For the second episode in our Brown v. Board at 65: The Stories We Tell Ourselves series, we talk with Dr. Noliwe Rooks (Cornell). Her book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, as well as some of her more recent research around the pushback to school desegregation from communities of color and the decimation of the black teaching corps following Brown v. Board, provide context in which to understand the full range of outcomes from Brown v Board. While Dr. Johnson, in Ep 18, showed us some of the many benefits of desegregation, Dr. Rooks reminds us of many of the costs, especially to the black community. She asks us to engage with these stories in order to understand the very real intent behind where we find ourselves today. It is only through changing the stories we tell, that we might envision a different, more equitable future for school integration.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the second episode of the Integrated Schools Podcast special “Brown v. Board at Sixty-Five: The Stories We Tell Ourselves”. I'm Andrew, a White Dad from Denver.
Courtney: And I'm Courtney, a White mom from Los Angeles.
Andrew: “Segrenomics, Black Teachers and Noliwe Rooks”. We're joined today by Dr. Noliwe Rooks from Cornell. She's the author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education. And she’s gonna help us unpack some more of the myths we tell ourselves about Brown v. Board.
Courtney: The ways we understand our national histories has a huge amount of influence in the courses we chart for ourselves. In the decisions we make both as a society and as individuals.
Andrew: And so, in our first episode last week, we talked to Dr. Rucker Johnson, who laid out his research that shows how school integration, or I guess, school desegregation has really worked quite well.
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, not perfectly, right? Not at all. And with a focus, really being on desegregation and not integration.
Andrew: Right, but it still had really powerful positive effects for the kids who were exposed to it, and we really only tried it as desegregation for maybe 15 years or something.
Courtney: Yeah. And while there were definitely benefits that Dr. Johnson's work shows, they were also costs, like, really high costs. And so that's why I'm excited to talk to Dr. Rooks and bring her work into the conversation. Like, her book Cutting School and her more recent research on the Black teaching corps, we get a much better picture of some of the costs of the way that the policies after Brown v. Board were designed and implemented.
Andrew: Yeah, you know, I think, I think she really helps us highlight a number of these other myths, the stories that we tell ourselves about Brown.
Courtney: Yeah. We don't want to give it away in our little intro.
Andrew: We can tease it though, right?
Andrew: So listen now for what Dr. Rooks shares about Black schools and about the motivation for Brown v. Board into the lead up to it.
Courtney: Yeah. In addition, into what was initially pushed for, also what invariably happened and who paid the price for that.
Andrew: Yeah, if you haven't read her book yet, the beginning of our conversation gives us a great overview of, of segrenomics.
Courtney: Yeah, oh my God, I want to talk all about this, but we should probably listen to the interview.
Andrew: Let's hear it.
Andrew: Welcome, Dr. Rooks. Why don't you introduce yourself.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: So my name is Noliwe Rooks. I am a professor at Cornell University in Africana Studies and I direct the American Studies Program. I'm also the author of four books, the most recent of which is called Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.
Courtney: I know that our listeners would appreciate hearing a little bit about what segrenomics is.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Oh, sure, yeah. It helps me to put it in context where the term came from. Found myself in 2009 trying to answer the question of how the various bedfellows, for lack of a better word, were intertwined with, intertwined relationships that seemed to have a hand in shaping public education into 2009. You know, the philanthropists, hedge fund folks, college students, politicians.
Andrew: Right, like all all the people who were driving decisions around education, making change in education. Like, how did they all sort of find themselves in the same boat?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, I was looking at this and kind of going, you know, Why are you all, who most of you who have nothing to do with public schools, your children didn’t go to public schools. You know, you didn't go to public schools, you don't live in neighborhoods with these bad public schools. Why are you trying to do this? And I recognized I was trying to figure out where the moment was where they started. Honestly, I thought I was just going to kind of go back to the ‘80s or the ‘70s, but I kept going back, back, back farther and to the beginning of public education. Our state finance, compulsory public education in the United States, which is the post-Reconstruction period following the Civil War. And when I got back there, I recognized there were the same relationships. There were these business people and there were these philanthropists and earnest White people, although then they were evangelical religious people, not college students, but…
Courtney: But still earnest.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: They were very earnest, you know, about wanting to fix this problem of education for Black children in the rural South. While being a little surprised that those relationships were not a 21st century phenomena, I also recognized throughout that research, a thread where you always had these groups proposing solutions for children of color, poor children, that looked absolutely nothing like what they wanted for their own kids, but that provided huge kinds of profits in various ways, for the businesses that they represented. The short way of putting it, is segregation has always been really profitable for some people. And so that thinking about segregation and economics and the profit potential in it and the numbers of businesses that actually get proposed, that wouldn't exist. Like their business model does not work if you fix the problem of high levels of economic and racial segregation, they're out of business. It’s a long way of saying I stuck together segregation and economics and came up with segreconomics.
