Commentary Magazine

The Negro & the New York Schools

During the school year 1963-64, there were 1,038,516 children attending public school in New York City, of whom 264,616—or a fraction more than 25 per cent—were Negro, and 177,544—or about 17 per cent—were Puerto Rican. If one considers Puerto Rican children to be non-white1—and despite the fact that the United States Census Bureau does not, there are good reasons for so considering them in discussing the New York City school system—then that school system must be judged to be suffering from an extremely high rate of racial segregation. Of the 581 elementary schools (kindergarten through sixth grade) operated by the Board of Education in 1963-64, 134 had a student body at least 90 per cent Negro and/or Puerto Rican, and 186 had a student body at least 90 per cent white; and of 136 junior high schools (seventh through ninth grades), 31 were at least 85 per cent Negro and/or Puerto Rican, while 39 were at least 85 per cent white.2 In other words, more than half of the elementary schools and half the junior high schools in New York can be said to be segregated.

Moreover, while the number of predominantly white schools has declined, both the number and proportion of the predominantly Negro/Puerto Rican schools have been steadily growing. Seven years ago, in the school year 1957-58, only 64 out of 565 elementary schools, and only 16 out of 123 junior high schools, were at least 90 per cent Negro/Puerto Rican (as compared with 134 and 31 respectively for 1963-4). Three factors are responsible for this deteriorating situation. First of all, there are now simply more Negro and Puerto Rican children in the schools—a number, in fact, considerably out of proportion to the percentage represented by these groups in the population of the city as a whole. Thus, while Negroes and Puerto Ricans combined constitute roughly 22 per cent of the city's population, they provide something over 42 per cent of the public-school population. This is not, as many people think, because they have a much higher birth rate than whites (it is only insignificantly higher), but because the majority of their recent immigrants have come to the city just as they were reaching the peak of their childbearing years. The second factor, of course, is the famous flight of the white middle class to the suburbs; and the third is the enormous increase in private-and parochial-school enrollment during the same period, which has further depleted the number of white children in the public schools. According to an informal survey conducted by the New York World-Telegram & Sun, in the area of Manhattan that extends on the West Side from Greenwich Village to 114th Street and on the East Side from 14th to 96th Streets alone, some 19,000 white children from kindergarten to the eighth grade are now enrolled in either private or parochial schools, as compared with 15,092 white children in the area's public schools.

These figures cannot wholly be interpreted as meaning that white parents have been pulling their children out of the public schools to keep them from contact with non-whites—although this has clearly been the motivation in some cases. The truth is that Manhattan, in the wake of a disastrous course of real-estate development and credit policy, has come more and more exclusively to be the home of the very rich on the one hand and the very poor on the other. The middle-class people currently missing from its precincts and from its schools did not so much flee to the suburbs as they were pushed out to them. In any event, from 1957 to 1963, almost exactly as many white children—about 54,000—disappeared from the public-school system as Negro children were added to it. And unless this process can be interrupted, it has been predicted that by 1980, from 70 to 75 per cent of the New York public-school population will be Negro and Puerto Rican.

Thus, more than a decade after the Supreme Court pronounced segregated education to be “inherently unequal,” here is not only the largest and most cosmopolitan, but also most officially liberal city in America—with half its schools still segregated. It does not seem at all surprising, then, that this city's school system, and the Board of Education which administers it, should within the past three years have become the targets of an all-out drive for school integration. This drive has been conducted by a group of organizations, most of them Negro organizations, that have worked and responded enough in concert to merit being called a movement—the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, Harlem Parents Workshop, Parents Workshop for Equality, and the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools.3 Essentially what the integration movement has been demanding is that the Board of Education adopt some citywide program or combination of programs—involving the transfer of children out of their immediate neighborhoods and neighborhood schools—to achieve a significantly better racial balance in the schools, and that furthermore, the Board, as a mark of the seriousness of its intentions, set a more or less precise timetable for doing so. The operative word here is “citywide,” for it is felt, and no doubt rightly, that any tendency by the Board to concentrate on specific problems of redistribution from district to district must defeat the possibility of genuine integration: any real solution of a problem affecting as many as half the schools is bound to affect all the rest.


But if there was nothing surprising about the fact of the drive itself, what did at first seem surprising to many New Yorkers, and certainly to the Board of Education, were the bitterness, anger, and obduracy of the protests that attended the drive. Indeed, so bitter and angry did the representatives of the Negro community grow that by winter and early spring of 1964 the school problem had succeeded in destroying, probably for years to come, whatever illusion of civic harmony New York City still entertained. Each succeeding summer the Board has prepared for the opening of school under an ever-darkening cloud of threatened demonstrations, school strikes, and general administrative upheaval. It has been publicly charged with everything from incompetence to outright malingering. Its offices have been “sat in” on, and its officials denounced. And on February 3, 1964, in a stunning one-day demonstration of force—organized by the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools and finally, if somewhat reluctantly, supported by the rest of the movement—a quarter of a million children stayed out of school.

