It is now more than six years since “integration” became an issue in the New York City school system; and, very likely, at the start of the new school term some of New York’s Negro parents—for the third time in a row—will stage a “strike,” and keep their children from attending the all-Negro (or nearly all-Negro) schools of their own neighborhoods on the ground that the education to be got there is inferior.
One way or another, “integration” has become an important issue in every Northern and Western city in which there are large numbers of Negroes and (as in New York) Puerto Ricans or (in California and elsewhere) Mexicans. The constellation of forces and problems is in each situation different—and in describing what is happening in New York, I am not necessarily tracing any general pattern. What happens in New York is important enough by itself: here is the city with the largest population in the country, the largest number of Negroes, the largest number of Puerto Ricans. The New York school system had, at the beginning of the school year in 1959, 626 elementary schools, 127 junior high schools, 86 high schools. It comprises almost 1,000,000 students, has 45,000 employees, and spends $400,000,000 a year. Sixty new school buildings were opened in the three years 1957-1959.
I point all this out not to dazzle the reader with figures, but rather to show that there can be no comparison between New York’s school problems and those of a community with, let us say, a half dozen schools, where citizens are in direct control of school planning through their power to elect school board officials, to approve or disapprove bond issues, and the like. In such a community, the citizen voting on a bond issue for a new school knows in advance just where the school will be, and what effect, if any, its location will have on segregating or integrating Negro students; such knowledge presumably plays a role in how the vote goes. So, for example, in Malverne, Long Island, when a school bond issue for a new school was voted down last March, the outcome was seen as a defeat for segregation—though conceivably other issues were involved.
There can be no such clear-cut victories and defeats in New York City. Perhaps in frustration, many people act as if New York were Malverne, and as if some single decision on zoning, or school building, or teacher placement would radically transform the educational system. The matter, unfortunately, is not so simple.
The story begins with the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, outlawing segregation. What was involved, of course, was the formal and legal segregation of the Southern and Border states. However, a month later, Professor Kenneth Clark of City College, a psychologist whose studies on the development of Negro children in the South had played a role in the Supreme Court decision, asserted: “It would be a mistake to assume that the content and spirit of the . . . decision apply only to the Southern states that have laws which require segregation. As I understand the decision, the United States Supreme Court has clearly stated that segregation itself damages the personality of human beings. The court did not limit itself to the statement that only legal segregation is detrimental to the human personality. It was explicit . . . in stating that various forms of racial segregation are damaging to the human spirit. . . .”
There is of course no formal segregation in the New York City schools. But there are great numbers of Negroes and Puerto Ricans in certain areas—concentrations which partly exist because these groups meet discrimination in their efforts to rent or buy houses in many other sections of the city. For despite a city ordinance forbidding it, discrimination in housing is still widespread, and in any case the residential patterns created by it still persist. These concentrations have an equally important cause in the poverty of Negroes and Puerto Ricans, a fact which automatically eliminates the great majority of them from large sections of the city. Finally, the Negro and Puerto Rican concentrations have a happier, positive aspect, reflecting ties to family, friends, institutions—a community.
Professor Clark opened the integration issue in New York schools in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. He spoke of segregation in the North as well as in the South—and there is no question that there are 100 per cent Negro and 100 per cent white schools in the North, as in the South. But there is a decisive difference between the two situations. Because segregation is legally imposed in the South, and because the whole tendency of the American creed opposes legal distinctions made between human beings of different races and ethnic groups, it is necessary to strike down segregation in the Southern schools on moral and political grounds, independently of any effect such separation might have on education. Even if the Southern states had given superior education to Negroes in their separate schools (and in their frantic efforts to bring up the miserably poor quality of Negro schooling to avoid a negative Supreme Court ruling, many Southern states were beginning to spend a good deal more on Negro schools), it would still have been necessary to abolish this legal separation by public authority.
But in the North the concentration of Negroes and whites into separate schools was the effect of other social forces. There was no claim by Northern political bodies that they had any moral or political right to enforce such a separation. The situation was similar to the concentration of Jews in the schools of the Lower East Side in 1910, or of Italians in the schools of “Little Italy” around the same time. I emphasize this difference between the Northern and Southern states because I think the application of the term “segregation” to both introduces a radical confusion. In a word, the difference is: Southern segregation has to be abolished independently of its impact on education; Northern school concentration becomes a problem that demands action primarily because it may lead to inferior education for Negro children.
If the concentration of Negroes in certain Northern schools were not simply the product of their residential concentration, and if school zones were gerrymandered by political authorities so as to increase the separation of Negro and white children, then the situation would be comparable to that in the South. Indeed many observers believed this to be the case in New York City; it is certainly the case in other Northern places. But Professor Clark raised only the question of the quality of education that Negro children were getting or could get in Northern de facto “segregated” schools. And the day after Professor Clark’s speech, the president of the Board of Education of New York City requested the Public Education Association to investigate the status of the education of Negro and Puerto Rican children in the city.