Courtney: So it's basically the way people make money off of keeping us apart.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes, exactly. For me, at least, it provides an explanation for why it's been so hard in education and in other parts of American society, why, despite moments when we, we have all this vigorous effort around fixing this, you know around saying this educational segregation is not working because resources are not being shared in a way that are helping the least of these. In fact, what keeps happening is the more wealthy communities get to hoard resources in these moments where we sort of say, We're gonna fix segregation.
Andrew: I think one thing that is really interesting to me about your work is the, is the financial piece of it. Can you sort of make that link, the financial incentives to keep these things going?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah. For certain segments of the society, there's always been this kind of link between the ability of businesses to make money. So, like, if you wanted a Black school, you had to go through getting matching funds and selling all your possessions in order to raise money so that, you know, you could prove that you weren't taking a handout as a community, but that you had self-reliance. And there's a whole big rigmarole. You have to deed your land, you have to find some land before you can build a school. White people cannot build you a school. It’s illegal for, to use White money to build a Black school. So Black people have to build their own school.
And then you have to, like, deed the land where you're gonna build your school, in perpetuity, to White county officials so that they are, they are benefiting, you know, from Black education. They now have some land that is theirs. And then you have to go find all the materials yourself, and then you have to find the labor to build everything. And then after all of that's done, you can actually have a school. But it can only be vocational education. You can only be taught how to do trades. That was the condition for, for Blacks to get, even be, educated, and that is consistent. … for poor Whites as well, I do make the point that there's some overlap with just how we treat poor people. But for poor Whites, they want them to all be farmers. So most of the educational thing, if you're gonna educate poor White people, it was some kind of farming, that was it. And then poor Blacks, it is all kinds of, of vocational stuff.
But the point is, it was lucrative to all kinds of businesses. County officials were getting money. You're double taxing Black peoples. White money could not be used to educate Black children, which meant the Black communities that wanted education had to pay a double tax. They had to be taxed once for the education of White kids and then to turn around and pay an extra tax if their kids wanted to be educated. What's so, those are state and local entities that are benefiting from this kind of undereducation, and it just continues apace.
And I think that is one of the most surprising things to me about this work, is when you look and if you follow the money, how, how often undereducation is a growth market, it’s got market potential, is enriching all of these businesses. And it's always about educating these populations in ways very different from the ways that we educate the children of the wealthy. You do not have wealthy kids being pushed into anything that looks like vocational education. It's like, Oh, let's give them a classic education. They need to speak Greek and Latin and bleh, bleh, because it's gonna make them citizens and there's gonna make them human and their humanity will allow them to do all these other things. That's never what we say about poor kids and kids of color. It's always like they need to be trained in a very strict, very narrow, very particular way.
Andrew: Can you sort of run that throughline all the way through to today? The sort of financial incentive to maintain the current levels of segregation and sort of who benefits from it?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: The big model for educating kids who are in vulnerable communities, you know, have to do with vouchers, charter schools, and cyber education. So in many rural and urban school districts, folks are like, Let's just not have to worry about decrepit schools or hiring quality teachers and doing a whole bunch with benefits that's bankrupting in the municipality. Let's just do cyber education. We will purchase these companies that are generally for-profit companies privately owned and run. You know, we'll buy a computer for a family and make sure they have internet access. And this is supposed to be the big thing. From the age of five, there are cyber schools that start to educate you from kindergarten that will take you all the way up through college. You never have to step foot in a classroom. And these companies get paid the same amount per pupil, as do the entities that are teaching kids in brick and mortar schools.
The thing is, everybody knows, even people who support charter schools and support privatized education, admit cyber education does not benefit the kids. Like, it doesn't. The kids fail all the tests, there's all kinds of schemes, so it looks like they're attending class, like sitting in their home in front of a computer, where they say, like I'm present, you know, they show as, I'm here for the day. And then, you know, like they leave the computer on and go off and do whatever and then just come back a few hours later, and then these schools are getting all this money. These kids are failing everything, but somehow they're allowed to expand because they, they're seen as cheaper.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, it feels like cyber schools, in their current form, are really experimental.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Right.
