This month marks the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the seminal Supreme Court case that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But we haven’t made it far in reaching the ideal of fully desegregating schools. I should know–I went to several segregated schools.
While learning about the civil rights movement as a child, I was never asked to look at my own environment. So I didn’t until some time after I reached adulthood.
For a chunk of my pre-high school childhood, I lived in Rochester, New York. My experience is that we were poor, and mostly Black. We were neglected, or we were separated from classmates in order to “save” those who apparently had a substantial chance of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline that had been fully constructed and operational.
And our teachers had little hope for us–as sixth graders, we weren’t even allowed to joke about pregnancy or write stories about guns because it was too real to treat like something that would remain safely in the distance. (This was well before the current era of constant mass shootings.)
The suburbs were a harsh contrast. It was predominantly white in every school I went to, so I was one of few Black students, if not the only one, in any given class. The greater wealth of those schools were visible just based on noticing that most students paid for their lunch.
And most importantly, that was when I remember actually learning something–specifically, in the seventh grade suburban school was when I graduated from third grade-level math. (In the inner city sixth grade elementary school class I attended, many of the math homework assignments were labeled something like “One Minute Math–Third Grade.”)
Rochester is one of the many cities where school segregation and the social ills that come with it are clearly visible. The same is true for New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and countless other highly populated and segregated urban areas across the United States.
But the move to desegregate schools hasn’t been completely absent, nor has it been completely unsuccessful. In Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History, she recounts how parents in both New York City and Boston fought to desegregate the schools. She writes that Boston’s movement was ultimately successful, culminating in bussing across districts. But, she continues, the bussing has been recast in historical instruction as an inconvenience–presumably one that should not have impacted the intentionally segregated “neighborhood schools” that racist Bostonian parents wanted to preserve.
Even worse, Theoharis writes, any mention of the failed movement of school desegregation in New York City has been wiped from the history books as the liberal capital of the United States refuses to acknowledge its shortcomings. This is especially problematic because New York City is also the biggest school district in the country.
Unfortunately, the persistence against school desegregation leaves little hope for the black LGBTQ community to expect public school institutions to be more accepting of them. So while marginalized students receive a poor education, queer students in the same environment receive especially poor treatment on top of their often inadequate educational experience. That means potentially being run out of schools that aren’t even closing or struggling, or encountering an indifferent or hostile administration when bringing up an issue related to queer identity.
And then, there’s queer parenting. If everything is as messed up as it is for the children, how can we offer something more while being a part of the oppressed community? Would we have the resources to fight for our children, or to choose a different neighborhood or type of school? And if a force like segregation persists with no end in sight, how can we not fear the potential of our communities to reject us, and by extension, our children?
The quality of education dictates much about the trajectory of people’s lives. Yet, the most influential powers in the country have done little to achieve the potential of all of the youth under their care. However, parents have often tried to advocate for their children, and they have received mixed results for their efforts.