The report was submitted a year later. It compared schools with a high concentration of Negroes and Puerto Ricans (more than 90 per cent Negro and Puerto Rican if they were elementary schools, more than 85 per cent Negro and Puerto Rican if they were junior high schools), with schools with a low concentration of Negroes and Puerto Ricans (less than 10 per cent Negro and Puerto Rican). There were then 49 of these high-concentration schools—somewhat less than 10 per cent of the total number of schools in the city. (It should also be pointed out that only about a third of the Negro and Puerto Rican children in the city attended these high-concentration schools.) The comparison proved interesting.
It turned out that while slightly less was spent on the education of children in the high-concentration elementary schools than those in the other schools ($185 to $195 per child), the situation was reversed in the junior high schools ($252 per child in the high-concentration schools, $244 per child in the other schools). The professional staffs in the high-concentration schools were larger, indicating the need for, and the supply of, more special services. Thus in the high-concentration elementary schools, there were 25.8 children per professional position, in the other elementary schools, 28.7; in the high-concentration junior high schools, 19.4 children per professional position, in the others, 22.7.
Two objective indices stamped the schools with high proportions of Negroes and Puerto Ricans as being inferior: they were on the average older (43 years as against 31 years for the elementary schools; 35 as against 15 years for the junior high schools). And there were fewer regular teachers in the high-concentration schools, more substitute teachers.
On the crucial question of zoning, the report stated that no attempted “equalization” of Negro-Puerto Rican and “other” children seemed to play any role in setting up zones, nor did any attempt to keep the groups separate play any such role. It asserted: “There is no significant evidence to indicate that ethnic separation is seriously considered in drawing school district boundary lines.”
At this point, the Board of Education might well have said, well, that’s that. We spend as much on the Negro and Puerto Rican children as we do on the others; we give them more services; if their schools are older, this is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that they live in older neighborhoods; and if they are inferior in academic achievement (as they were), this is owing to lower I.Q.’s, language difficulties, poor home environment, and the host of factors, known and unknown, that differentiate children of different backgrounds in academic achievement. Indeed, when one looks at this report, the only conceivable legitimate ground for complaint was to be found in the distribution of regular teachers. Some of the more skeptical among us might even wonder whether the older, regular teachers, would do any better with Negro and Puerto Rican children, than the younger “substitutes” (who in effect are regular employees, with full teaching loads, but without the teacher’s license, which is often dependent on meeting the requirements imposed by the teaching guild, requirements whose relation to teaching ability is open to question). But here was a point at which, if more regular teachers meant improvement, then improvement, despite the difficulties of shifting older, established teachers with tenure, was possible.
But we must separate the issue of “segregation” from that of education: regardless of what the study showed as to the education of Negro and Puerto Rican children, the fact remained that large numbers of them were in schools with very few continental white children—and this was, in terms of political impact, the real issue. The president of the Board of Education is a political appointee; even if he were not, the head of an enterprise of the size of the New York City schools would have to keep political realities continually in mind. Even before the report of the Public Education Association was presented, it was decided that something must be done to further integrate the New York schools, and a Commission on Integration was set up. Subcommissions worked on the problems of educational standards and curriculum: Guidance; Educational Stimulation and Placement; Teachers Assignment and Personnel; Community Relations and Information; Zoning; and Physical Plant and Maintenance. The individual subcommission reports were submitted to the Board between March 1956 and June 1957; the final report was submitted in July 1958. And now, two years later, we have a huge progress report: “Toward Greater Opportunity,” subtitled “A Progress Report from the Superintendent of Schools to the Board of Education Dealing with Implementation of Recommendations of the Commission on Integration.”
The crux of the matter politically has always been, and still remains, zoning. The Board of Education, despairing over effecting any really satisfying changes through zoning, keeps on emphasizing programs to raise the level of education and services in schools that will have to remain largely Puerto Rican and Negro. But this does not get it off the political hook. It is caught in the dilemma of a political demand that is simple and clear—no all-Negro schools—but a demand which it cannot meet since the huge residential concentrations of Negroes and Puerto Ricans in effect must mean many largely Puerto Rican and Negro schools.
And despite laws against residential and occupational discrimination, which should serve to upgrade the economic level of Puerto Ricans and Negroes, and spread them more evenly through the city, the situation cannot undergo any great change. For—and this is the most striking and important fact in the report on the progress of integration—three-quarters of the school children of Manhattan are Negro and Puerto Rican; two-fifths of the school children of greater New York are Negro and Puerto Rican. If by an elaborate process of busing and pupil assignment it were possible to evenly distribute the Negro and Puerto Rican children throughout the city—taking the children of Brooklyn into Queens, the children from Manhattan into the Bronx, and then alternatively bringing the children of the Bronx and Queens into Brooklyn and Manhattan, etc., etc.—then Negro and Puerto Rican children would make up two-fifths of the total in every school in the city.
But even this theoretically perfect situation could not be maintained for long—the numbers of Negro and Puerto Rican children in the city are increasing rapidly. The Puerto Rican birth rate is much higher than the Negro birth rate, which is higher than the white birth rate. Migratory trends are harder to estimate, but it is certain that Negro and Puerto Rican increase through immigration, and white decrease through out-migration, will continue. In effect, the notion that much would be accomplished by the redistribution of a declining number of continental white school children is an illusion.