Andrew: I guess with a lot of education changes, we don't often see experimenting happening on White kids. So if your schools are segregated, it provides you with this like ready population that we sort of feel comfortable experimenting on. Meanwhile, the cyber education companies are making huge amounts of money, their CEOs are making huge amounts of money.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Right. Michael Milken, who got famous from the movie Wall Street, “greed is good”. When he got out of jail, he, his brother and another disgraced trader got together and scraped together their last 10 million dollars. I mean, the way they tell this story, right? It's like, Yes, we were hardworking, we were laundresses and our last two dollars, right? Like they scraped together 10 million dollars between them and start this K-12 company, which is for cyber education. This thing gets sued, and there's like federal racketeering charges. The FBI is continually raiding their headquarters because they're just, just bilking school districts. They've been convicted 172 times of different kinds of fronts, and yet they're allowed to continue to operate because they're just simply earning money hand over fist. So, you do not find them operating in the upper middle class, like they would not be in the Ithaca school district talking about, Let us educate your children. You know, Ithaca is a highly resourced school district. You only find these kinds of schemes that are income producing like this among entities who are promising to educate the least of these. Native American reservations are, are a growth area. They have said they want to get into kids in foster care because they're like, There's little parental involvement there. And given that lack of parental involvement and, you know, oversight, we can, that's a big growth area. They want to get into juvenile detention centers because again, there's not a lot of parental oversight or pushback. We can make a lot of money there. So, the fact that who they target for these schemes, and I call them schemes, you know, makes clear that education is not the point. Money is the point. They're not actually there to turn this ship around, this undereducation ship around. They're just trying to extract as much profit before the whole thing goes under.
Courtney: Education’s not the point, money is the point, but it's segregation that really makes all of this possible, right?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes. If you're talking about people on Native American reservations, though we don't talk about it as much, but the levels of racial and economic segregation amongst that population are as high as any place else that we see in the country, so it makes sense that it would be a growth area. When you talk about kids in foster care, for the most part, you're talking about people, children and youth, who are coming from these highly racially and economically segregated communities. It's not that, you know, White people aren't in foster care, but it's not something that you're finding in higher income communities regularly. And it's the struggling school districts, rural school districts as well as urban school districts, where you find the school boards, if they're elected or appointed, sort of turning over huge proportions of the district to these, these for-profit entities, these charter schools and cyber schools. Again, you don't find it in, in other areas. So that's why I'm saying it's the segregation. Instead of trying to fix the segregation and the poverty that comes along with it, the isolation and the lack of services, and all the things that come along with segregation.
You know, segregation for poor people is a hindrance. Segregation for wealthy people is a bonus. You know, they're fine with not having a high level of the numbers of special ed kids in their schools, they’re fine with not having kids that are coming into schools who may not have been eating regularly at home, or have certain kinds of social dysfunction at home, or high levels of homelessness. It's great for wealthy, well-resourced districts to keep all of them in the city schools where that kind of economic segregation hinders them because it benefits the wealthy community. So, unless and until we start talking about redrawing lines… it’s not about moving kids around. It's about breaking up that feeling that certain groups are just entitled to more than other groups when you're talking about tax dollars.
Courtney: So Noliwe, I wanted to give you a little bit of space to talk about your more recent research.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, you know, so some, some more recent work that I've been doing is in part engendered by the fact that after I wrote Cutting School, a lot of the people I was talking with in Black communities, at least, churches, civic organizations, book clubs, you know, things like NAACP, small, I'd be talking to 10, 15 people, half of whom actually had a history of educating Black kids, like small little groups. And whenever I would do, you know, do the kind of standard, Of course integration is the only thing that will save schools. It’s just kind of a standard, just sort of understood that that's what works, that is what has worked systematically and therefore, you know, if we're gonna fight these systemic inequities, you need a systemic solution, and we know that integration works. However, I would say that and get pushed back regularly. Such that, you know, I became kind of surprised. Like it was kind of like, OK, wait a minute. You know what, what, what is happening here that y’all are saying that you don't think integration works? And what they were saying, I mean, I'm almost ashamed to say, what they were telling me back is a part of my family history.