Now, however reasonable the raw statistics of school segregation make such an exertion of pressure appear to be, it is also the case that the issue between the integrationists and the Board of Education has never been one of principle. New York is after all not Little Rock; nor is it, as the figures show, even Chicago, Detroit, or Philadelphia. The truth is that the determination of New York's Negro community to integrate the schools was a determination arrived at several years after the Board's own. On December 23, 1954, seven months after the Supreme Court's desegregation decision and in explicit response to it, the New York City Board of Education unanimously affirmed its commitment to a policy of integration. This resolution was the first such statement of policy to be issued anywhere, and is to this day one of the very few to have been issued entirely voluntarily.

In the years from 1955 to 1961 the Board accordingly instituted several programs to improve the status and condition of the Negro schoolchild—most of them related directly or indirectly to the eventual promotion of integration. The two most directly related were the creation (in 1957) of a Central Zoning Unit—whose function was to rezone existing schools, and to locate sites for new ones, with an eye to achieving maximum racial balance—and the institution (in 1961) of Open Enrollment. Open Enrollment, which began on a rather limited scale and was later considerably liberalized, enables children from schools designated as overcrowded to transfer (transportation paid by the city) to one of the schools designated as “underutilized.” Under the Central Zoning Unit, one hundred changes were made in district and school zones from 1959 to 1963; and as of February 1964, some 16,000 Negro children had elected to participate in the Open Enrollment program, 10,000 of them at the elementary school level.

To be sure, these programs, as the figures so dismally reveal, have failed even to scratch the surface. Nevertheless, they were set in motion by the Board after no very great pressure—and they represent a goal that integrationists in other Northern cities are willing even now to conduct their own angry and bitter demonstrations to achieve.4 Why then should the push to integrate the schools in New York have assumed the proportions of a struggle which can without exaggeration be characterized as “life-and-death”?

Part of the answer has to do with the striking reversal that took place in American Negro life in the 1960's, when the Northern urban Negro ceased pitying the Southern Negro and began instead to envy him his new-found vigor and dignity. The result was that some of the energies, all of the rhetoric, and, wherever they could be made to apply, the issues of the Southern battle for civil rights began to be imported into Northern cities. And the issue which proved most readily transportable was the issue of segregated schools.


Perhaps another generation will decide that it was strategically unwise for the Negroes to have made the schools their first objective in the struggle to achieve full equality. Schools are after all the symbol rather than the source of Negro suffering. And while an action against a board of education brought to the Negro Revolution its first enduring victory, this victory is the one whose fruits may be the last to be tasted: of all civic institutions, the schools are the most vulnerable to public pressure and yet the most difficult to shape and influence. But questions of strategy aside, the primacy of education in the Negro struggle was psychologically inevitable, particularly in the North. On the one hand, the school is a place to which the Negro is forced to go; and society, acting through this coercive institution, is enabled there each day to proclaim his separate and inferior condition. On the other hand, as Joseph Lyford of the Fund for the Republic has pointed out, Negroes have no faith in any of the institutions of society except the school—the only institution involved, by its very nature, in a daily effort to bring those it serves along, to give them something and make them something they did not have or were not before.

Even without the benefit of Jim Crow statutes, Northern communities have always had extremely effective ways of keeping Negro childern out of white classrooms,5 so that only through legalistic quibbling could one deny the implicit applicability to Northern schools of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education declaring segregated education unconstitutional. Within a few years after the decision, officials of the civil rights movement and of the intergroup relations agencies began speaking about “de facto segregation,” and around the same time, assorted individuals and organizations began agitating for desegregation in half a dozen Northern communities. In 1961, an important lawsuit was won against the New Rochelle (New York) Board of Education, which by gerrymandering had kept the town's Negro children confined to a single school; and in 1962, the NAACP officially adopted a national program to fight de facto segregation. Since then some eighty cities have been served notice—by means ranging from lawsuits to sit-ins—that their school systems are being rung in on the Negro Revolution.

And wherever the issue goes, the new rhetoric goes with it—no matter how ill-fitting it may prove—because in the rhetoric is concealed the trigger for mass action. The language of the Southern civil rights movement is the language of simple manly assertion and simple straightforward demand—the language of a movement with just, and justly attainable, goals. Translated to the streets of New York, where what Negroes must wrest for themselves is far more entailed and socially “advanced” than constitutional rights-jobs, decent housing, good schools, and social rather than legal equality—civil rights rhetoric tends to sound rather more bitter and disruptive than direct and firm. Occasionally it has even seemed, in a far from comic time, even a little comic; as when, on May 18 last, several thousand demonstrators for school integration—half of them white—marched across the Brooklyn Bridge chanting “Freedom!” and “Jim Crow Must Go.”

