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E Pluribus Nihil: Multiculturalism and Black Children

- Abstract

There are few things more futile than the effort to second-guess history. Yet it is difficult not to wonder, especially at this moment in our national affairs, what might have happened had the civil-rights movement not made the schools a key focus of its attentions. We do not really know why so much civil-rights energy came to center so directly on the schools. Perhaps they seemed the institutions most vulnerable to outside pressure, or perhaps they seemed simply the most welcoming. Possibly it was Jewish influence in the early days of the movement that was responsible for the idea that getting an education—specifically, a college education—would be the quickest and easiest route into the middle class, and that if at long last black children were fairly treated they would head straight for college and then into the professional schools.

In any case, just suppose that, having established the principle in Brown v. Board of Education that legislatively segregated schools were unconstitutional, the movement had gone on to something else and let nature take its admittedly creeping course in the schools themselves. Suppose that civil-rights activists in major Northern cities had not insisted that what they called “de facto segregation” was just as reprehensible and unconstitutional as the de jure segregation of the South. Suppose they had instead made housing patterns their chief priority. (Who nowadays remembers that all those postwar slum-clearance public-housing projects were originally intended to be fully integrated but became predominantly black and Hispanic under great political pressure from those communities, who claimed their own greater entitlement to cheap housing, along with, most fatefully, the right not to be excluded on the grounds of having criminal records?) Or suppose that instead of attempting to impose school integration they had simply spent all their energies on improving the schools as they stood. Suppose all of these things: would little black kids in the big cities—theoretically the objects of the exercise—have been any worse off?

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