So my grandparents in the South, in Clearwater, Florida were both educators. My grandfather was also very, very much involved in politics. He was, you know, the local NAACP president, the Black Teachers Union president, an organization he founded called the Progressive League of African American Voters, or Afro American Voters. And what he and others really advocated for in organized ways from 1920s on up to Brown, really was for a kind of strengthening of Black civic and educational organizations and a vision of what integration could look like that was very different from what got implemented. What they argued for across the South was a model of integration that sent the teacher's first, right? So think about this. You have an educational model that's sending White teachers and administrators to Black schools, Black teachers and administrators to predominantly White schools. You do that for a few years, and then you send the kids. Then, after the adults have worked out what the infrastructure will look like, what the curriculum will look like, after they've gotten used to each other and over their prejudices, and all the groups are getting paid the same. Which was a big thing. They were like, That's why we need to start with the teachers. Because if we do this this way, then first of all, we're gonna equalize teacher salaries and we won't be paid so little. Also, if you're sending White teachers and White administrators into Black schools that are all decrepit, the money will follow them, as well. To fix them.
So you do that first. It's almost it's, it’s a different version of what Integrated Schools is trying to do. What they, what they were proposing was something very different. They were, they were proposing democracy, and they were proposing economic equality as a part of the integration effort that would then lead to educational equality. They were proposing reworking an entire society by having, you know, Black administrators and teachers enter each other’s schools first. Work out how we're gonna educate first, and the integration would have been on the backs of the adults first. And then you send the kids after that.
Instead, of course, what happened is the Black schools and Black teachers all got fired. How is it that these master teachers of Black kids who are legendary in most people's memory. What you hear about are these teachers who were able to educate with little to nothing kids from all kinds of economic backgrounds and Black communities to the highest levels that White society would allow them to rise to. So, you know, the doctor, the lawyers, like they're all coming through Black communities, they're all coming through Black teachers. Like how is it that those people would say what is in their best interest is to send these children into hostile White environments? My grandfather would tell stories regularly about being, the house being shot at, crosses being burned on the lawn, public intimidation. These folks knew exactly who the enemy was, exactly the lengths that they would go to. How do you decide that you're gonna send your babies to those schools, by themselves?
And the fact that I never stopped to ask the question that way, what was going on behind the scenes? What were they thinking, that this was their strategy? Because it doesn't make sense in a way. And it's certainly after you see the first scenes of the Little Rock Nine, as one of the first, the first spaces where the integration test really took place and you know, you had a year of hell. And if Black people, and Black people had to have heard the stories, about what those children went through, where acid is thrown in their face, people are throwing dynamite down the stairs at them. They're being physically attacked by teachers in the hallway in front of these soldiers. As those stories are going around Black communities, of the lengths that White people are willing to go to in the school where it's hand to hand combat. In what university do you decide to send your children in there?
Topeka, Kansas, where Brown v. Board, you know the lead case of the cases that became Brown v. Board. You know, one of the under-discussed results of that decision, as White folks across the South really dug in and massively resisted the idea of integration, is they figured out ways to close all kinds of Black schools and they figured out ways to fire Black teachers. When they fired the Black teachers, in some states, you're talking about 1/3 to 1/2 of the Black teaching force, so they could hire White teachers. Because integration is coming now, So we're gonna have to have more teachers teaching in the White schools because it never occurred to anybody that you’d be sending White kids to Black schools. So the result of Brown v. Board was closing Black schools and firing Black teachers, which just further enriched White people.
Andrew: I think there's this idea that the White people had the great schools, and so the people of color just wanted access to them, and that was sort of the, you know, this, like desperation for good education was where all of the impetus for Brown came from, and I feel like that's, that's not exactly right.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: You even had Linda Brown's parents, where they’re saying, You know, we didn't have a problem with our schools. Our teachers were amazing. The Black teachers at the school she would have gone to, I went to that school, my husband went to the school, we think that it was first class education. They taught you to withstand everything. They taught you to love yourself. They taught you about who you were in ways that help you progress. They were strong, strong teachers. We just didn't want to have to cross all these streets. Like it was, it was a transportation issue, not a quality of school issue for us.
And in the aftermath of Brown and, and in the oral histories there, they're almost lamenting, or her mother is almost lamenting, You know that we did something to dismantle like 80% of the teachers in that school that she's talking about got fired. Because the school board immediately says, Well, okay, let's build another White school. Let's, ‘cause we have to now absorb these Black students, so we think, you know, in response to Brown. But surely you don't expect us to let Black teachers teach White students. Our vision, what we understand the Supreme Court to be saying is Black students now need White teachers, so there's no need for Black teachers. It's this heartbreaking, a sort of missed history and misunderstanding of what the teachers were advocating for, versus what actually happened.
Courtney: I didn't realize that this is actually a transportation issue by Linda Brown's family.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes, yes, they didn't want her to have to walk across the big, I don't remember if it was a four lane, it was a big road that she would have to walk across and they couldn't get her there because of working every day. And so it was for her safety. I somehow never heard that the Browns had zero problem with the Black school.