But possibly a more important contributing factor to the recent short temper of the school integration movement than the spreading mood of militancy has been the discovery of how very difficult a task it has taken upon itself in the City of New York.6 The difficulty begins with the concept of integration itself: is it a particular proportion of race to race that is to be achieved in each and every school; or is it some general over-all balance which must correspond to the balance of the population as a whole? While it is reasonable for integrationists to insist that the Board devise some comprehensive plan for the entire city, the fact is that New York is not really one city but five, separated, all but two of them, by bodies of water. And the ratio of whites to non-whites in the schools is by no means everywhere the same. In Manhattan, for instance, in 1963-64 there were about 76,000 Negro/ Puerto Rican elementary-school pupils out of a total of about 99,000; in Brooklyn, 111,000 out of 223,000; in the Bronx, 66,000 out of 114,000; but in Queens, only 29,000 out of 130,000; and in Richmond, only 2,000 out of 20,000. In June of 1963, James E. Allen, Jr., State Commissioner of Education, who has been something of a penniless Dutch uncle to the integration movement, issued a memorandum in which he defined a racially balanced school as one having a student body no more than 50 per cent non-white. By Allen's definition Manhattan, unless it were to be miraculously lifted from its granite underpinnings and superimposed on the borough of Queens, could never even approach an integrated school system. If, however, integration were to be defined as the balance which reflects the over-all ratio of Negro and Puerto Rican children to white, the schools in Manhattan would have to be a little more than 75 per cent, and those of Staten Island 10 per cent, non-white in their racial compositions. The question of what is numerically meant by integration may seem somewhat pettifogging in a situation where so many children are to be found in unquestionably segregated schools. But it has nonetheless remained in the background to haunt the calculations of the movement, which has never officially given a clear answer, preferring to leave the matter of numbers negotiable.

The question, moreover, has remained if only because it has inevitably opened up an even more difficult one. The majority of New York's Negroes live in seven segregated enclaves, or “ghettos,” as they have come to be called. In 1953, many schools were found to have been deliberately zoned to keep whites and Negroes apart, but it seems fairly certain that racially motivated gerrymandering has by now been done away with.7 This means that the problem of segregation is a problem of the seven Negro ghettos—and to desegregate the schools in those ghettos, either the schools must be moved out of them, or the children out of the schools, or both. But out to where? Extending beyond most of the ghettos are neighborhoods that are themselves in a state of sociological flux. Transferring children to, or building new schools for them in, these “fringe areas”—the simplest and most obvious step for the Central Zoning Unit to have taken—usually brings little or no improvement; the fringe-area schools become more and more heavily Negro, and the ghetto schools left behind, while relieved somewhat of overcrowding, remain as segregated as ever. One junior high school, for example, was opened only seven years ago in a fringe area in Brooklyn with a student body 80 per cent white and 20 per cent non-white, and by now the proportion has been reversed to 40 per cent white and 60 per cent non-white.

Given this difficulty, the next logical step would appear to be to by-pass fringe areas altogether and move ghetto children directly into all-white schools, which—because of the patterns of urban settlement—often means moving them a considerable distance. As for the ghetto schools themselves, in order to desegregate these, white children must be transferred in, again from a considerable distance, for the nearby fringe-area schools cannot afford to give up any of their already declining number of white students.

Apart from closing down all ghetto schools (an unimaginably expensive and, to ghetto residents, unpopular alternative), and apart from the long-range possibility of “educational parks”8 there is one other immediate possibility: school pairings. School pairing—which was first used successfully in Princeton, New Jersey and is therefore called the Princeton Plan—operates by combining a predominantly white school district and a predominantly Negro one and dividing the schools horizontally rather than vertically: that is, all the children from the two districts attend kindergarten through third grade in one building, and fourth grade through sixth in the other. This device has worked well—at least so far as actual physical integration is concerned—in a small town like Princeton and in a few others, among them the Greenburgh school district of White Plains, New York, where distance and travel are minimal and entail no particular inconvenience or peril. Since New York City does not, except in a few cases, offer the same convenience of neatly divided neighborhoods and contiguous segregated school districts, any widespread application of Princeton Planning would once again involve transporting large numbers of children over considerable distances.

And so with the passage of time, and its attendant escalation of greater failure and greater demand, it has become ever more apparent that there can be no effective school desegregation in at least four of the five boroughs of New York City without the mass cross-transportation of children—what is popularly called “busing.” No other issue has so roused the public passions on both sides of the tangled school problem nor lent itself so readily to polemical manipulation as this issue of busing children out of their neighborhood schools. It is around busing that white opposition to the integration movement has been galvanized, and it is in regard to busing that integrationists have at times seemed ready to take a stand of no return. Neither Negroes nor whites wish their children to be bused; yet this understandable reluctance has been cited triumphantly by whites as a proof of the Negro masses' indifference to the education of their children, and by Negroes as a proof of the white community's opposition to integrated schools.


