Monday, January 28, 2013

Divided We Fail, by Sarah Garland

As a nation, we have made great strides toward racial equality--there's a popular African-American in the White House, after all--yet in certain segments of American society, disparities persist.  There is perhaps no greater glaring disparity as the differences in achievement levels between African-Americans and other students in our public schools.  School desegregation arguably led to some progress for blacks, but, as Sarah Garland tells the story in Divided We Fail: The Story of an African-American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation, many African-Americans recognize that desegregation is not a panacea leading to equality but may make things worse for black students.

Garland focuses on the story of public school desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky.  Like many communities, in Louisville, students were bused all over the district to satisfy mandated quotas of black and white students.  Many blamed the decline of black neighborhoods on this dispersion of students from neighborhood schools.  Without the anchor of a common school, neighbors felt less attachment and pride in the neighborhood.  In fact, some of the traditionally majority black schools had seen great improvements, winning battles for better facilities and materials.  But when busing began, the student base dispersed, and the black community lost some of its unification.

Many black students lost the opportunity to attend schools in their neighborhoods.  They also lost the opportunity to attend school with black peers, and to be taught by black teachers.  In fact, many black teachers and administrators lost their positions.  White parents weren't happy about their children attending class with black kids, but to be taught by black teachers, well, that was unthinkable.  The end result "felt like an effort to assimilate black people and erase their identity and culture, and, at the same time, seemed like a not-so-subtle way of reasserting white dominance over blacks."

Another part of the irony was that black students were being excluded from special programs based on their race!  This is what triggered the case about which Garland spends the most time in her book.  In order to revitalize the traditionally black high school, several magnet programs and special emphasis programs were created.  But white students generally didn't want to attend that school.  As the white population declined, few quota slots for black students were available.  When black students were then denied entry, parents started the lawsuit that, thankfully, led to the end of mandated desegregation in Louisville.  As Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "The was to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

The most troubling, overarching theme of Divided We Fail is the sick consequences of excessive government intervention.  One sure way to destroy something is to add more and more government policies.  The school system, black neighborhoods, African-American cultural identity, and black-white race relations were all harmed by the misguided hand of government intrusion in Louisville.  I like to think that there were good intentions behind many of these policies, but the cynic in me tends to think that white, racist leaders were perfectly happy and had full knowledge of what they were doing.  This case, and the whole Louisville busing experience, demonstrates yet another example of the many and varied ways that government harms society, especially the poorest and most marginal.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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