Andrew: That, that piece of it is definitely a piece that has been shocking to me as well, because right, like, you know, the image you have is like there are these terrible, terrible schools that everybody's sad about and they want a good school. And so the White school is the good school, and that's where they want us to be able to send their kids, to the good school.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes. To go back and find that they were like, The schools were awful, we didn't have books, you know. They were giving us a hand-me- down, torn up books, we didn't have heat in the winter. Like the schools, the infrastructure was awful. The teachers were excellent. We didn't, we wanted better schools, but somehow the teachers, nobody ever said we wanted different teachers, and so that we embarked upon a path that got rid of both. But in some communities, literally 80, like Topeka, literally 80% of the teachers end up fired. And the interviews, we have some of the interviews of when they go to interview for jobs to teach the White kids. So you know, the Black teachers who are winning all kinds of awards and, you know, even, you know, the Boards of education in these segregated places, are saying, You are a great teacher, oh my God, teacher of the year teacher of the year. You know, even when they go and interview to try to teach White children, the feedback is often, I just didn't like something about her. I just wasn't comfortable. I don't think our parents in Topeka will stand for this, or that, She won't deal well with those parents, right? Like so none, no Black teachers end up hired in Topeka, Kansas, which is the seat of Brown v. Board after they closed the one Black school.
It's in collections of oral histories that Linda Brown's mother, she had some regret about what she did. While pride, of course, that they and their child have become the symbols of, you know, civil rights and progress, you know, this is like but why does everybody keep saying our schools were bad and more to the point, you know, the schools could have used some, some modernization. Like, nobody's saying schools were in great physical shape, but the teachers, the teachers were the key and that nobody talked about teachers in the entire case.
That led me to look back through the entire Brown, the transcript, the ruling. Nobody even mentions teachers in the whole thing. Like, so as a part of the integration effort that very, very important aspect of education for anyone, is left out. So then they just ran around and hired a bunch of willy nilly White teachers. I mean it's not, you know, like qualified White teachers can teach anybody or whatever. Well, half these teachers don't want to teach Black kids and then you just hired a bunch of other people because, you know, now you fired all the Black teachers and you got, you got this census that's growing.
There's this quote I found from MLK, when he's in Atlanta in, like, 1957, -8 he's talking to, uh, to the Black Teachers Union and he says, You know what? We have to fight hard or we're gonna end up integrating ourselves out of power. We did not start, start this to integrate ourselves out of power. But what he's talking about is exactly what happened, and it’s, and it's schools and kids and communities that have suffered as a result.
Courtney: You know, I'm thinking a lot about some of the myths in reference to like Brown v. Board, and I think one of those myths is that there are certain parents who do, and certain parents who don't, care about education.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Right.
Courtney: And you see this like any time anyone writes anything about the problem with our educational system, there's going to be in the comment section, Well it's all about those parents.
Andrew: If they just cared about education more or just valued it the same way we did, then they're welcome to come to our school. It's not about race, it's just about, Do they care enough about their kids’ education.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: It’s all individual, that grit narrative, right? If you had parents that cared more and kids, if we teach them grit all of this would be fixed. It's that there's, there's something broken in the people, not the system. Or how you gonna blame the hardworking White people that this is the case. So generally we will point a finger at individuals and are fine with individual effort. And we will glom onto every story of someone who beats these odds and say, See if they could do it, why couldn't you? Someone who, who manages to run the gauntlet and get into these schools and have a good life after, that becomes a pushback to every story about this large scale exclusion from, from taxpayer resources. If Barack Obama could do it, why can't you? Oprah Winfrey got through, what's wrong with your kids? So all of the stories of winning, few though they may be, become the bar that we're all supposed to reach for. And so you're not supposed to ask questions, it's just because those communities are lazy and those parents don't know how to parent properly. What’s the quote, you know, people always say The best trick the devil ever pulled off was...
Andrew: … convincing the world he didn't exist,
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Right. Like that's almost like what's happening here. Where those in power have almost convinced us, convinced some of us, that inequality really does not exist, that segregation really doesn't exist, that it really is where people want to be and it's just the luck of the draw. Or hard work or grit that accounts for the way the world works.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, it’s just meritocracy. Meritocracy actually works. Don't look behind this curtain. Don't question. And again, that's what you know, I and others are really trying to point out. Yes, individual effort is fabulous. More power to you, you know. You get through there, we all want you to write the how-to book to teach us, you know, what you did. That is not a solution to what's broken here.