It is impossible to understand the issue of busing without tracing the course of the negotiations between the integration movement and the Board of Education. These negotiations have been far from amicable, but they have not been nearly so hostile as many people have chosen to make them appear. Seen with any detachment, the relations between the movement and the Board have been the relations between any pressure group and any public bureaucracy being pressured: the movement has advanced its full claims and the Board, however sympathetic, has responded by stalling, by pleading difficulties, by standing virtuously on its record, and by offering half measures with promises of more to come. Nor are the stalling, pleading, and promising typical bureaucratic maneuvers only: as the movement itself has been forced to discover, when it comes to a problem of the New York City school system, proposing is a far simpler activity than disposing. To the altogether just objection that the integration movement is no mere pressure group, it can with equal justice be countered that the Board is no mere bureaucracy either, but an agency carrying the twin burdens of the daily administration of hundreds of separate institutions and the daily safety and welfare of over a million children. And an agency, moreover, that even under the best of circumstances is forced to operate with insufficient funds, inadequate staff, and under the constant surveillance of people with all manner of special claims to make. It may be true, as several leaders of the movement have said, that every step taken by the Board toward greater integration in the past two years has been taken only under pressure, but this is a charge that to cooler minds or in cooler times would perhaps not seem so very damaging.

The negotiations became really intense beginning about July of 1963, after the New York State Board of Education, answering an appeal from the Malverne, L.I. chapter of the NAACP, ordered the Malverne Board of Education to institute a program of school pairing. This virtually unprecedented case of state intervention brought with it two consequences of immense significance. First, it sparked the formation of Parents and Taxpayers, an organization of white parents who claimed to be defending their constitutional right to freedom of decision over the welfare of their children and who began to campaign under the banner of “Save the Neighborhood School.” Second, it placed school pairings squarely in the forefront of integrationist demands.

But the main reason school pairings became so important was not the action of the state; it was the failure of any significant number of Negro parents to take advantage in 1962-63 of the Open Enrollment Program. Open Enrollment—conceived as a means of permitting ghetto children to move out into unsegregated schools—began in an experimental way in the fall of 1960 and was expanded into a citywide program in 1961-62. At first, the program was somewhat restricted: 228 overcrowded Negro/Puerto Rican schools were pronounced “sending” schools, and 115 underutilized9 white schools were designated as “receiving” schools; students in each sending school were given the option of enrolling in a particular receiving school. Subsequently, in August 1963, Open Enrollment was liberalized into what was then called Free Choice Transfer: students from a sending school were now allowed to enroll in any receiving school of their choice, provided that school had space for them, while receiving schools were organized to function at 110 per cent of capacity instead of 100 per cent. Even so, by 1963-64, as we have seen, fewer than 16,000 children throughout the city had taken up the option. With this unmistakable evidence that there was no real mass constituency behind the drive to take Negro children out of ghetto schools (and even less among Puerto Ricans, who made up only 4 per cent of the transferring children), the integrationists began to insist heatedly that integration was not a Negro but a white responsibility. The indifference of the mass of Negro parents, they said, was the result of precisely the centuries-long inequality that school integration must help to overcome.


Accordingly, in July the New York NAACP informed the Board of Education that measures which depended on the voluntary cooperation of parents would no longer be acceptable, and that the Board must produce a “meaningful” citywide plan immediately or the schools would be struck in September. By August, when the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools was formed to give the five most active Negro organizations a single voice in negotiating with the Board, a “meaningful” plan was being described as one that would combine various techniques: zoning and site selection; regulating “feeder patterns” (that is, the zoning patterns by which students from elementary schools are “fed” into junior high schools, and then into high schools); enlarging the options under Open Enrollment; and primarily, of course, Princeton Planning.

On September 5, the Board promised to present a new plan in December, and the Citywide Committee held off the threatened demonstrations. But then, in a move which finally earned the Board the downright hostility of the integration movement, it requested its local boards of education10 to hold public hearings to determine the feasibility of pairing schools in their districts. The Board maintained that such hearings were essential because nothing so radical as enforcing the transfer of large numbers of children from their accustomed schools could possibly succeed without public support and participation in the planning. The integrationists, however, arguing that public acceptance of the school pairings could have been achieved a good deal sooner had the Board simply imposed them, charged that the hearings were a typical delaying and buck-passing maneuver, intended to seek public confirmation for the Board's own reluctance to do anything. And indeed, a good number of these hearings, though by no means all, opened a Pandora's box of confusion, hysteria, and demagogy on both sides, while also providing a rallying ground for Parents and Taxpayers.

Another objection to the hearings was that in being deliberated district by district, the problem was again being taken out of the realm of city-wide planning: possibly, for example, the districts themselves might have to be reorganized or combined to create a workable school-pairing program. But if, on the other hand, the integration movement itself had any specific large-scale recommendations to make—beyond the one that there be large-scale recommendations—or any specific school pairings to propose, there is no printed public record of them anywhere. Reverend Milton A. Galamison, chairman of the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools, defended his own refusal to make any concrete recommendations by saying that a limited program of school pairings was unsound anyway—all it would do was make certain people feel they were being used as guinea pigs. Clearly, however, Galamison was acting from the impulse to leave the details, like the statistical definition, of integration open for negotiation.

