rode in on the wheels of inevitability. 

So, I don't know. It, it seems to me that if we want to avoid becoming yet another generation that needs to quote repent for the appalling silence of good people, we have to speak up. We have to change those playground conversations. We have to desegregate our kid, integrate our families, and build the relationships required so that we can all participate in our democracy. 

And that's generational work, right. But I'm left convinced that our collective liberation depends on each of us running our leg of this relay race as best we can, so that we have something to hand off to the next generation, that can get us closer, at least, to becoming a true multiracial democracy. 

If you enjoyed this conversation, drop us a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts. Our Patreon membership has really grown since the start of season five. And we are so grateful to everyone who has joined us to support this work and help us keep the podcast ad free. If you haven't joined patreon.com/integratedschools, you can show your appreciation, but also join us for a monthly podcast happy hour discussions, get transcript and facilitation questions and discuss episodes on the Patreon forums. We've also started releasing some unedited conversations to our Patreon supporters. So if you want to hear more from Professor Boddie or, uh, Meribah Knight from last time, head on over and check out the Patreon page. 

As always, we'd love to hear what you thought of the episode. What do you want to hear in future conversations? [email protected] schools.org or on social media @integratedschools. As always, I'm grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better. 

See you next time.