Andrew: Right. The fact that there are a few exceptional people who have, who have figured out a way to make the system work to their benefit. You know, that doesn't account for the plethora of wildly unqualified White people who have just found themselves in boardrooms, in government, in all of these places. The fact that a handful of exceptional people have figured out how to make the system work for them is not proof that the system is not trying to work against them.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: It doesn't mean the system is just. It doesn't mean that it's a meritocracy. What, what White parents are willing to do, or wealthy parents, I want to say mostly White parents, but wealthy parents, are willing to do to ensure that their kids get what they believe to be the best of everything… the lengths that they will go to, to keep out anything that they believe might in any way damage the, the psyches or the futures of their children. That's the legendary stories, like really.
Courtney: So I think that's interesting, right? Like, what is this popular narrative? What you're saying is that these pieces of history are really hidden.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes, but not. They are like hidden in plain sight.
Courtney: But they're not part of our national story,
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: They’re not part of the narrative. No, exactly.
Courtney: And so I guess, who's benefiting by that being outside of the story?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: It works with our national narrative. And with wanting to demonize a region of the country. You know, people of-, the other pushback I get regularly when I want to talk about this, well people are constantly like, the North was as bad, the laws just weren't written, you know, just not just written in. So, you know, White people in the North just sort of picked up and left areas or went to neighborhoods so they could have majority White schools. I mean, you end up with majority White schools with all the resources and Black schools without them in the North, as well as the South, with or without the sanction of law. But how you get to a narrative that sounds like Well, now we've healed it, now we fixed it, now we know what the issue is, and there's no more. Nothing to look at here, you know, move along, is to say the issue is put all the Black kids into White schools, which is not what people were asking for.
Andrew: You know, along with these sort of misguided narratives that we've been told, certainly that I, that I have come to understand, one of the ideas is that this wasn't a problem in the North. That because it wasn't so blatant and written into law in the North, I wonder if there was a piece of that that allowed people to say, you know, here are these racist laws in the South, we’ve overturned those and so now everybody can do it like we do in the North. But then the North is, is the exact same thing just without the laws
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: It’s the exact same. And you know, the thing about the North, so in New York City, which is a constant state of, How can we segregate, racially segregate, our schools? Um, the largest civil rights demonstration ever, 400,000 people get together to march asking for integrated schools. Like a plan, a plan to integrate New York City schools. But then you have a couple of thousand White mothers in New York City who go out marching in the rain, complaining and saying, Oh my God, my poor child, what will happen? And the, the will of those couple thousand mothers, I mean, when you read the newspaper reports, it's just, Look what these politicians are doing, these poor mothers, they should be at home tending their kids and they're out in the rain, getting wet! You know and just asking us for our protection and let's… And that's what carries the day.
So you have 460,000 versus I think it's like 3,000 or something, mostly mothers, all White people who are arguing against this, against coming up with a desegregation plan. All the 400,000 people are asking for was a plan. Can we talk about, can we come up with something? And then they refused to even do that. So the North is implicated in this, anti-busing, don't force Black children on White parents who don't want them. The North’s way of dealing with it has just been to not deal with it, to not talk about it, to not make it, uh, an issue and to just sort of quietly support efforts that will keep schools segregated.
Courtney: Yeah, I think euphemisms are a really powerful way to avoid. Like, when we're talking about busing or parenting, we don't have to talk about racism.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes, exactly.
Andrew: Yeah, and then there's this, like, version of it that is quote unquote colorblind. That is, It's just about housing values. Or it's just about, you know, the educational models. Or it's just about all these various other things that...
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: This narrative of continually hoarding funds for some groups of people, whatever the groups of people are, in the history of American public education. The people who have to make do with less, whoever’s hoarding, the people who make do with less are Black and Brown poor people. Always. And it's almost like you have to try, you have to work at, um, having that be so consistently true in the history of the United States, the entire history in every region. That just doesn't happen by accident.
Andrew: No, it happens through really intentional, deliberate work. I mean, we interviewed Elizabeth McRae, who wrote Mothers of Massive Resistance.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes! That’s a great book.
Andrew: Um, it was really intentional, thoughtful grassroots kind of advocating and organizing that maintained these systems of segregation.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, I think that more books like that and others that, that really exposed, that that's what's needed. What would happen today if we said, What we're gonna do is... well, first you have to find enough Black teachers to be putting in schools. But what, instead of starting with the kids, what would it look like? And I don't have an answer for it, right? But what would it look like to first have integrated teaching forces and administrators in schools and have them figure out the best way to then integrate kids. Like Is that even something that would work today? And I don't know.