In December, the Board issued its promised new plan in the form of a report of 44 pages, many of which were taken up with a self-gratulatory description of what it had already done to foster integration. As for what it intended to do in the immediate future, the report announced one school pairing in Queens, a serious study of the possibility of two school pairings involving five elementary schools in Manhattan, and early-stage discussions of five other pairings (unspecified). Not surprisingly, the Citywide Committee responded to this report by announcing a school boycott—for February 3; and the rest of the movement (though not without an internecine battle centering around Rev. Galamison) announced its support for the Committee's action. In an attempt to forestall the boycott, the Board on January 29 presented yet another plan, this time a concrete one involving twenty pairings, ten of them to be accomplished by September 1965 and the remaining ten by September 1966; further changes would also be made in feeder patterns as well as many individual changes in school assignments to eliminate overcrowding—with the provision that the travel time involved in such reassignments must not exceed forty-five minutes. But this, too, was rejected by the integration movement as being too little, too tentative and halting, and too late; and so the boycott was held.


In the meantime, virtually the entire white population of the city was being roused at least to pay attention to the problem of school integration and to define an attitude toward it. A hasty glance at the continuously growing mandate of Parents and Taxpayers11 might make it appear that the attitude was mostly negative, but PAT, like all loose confederations that lend themselves easily to various political uses, is a rather difficult group to classify. There is some evidence that it has enjoyed a certain amount of Conservative party backing, but there is no reason whatever for suspecting its leadership, or the huge bulk of its membership, of having any connection with racist groups. PAT is opposed to all enforced transfer of pupils; it is in favor of all measures taken to improve conditions and standards of education in Negro schools. With such a program, it is obviously a most convenient agency for white parents to express their determination not to have their children sent away from local schools—whatever the leanings, political or otherwise, of those who had a hand in its organization.

Nor are the attitudes of white parents in New York so easy to classify as some Negro spokesmen have lately claimed. Like all handy coinages in an age of mass communication, “white backlash” has hardened into reification long before acquiring a precise meaning. When Rev. Galamison, who has been the most colorfully blunt-speaking leader in the integration movement, says that “Anyone who is opposed to busing is opposed to integration,” he is technically correct, for integration is impossible without busing. But when he (in common with many others) implies that all opposition to busing stems from the unwillingness of whites to have their children attend school with Negroes, he is standing on shaky and dangerous ground. In Maspeth, Queens (where, it might be said, PAT was born), Negro children from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant had been attending school peacefully for some time,12 and whatever may have been in the hearts of the white parents of Maspeth about the influx of these children into their schools, there was no overt agitation on their part until the announcement of the Malverne school pairing aroused the fear that they might be next, and that their children might be sent in turn into Bedford-Stuyvesant. From all the evidence we have, the only thing it seems fair to say is that most members of PAT, and most white parents in New York generally, will, happily or unhappily, accept the busing of Negro children into their schools but draw a very firm line at having their children bused into Negro schools.

This probably has less to do with the phenomenon of “white backlash” than with the difficulties of middle-class life in New York. Queens, the “suburban” borough, for instance, is full of settlements and communities and projects built since the war to which hundreds of thousands of young families from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan were driven by a combination of need for better housing and a new, child-centered vision of the good life. They settled into their new “grassy” and “spacious” world only to discover that it was not so spacious, that transportation was inadequate, that commuting to work was uncomfortable, that social conditions were hardly as advertised, and that even the much-touted “good schools” which had been such an important enticement were—before they opened, many of them—miserably overcrowded, with huge classes and split sessions. Small wonder, then, that they face the prospect of any added difficulty with great resentment. In Manhattan, on the other hand, middle-class family life is being squeezed out altogether: people with moderate incomes and young children have received practically nothing from a huge wave of low-investment, quick-profit housing construction; they pay high taxes for services they can take very little advantage of; and they suffer an almost complete lack of public championship, being too well off to receive special public consideration and not rich enough to constitute a special center of power. Therefore, just as it was inevitable that the Negro battle for civic equality should have come to center on the schools, it was also inevitable that white resistance—for reasons having nothing to do with racial feelings per se—should have come to center on the schools: for white middle-class families, too, the schools are virtually the only civic institutions over which they feel themselves to have any direct power.

Nor is opposition to busing exclusive to whites. Though they are naturally not inclined to join an organization like PAT, and thus cannot be counted, it is clear that most Negro parents are also reluctant to have their children transported any great distance to school. Many Negro mothers work to support their families and depend on older children or neighbors to look after the little ones. The anxieties of a working mother who must leave her children all day to look after themselves are enormous; they can become intolerable when exacerbated by the thought that each day the children, too, will be taken far away to school. Who is to see that they arrive safely home? What is to be done if they should take sick in that distant neighborhood?


Pat mothers, of course—for all their ardent championing of the neighborhood school—are not nearly so concerned as the Negroes have reason to be with keeping their children physically close to home. In a city in which 400,000 children attend private and parochial schools outside their immediate neighborhoods, the idea of traveling to school by bus, even for great distances, cannot in itself be either novel or shocking. The real problem of school pairing for white parents is not that their children might have to travel, but where they might have to travel to. To put the matter as bluntly as possible, white parents do not want their children sent daily and alone to face the dangers—many imagined, some perhaps real—in Negro and Puerto Rican slums. And many Negro parents, in addition to the practical burden busing places on them, do not want their children sent daily and alone to face the dangers—many imagined, some perhaps real—awaiting them in alien white neighborhoods.

In any case, whatever else the February 3 boycott did or did not mean, it did succeed in dramatizing absolutely the firm intention of the Negro community to have something happen to the schools. From that point on, and until some lasting settlement was reached, the problem called school integration was clearly going to be everybody's business. On March 12, in response to the boycott, some 15,000 PAT members, most of them women, marched in front of City Hall through a snowstorm to demonstrate a firm intention of their own: that there be no cross-busing of children in the City of New York.

In the middle of all this, of course, stood the Board of Education—now everybody's enemy. And the Board did exactly what public officials who do not know what further to do can always be expected to do. It dumped the problem for a while elsewhere. A few days after the boycott, it requested the State Commissioner of Education to prepare an evaluation of its program and to make recommendations for additional steps that might be taken to integrate the schools.


If even as early as 1954—and a fortiori as late as 1964—the problem of integration had been merely one of creating a particular racial balance in all the schools, it would sooner or later have been brought to a political settlement through the usual American process of accommodating group interests that come into conflict. But the problem in New York City is not and never has been primarily one of achieving racial balance. Nor—as even those who make the most extreme political gestures on both sides know—is the struggle one in which victories can be won by strictly political means.

In essence, most white parents are desperate about the prospect of having their schools paired with predominantly Negro/Puerto Rican schools for exactly the same reason that the Negro community is desperate to do away with non-white schools—because they are bad schools. They are bad schools because they have failed, because overwhelming numbers of their students have failed. And in their failure these schools constitute a threat not only to the level and morale of all public education in New York City, but to the very structure of the common belief in democratic education. Even in terms of the coldest expediency, these schools involve the interest of all.

It is ordinarily not so easy to say what one means by a bad school: theorists, after all, have found sufficient material with which to debate this question for decades. In 1953, when a delegation headed by Professor Kenneth Clark met with the Board of Education to complain about the condition of the schools in the Negro ghettos, their complaints had largely to do with such things as antiquated and inadequate facilities, understaffing, overcrowding, and other manifestations of general neglect. By now, after the Board has devoted a great deal of attention and money to the ghetto schools, and replaced twenty-six of them, these conditions have measurably (though not completely) improved. And still the schools are bad. They are bad simply by virtue of the fact that large numbers of their students are permitted to reach high school without having become more than technically literate.

Harlem may not be absolutely typical of all the city's Negro ghettos, but there is little reason to suppose that its schools are much different from those of the others. There are twenty elementary schools and four junior high schools in Central Harlem. On an average, the record of academic achievement in these schools shows a marked inferiority in the attainment of grade level; and what is worse, the children suffer a progressive deterioration with the passage of years. In reading comprehension, for example, from 13.2 to 39.6 per cent of the pupils in third grade are below grade level, while from 10 to 36.7 per cent are above, but by the sixth grade, from 60.4 to 93.5 per cent score below grade level, while a maximum of only 26.7 per cent score above. The figures are much the same for word knowledge and arithmetic.

When a student completes junior high school, he may receive a diploma, a certificate, or nothing. A diploma means that he has passed four major subjects, three minors, and has a reading level of 7. A certificate means that he has passed two majors, two minors, and has a reading level of 6. If he is very much over-age, he may go on to high school with neither. Only about half the students leaving the four Central Harlem junior high schools receive diplomas. These children are then thrust into high school—there being nothing else for them to do. And in high school, if the attitude of the surrounding society has conceivably left the matter to any further clarification, they must finally and forever experience their intellectual, and with it social, inferiority. So they will drop out—into a society already despairing to know what to do with even its educated youth—or remain to suffer, languish, make trouble, or all three.

Thus, it is perfectly clear that under the present educational system, poor Negro children in New York City have been largely unable to master the most basic academic skills—and it is just as clear that this cannot be attributed to any innate or natural inferiority. But how, one might ask, will a sixth-grader who cannot read or properly use his own language be served by being transported into another school where there are many more children who can? One answer of the integrationists—based on the highly dubious belief that the public schools really know how to teach this boy, and have just been unwilling to do so—is that in a “better” school he will improve. Another answer is that if he attends school with white children, society will no longer allow him to be neglected as it has in the past. But the very existence of the integration movement has already insured against such neglect: whether or not the Board of Education ever succeeds in enforcing a massive program of integration, Negro education has attained a point of absolute priority in the New York's public concern. Indeed, several integration spokesmen themselves have repeatedly asserted, although with ironic intention, that the demand for integration has everywhere resulted in intensive new programs to improve Negro schools.


We are, then, still left with the question of whether integrated schools can do better by the many children who are being failed so badly by their segregated ghetto schools. But the question cannot be settled without determining the causes of that failure. Integrationists tell us that the ghetto child's inability to learn is related to the fact that he has middle-class white teachers who, out of indifference or hostility, begin with low expectations of his ability which in turn give him low expectations for himself. Teachers or representatives of teachers, on the other hand, tell us that the school cannot begin to exert a counterforce against his chaotic family life, the indifference of his parents to his achievement, or the inimical values of his peer group. On both sides of the argument, the children themselves seem to be forgotten, abstracted into all but oblivion by polemic and rhetoric.