Andrew: It's, it's a, it's a powerful piece of the story. It's a piece of story that doesn't get told, but I think it's also a piece of the story that if we, if we can actually, I don't know that we are capable of, but were we to actually grapple with, like what it actually means, a sort of, the truth that it's trying to get at, potentially, you know, maybe it's not that we start by integrating teachers. I don't know, you know, is that possible or not? But at least if we get rid of this idea that the only way to educate is the White way to educate, that the only way to have a good school, is a White school. That Whiteness needs to be centered, that whatever we could do to push back against that, is sort of the first step to actually being able to educate all of our kids rather than the handful of kids of color who are willing to sort of acclimate themselves to a White culture.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, exactly. It's a question without an answer. And I think that's what, for an academic, I'm, I'm into. But it has been frustrating for people who are like, We're trying to save our kids. ‘Cause they're like, OK, what do? And if I started telling this story then I have rooms for the people going, Okay, so we need to send the Black teachers to the White school. And I'm like, Okay, I don't know if that's gonna work. I'm just telling you what the people who were doing it, you know, before proposed. So it’s frustrating on the one, and we just we really don't know. There's almost no research to show what an integrated teaching, because we don't, we don't, and we've never had, even when in the heyday of integration in the South, the 14, 15 years where we actually sort of started letting it work and test scores started rising, that still wasn't, those were not integrated teaching corps, so we still don't know. So it's still an open question.
Andrew: But I mean, it does seem like the, the instances of really strong Black schools, you know, the Ivy Leaf schools, the, um, the lady, in the Oakland Community Schools, these sort of things do you write about, there's a fundamental belief in and expectation of kids of color that seems to me , at least, to be one of the things that we’re lacking. All these things that we, that set us up to not have high expectations for people. And when you had these sort of schools run by people from the community, recognizing the value of education and believing that the kids were capable, that's where you had the best outcomes.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yes, yes. So...
Andrew: Why isn't the answer then to recreate the Black schools of the past? What is, what is the benefit of integration rather than sort of mobilizing the Black community to recreate those spaces?
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: The thing about integration is just simply, it's the only thing that has systemically worked. The ways that White people fight to hold on to resources historically at every moment mean that ensuring equal resources for vulnerable communities looks like a losing proposition. Like, we can keep asking. But there’s very little to show that that’s going to work. Everyday folks who are not sitting around reading academic texts, which is, you know, 99% of the United States, what everybody else does is just think about their own experiences and their own motivations, and they can't see beyond their neighborhood school narrative or their historical narrative. And then they generalize that to everything, to the whole. So if they're just like, you know, I want the best school for my kid and then everybody else can find the best school for their kid, then we're good, can sometimes make it difficult for everyone to actually see how there's an intent behind where we find ourselves. We did not just sort of happen this way. And it's not individual desire. It's not, you know, familial intent. It's not your, in your backyard, what you did. It's a much larger, longer story, and I'm waiting for the presidential candidate to contextualize education issues with that history and not with just the present. Like talk about the history, talk about how we got here, sometime. Um, and not this both sides. Of course, every other good people around, there may be. And that's true because these are systemic issues that have nothing to do often with what individuals chose. Except for the people in your organization, of course, Courtney, who are making individual determinations to combat these systemic issues, as a way of helping you know, while, while we're waiting for the rest of the politicians to get it together.
Andrew: The hope is that more people being actively engaged is what actually holds the politicians accountable to doing something about it. Eventually.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yeah, I mean, well, more people who have some resources, and you are listened to, like quite frankly, right? Like it's having White parents, will attract the kind of scrutiny and maybe a kind of race that will get the issue. So it's multi-pronged. That's not the only thing that will do it. But to have White parents and kids be making these intentional decisions on the side of right, to my world on the side of right, then helps bolster the calls and the strategies and the narratives coming from people who are less well-situated.
Andrew: That's the hope,
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: That’s the hope. That's the dream, for sure. For sure.
Courtney: I just, I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your time, as always.
Andrew: This has been amazing. Thank you, Dr. Rooks. Really, really appreciate it.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Thank y'all for having me. This is great.
Courtney: I’m excited...
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: ‘Cause yours’ guy’s podcast has just blown up, right?
Courtney: It's good, Noliwe! It’s really good!
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Yay. You gotta, you gotta be kind of proud.
Andrew: Shocked for sure.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks: Seriously? Like, really? Did you, or were you surprised when thousands of people started downloading things?
Andrew: Yeah. When we had, I think when we hit 300 downloads, we were like, Oh my God, 300 people are downloading this. This is crazy.
Dr. Rooks was really great.
Courtney: Yeah, as always. And did I tell you, Andrew, that she came to one of our online book clubs? That's amazing.
Andrew: That's awesome. And then now she is on the Advisory Board for Integrated Schools, right?
Andrew: We should make sure listeners know she's helping to guide this organization.
Courtney: Yeah, and we are grateful and Integrated Schools is much better for it.
Andrew: Yeah, so you know, one of things that stands out to me from this conversation and just from reading her work in general is, is this idea of segrenomics. Like how much money there is to be made on keeping us separate.
Courtney: Yeah, and while often this is, like, incredibly nefarious, it's also really cloaked in this, like, well-meaning sounding “for the kid's” stuff, right? When she was talking about the nice White college students, you know, I was thinking about all the ways that well-meaning White people, with all these good intentions, can do real harm. The idea of helping sounds really wonderful, right, but it can be incredibly problematic. So, you know, this isn’t like, Do not help admonition, right? But I think we really need to be mindful of the fact that impact matters and matters more than intent.
And so she had me thinking a lot about the White savior philanthropy complex and how, you know, this works to kind of cement in narratives around who needs help, who is able to help. And, of course, the fabulous Facebook pictures of doing the helping that gets your aunt from Omaha to like talk about what a wonderful person you are.
Andrew: Yes, that's, but that's definitely real, and you know that, that happens right alongside of this sort of more nefarious forces that we can point to and having, you know, that in many ways that, that sort of provides cover for those more nefarious forces. The money in segregation is just, is just mind-boggling. I'm just struck by that. And I think it, you know, it relies on this narrative that communities of color a) don't care about education, b) don't know how to do education and therefore needs some sort of saving.
Courtney: Yeah, And then, like Dr. Rooks shows, the history of how communities of color have had to work exponentially harder to get dramatically less.
Andrew: Right. Paying, paying their taxes for the White schools and then paying another set of taxes for the privilege of their own schools that just went right back into White coffers.
Courtney: Yeah, and all the while ignoring the stated goals of Black teachers.
Andrew: Yeah, that piece was really interesting, right? Starting integration with the teachers. Like you can imagine, we would be in a very different world if we had done that, instead of firing all the Black teachers and, and maintaining this White centered school system.
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, it's no wonder that for a lot of communities of color, school, desegregation has had some incredibly negative connotations. You know, and again, I feel like it's, it's not as much as the What of desegregation but the How of design and implementation.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think the lesson here, the sort of new story that we can tell, is that for school integration to work, we have to approach this work in a way that doesn't rely on, on White-normed ways of thinking. You know, integration has to be about creating spaces that welcome and value everyone and, and that's a piece that we’ve just never really done. And I think we've never really done it in part because of these stories that we tell ourselves.
Courtney: Yeah, that piece is really important. There was always and still continues to be intent behind where we find ourselves. The system is working as it was designed to work, right? This is no accident. This is no, like throwing up of our hands and saying, Well, you know, our neighborhoods are segregated, so it's just how things are. You know, like stories like that erase intent and that kind of erasure really makes it difficult to do, to do anything different.
Andrew: Yeah, I think that the anything different that we'd like to do is, you know, is to know these stories, is to keep them in the forefront of our consciousness and then use that to make corrective efforts, right? To try to improve things both at the policy level but also at the playground level, at the individual choice level.
Courtney: Yeah, and so at this point, like when we have very few truly integrated schools and where policy for school integration and educational justice is being undermined at most every turn, there really are things that we as individual parents can do. Like, desegregate our kids and integrate our families.
Andrew: Right. Do our homework and know these stories. And we want to thank all of you who made it possible for us to share these stories.
Courtney: And all of you who are about to.
Andrew: That's right. This is a labor of volunteer love and it's your financial support that makes it all possible. So, if you'd like to be a part of continuing this effort, please head on over to IntegratedSchools.org and click that donate button.
Courtney: And share this podcast on your social media. Send it to your favorite mommy bloggers, post it in your Facebook parent groups.
Andrew: And we're incredibly grateful for your feedback, so keep that coming. Send us voice memos, emails, comments, questions, thoughts for future episodes. Send them all to [email protected]
Courtney: And we are happy to be in this with you, as we try to know better and do better.
Andrew: See you next week.