No one who has spent any time in an ordinary classroom in an ordinary slum school can have failed to see that only a rare teacher can cope sympathetically with children whose lives or behavior or even language are alien to her. (It is, after all, even a rare teacher who can cope imaginatively with bright children, or with physically restless ones.) Slum schools undoubtedly have their quota of rare teachers, but they have not—though the Board of Education is taking steps to remedy this—had anything like a normal quota of experienced ones: the average level of experience for teachers in Harlem is three years, as compared to an average for the city as a whole of seven years. How important experience is, especially to the qualities of sympathy and imaginativeness, one cannot know: teaching is a tiring profession. But the high degree of turnover among teachers in Harlem schools suggests a low degree of ambition for dealing with special problems.

And the special problems are very real indeed. Many Negro children have no fathers, being either illegitimate or members of families deserted by the husband. A huge number of them have working mothers. They live in desperately crowded households in which only a minimal amount of attention can be allotted to them. They play in streets where dirt, violence, petty criminality, and the widespread use of narcotics are apt to be all around them. Since kindergarten attendance is not mandatory, many of them arrive in school at the age of six having had none of that educational experience—toys, books, trips—that is built into the very foundations of middle-class infancy. If they are reasonably healthy and remain reasonably untroublesome within their own homes, little more is demanded of them.

Now it is silly, and one of the more glaring brutalities of sociological description, to imagine that this is the condition of all children in a Negro ghetto, or even to imagine that for those whose condition it in fact is, there is no wide range of psychological and intellectual response to it. But such a description nevertheless evokes what is the present and visible social horizon—the taken-for-granted social possibility—for children in a Negro ghetto. What defines this possibility is not so much being Negro (that is what makes it only more cruelly demanding of resourcefulness to escape) as being poor—urban poor. It is not in the least amazing that when they come to the public school, with its primers and small-town primness and turn-of-the-century American piety, they find themselves in a hostile atmosphere—and withdraw. Moreover, within this atmosphere they must be given the tools that other schools depend on the home to provide: from something so elementary as the recognition of colors all the way to something so complex as the abstract means to express oneself. Whatever natural high spirits and curiosity they bring as babies into the primary grades are very quickly damped under instruction that takes little account of their own experience and that cannot figure out how to provide them with another kind of experience as real. By adolescence, when to withdrawal and suspicion is added the social knowledge that there was not much hope for them to begin with, bewilderment turns to cynicism.

Somewhere there must be a key for the translation of what the Negro ghetto child sees and knows into what he can learn anew. Paul Goodman, for instance, would argue that the key is to be found in the streets of the city in which he lives. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is even to be found in his own anxiety and bewilderment. “To argue that no classroom can be good without a white child in it,” says the introduction to the report finally prepared by Commissioner Allen's office, “is inaccurate and cruel.” It is probably still more cruel to fantasy that public education as it is now constituted—in any school—can give the “culturally deprived” Negro child what he needs to bring hope into his life.

Yet that is precisely what democratic public education must do—or lose its raison d'être. The question of the function of the public school has been somewhat distorted and confused, particularly in the big cities, by the peculiar history of modern American society. Because of the arrival and subsequent acculturation of immigrant group after immigrant group, the public school has come to be regarded as the instrument par excellence for Americanization: from which it has been thought to follow that the public school is the main agency for creating new members of the middle class. Yet while it has indeed taught successive waves of immigrants the language and official manners of the country, there is no evidence that the public school has ever succeeded in making anyone middle-class who was not already quite intensely involved in making himself so. There are no more immigrants to Americanize, except for the Puerto Ricans, who show every sign of going the way of their predecessors—more slowly perhaps, in a society no longer so open. The Negro challenge to the schools is a different, more primal one, transcending the accidents of a particular history and going straight to the heart of the original belief in mass education. This belief is based on the idea—to put it rather crudely—that innate talent and value are distributed among the rich and the poor in about equal proportions. The rich have always managed to educate themselves—and, of course, to provide some comfortable alternative for the ineducable among them. American society committed itself to undertaking this obligation to the poor. Now, as a result of the Northern metropolitan struggle for school integration, American society is being forced to confront that commitment directly.


This, in effect, was the message sent to the New York City Board of Education on May 12, 1964, when the State Education Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Human Relations and Community Tensions submitted the evaluation the Board had requested in February.13 The report has come to be known as the Allen Plan, and is an exciting document, rather more for its implications than its practical possibilities. The integrationists were certainly excited by it and instantly joined together, after months of disunity, to support it, even though it very flatly states that: “Total desegregation of all schools . . . is simply not attainable in the foreseeable future and neither planning nor pressure can change that fact,” and even though it defines desegregation as anything less than a 90 per cent-10 per cent ratio on either side. The Plan makes several proposals, of which the three most immediately relevant are: (1) the establishment of pre-primary classes; (2) abolition of the junior high school and a division of the grades instead into three four-year schools—the primary school, the middle school, and the high school; and (3) the establishment of educational complexes, visualized as a cluster of elementary schools and one or two middle schools under a single administrator and sharing among them special staff, facilities, and programs.

Like many givers of radical advice, neither the Committee nor Commissioner Allen has stated where the money for putting these proposals into effect is to come from. By even the sketchy calculations of its creators, the Allen Plan would increase the annual school budget one-third, and yet in his rather more prosaic incarnation as Albany go-between, Mr. Allen has been notably ineffective in getting New York City the increases previously requested for the Board's own far more limited programs. The Allen Plan is exciting, then, not because it promises a happy or easy solution to the city's school problem, but because it locates that solution where it belongs—in the educational process.

As a result of the Allen Plan and the integrationist enthusiasm for it, in 1964-65, 4,500 ninth-graders who would normally still be attending Negro junior high schools will this year be transferred into 36 integrated high schools. Their places in the junior high schools will be taken by 5,800 sixth-graders from 44 elementary schools. And these schools in turn will be able to reduce the size of classes, expand their kindergarten programs, and establish pre-kindergartens. (Even so unglamorous a beginning will be expensive. Apart from the additional special staff needed for shifts in arrangements, it costs the Board eighty-eight cents a day for the transportation of each child relocated, whether by Open Enrollment, school pairing, or any other kind of adjustment. The new arrangement for sixth- and ninth-graders alone, then, will cost $10,000 a day.)

This month—the first September of several—may find the integration movement and the Board of Education at peace, for on June 18, the seven organizations that make up the movement agreed to support the Board for the coming year, and the Board on its side agreed to keep negotiation for all future planning open. But the Board must still face the opposition of PAT, which has now announced a boycott of its own, and which threatens a long course of litigation over the Board's right to transfer children involuntarily from their neighborhood schools. And with the racial turbulence that has finally erupted over other matters—after the “long hot summer”—white parents can be expected to be more adamant than ever about controlling the future disposition of their children.

At the moment it is impossible to predict what will be the outcome of the Board's new struggle: it depends on court decisions yet unissued, accommodations and spiritual adjustments yet unmade, and perhaps on developments in the city's social life that have nothing to do with schools. But the question has been posed and will never again be dropped: can the American public-school system find the means to teach all American children, and can American society find the means to value all the children so taught for the particular kind of people they turn out to be? It is a question that, though framed for our time by integrationists, goes far beyond the demands most of them have had to make. It is a question that goes, too, beyond our shameful history of race relations; for this can be assuaged by laws and softened by time. But nothing will ever assuage or soften the shame of wasting lively and vital children who get no chance at life but what society gives them.


1 Out of deference to the fact that children who are neither Negro nor Puerto Rican nevertheless represent a wide variety of racial backgrounds—e.g., Oriental, American Indian, etc.—they are usually referred to as “Others.” However, both for convenience and clarity they will here be called “white” since that is what, in the particular context of school integration, they are indisputably taken to be.

2 For various reasons, having mainly to do with zoning, the senior high schools have not been a crucial object of contention in the dispute over integration.

3 This committee was organized in August 1963 to serve as a coordinating council for the other five groups but, as so often happens in intra-community politics, soon became an autonomous group in its own right.

4 The Chicago Board of Education—which because of the geographic peculiarity of Negro setttlement in Chicago could from a purely administrative point of view rather easily achieve a great measure of integration—just last year announced a limited program of open enrollment, with transportation to be paid by the students.

5 Like many Northeastern cities, New York maintained a separate school system until somewhere around 1900, and the state law under which this was done was actually not repealed until 1938! See the excellent historical summary in Public School Segregation and Integration in the North, prepared by the Commission on School Integration of the National Association of Intergroup Relations Officials.

6 See Nathan Glazer's admirably cool and fair discussion of these problems, “Is ‘Integration’ Possible in the New York Schools?” which appeared in the September 1960 issue of this magazine.

7 Some members of the integration movement, particularly a few of the more zealous white liberals among them, insist that there are still “many” gerrymandered schools, but refuse to specify. What they really mean is that there are many districts they deem to need even further rezoning, which is quite a different matter.

8 Not much is known about the “educational park,” since it is still largely an idea in the minds of enthusiasts. Essentially, as I understand them, educational parks are visualized as huge central campuses containing several schools of all levels. All the children will converge on these campuses and there be integrated, rather than in individual neighborhood schools.

9 An underutilized school is one with a student body smaller than its full seating capacity. The classes in these schools, however, are generally as large as in others, since with their smaller enrollments they have usually been staffed with fewer teachers.

10 These were set up several years ago for the purpose of decentralization and in order to maintain an otherwise very difficult direct contact between the Board and the individual school districts.

11 As of last May it was estimated by Mr. Frederick Reuss, chairman for Eastern Queens, that PAT had 750,000 members and supporters—a figure difficult either to confirm or deny.

12 The Board of Education has been busing children from overcrowded schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant to underutilized schools in Queens since 1958.

13 The members of the Committee are John H. Fischer, President of Columbia's Teachers College; Professor Kenneth Clark; and Rabbi Judah Cahn.

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