Meanwhile, no one—including the Board of Education—has offered evidence that there is any relation at all between the educational outcome, for Negroes and Puerto Ricans, and schools in which they form 80 or 90 per cent of the population, as against schools in which they make up 40 per cent of the population. All this leaves aside the question of whether the educational outcome for “other” children in schools where these “others” form a minority or half of the school population is worse than in schools in which they form 80 or 90 per cent of the school population. We may, for all we know, be facing one of those dilemmas in which the improvement of the education of Negro and Puerto Rican children through redistribution is accompanied by a poorer educational outcome for white children. But on this question our knowledge is a complete blank.
Meanwhile, despite the absence of any data, the Board of Education has taken the position that an even mixture of groups is educationally desirable—that, to quote the resolution setting up the Commission on Integration, “racially homogeneous schools are undesirable.” This means all-white as well as all-Negro schools. And the report before us indicates how extended have been the Board’s efforts to promote such an even distribution.
While the Board considers distribution in the siting of new schools, the change in population is so rapid, and length of time between planning and opening so great, that very often a school planned for a fringe area, for heterogeneity, opens up finally in a mostly Negro or Puerto Rican area. The Board also considers distribution in setting up zones for old schools; but, as we have indicated, and to put it crudely, there are generally not enough “other” children to go around. The battles that take place between principals and parent groups of various schools over the relatively small numbers of continental white children would be comic—if they were not rather pitiful. And in the end, any victories are likely to be Pyrrhic ones. The assignment of a few blocks containing fifty “other” children to a school that is largely Negro and Puerto Rican does not necessarily mean an increase by fifty in the number of “other” children. Maybe only ten or twenty will show up when school opens, and the battle will have been in vain. There are always alternatives for resisting parents—parochial and private schools (which enroll one-third of the children of school age in New York City); or the move to the suburbs—precipitated, perhaps, by the zoning change.
The Board of Education is unhappily aware of all these problems. If rezoning cannot accomplish much, a certain amount of redistributing of the school population can be done by busing. A thousand children from the heavily Negro Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn are bused to schools in Queens and Brooklyn, and another 400 are bused from Harlem to Yorkville in Manhattan. While overcrowding in some schools and under-utilization in others has been in the past publicly given as the reason for such moves (to quiet agitated parents and community groups), the report of the Commission does include such busing schemes as part of the over-all integration efforts of the schools.
But the major problem is still: the poor educational results for Negroes and Puerto Ricans. And here is where the chief efforts of the Board of Education have been applied. One can only say, they are impressive in their scale.
The fact is that the needs of Negro and Puerto Rican children are enormous. Very large numbers come from homes in which they receive no care, are not fed properly, are perhaps abused physically and psychologically. The school may be a haven—but more likely it is another area in which a depressed and miserable existence is reflected in apathy, outrageous behavior, resistance. Obviously these are not problems peculiar to Negroes or Puerto Ricans—but equally obviously, the highest incidence of such problems occurs in that part of the city’s population. All this is aside from special factors affecting the two groups that bear directly on the capacity to learn. In the Puerto Rican case, there is the serious language problem. In 1958, 62,000 children were considered “language handicapped.” For this alone an army of special personnel is required. There are NE (non-English) co-ordinators, SAT’s (supplementary assistant teachers), non-English speaking classes (2,099 in elementary schools, 259 in Junior High Schools, in 1958).
But the language difficulty may be the least of the factors affecting ability to learn—it does not seem to have been a great handicap for some other immigrant groups. Far more important apparently are aspects of home atmosphere, both as they bear directly on the general physical and psychological well-being of the child, and in setting up conditions of various kinds that aid learning. The absence of such conditions—parents who read, relatives who have professional jobs, home discussions of political events, exposure to cultural activities—probably counts for a great deal in the factors leading to poor educational results for Negro and Puerto Rican children. It is a tribute to American idealism, which seems to be convinced that every human problem is manageable, that even these defects in home environment are now the concern of the Board of Education, through its Demonstration Guidance Project and Higher Horizons Project. Under these projects, students who on the most generous interpretation seem to show prospects for doing good academic work are selected for special intensive efforts—testing, training, remedial work, guidance, and the like, including (in the case of Higher Horizons) trips to the opera and plays. Such investments of special effort have indeed been rewarding. They also mean an investment in the education of underprivileged children that is probably close to twice the cost of educating “other” children.
A good summary of the special effort being put into the schools with a high proportion of the underprivileged (primarily schools with high proportions of Negroes and Puerto Ricans) is provided by the figures on personnel now employed in “special service” schools (as they are called), as compared with the regular schools. The report compares some “special service” and other schools: the special service schools have 29 per cent more personnel than the regular schools. For every position, there is more staff in the “special service” schools. Thus, for example, in the Junior High Schools, 44 special service schools have 62.4 guidance positions, 82 other schools have 85.6 positions. The problem is now whether it is “more important” to have guidance for a child who may make a mistake in the choice of vocational high school than to have guidance for a child who may make a mistake in his choice of a college. It is difficult to say what a rational analysis, or a moral judgment, might conclude: but regardless of what they might conclude, the distribution of effort as between these two needs will be decided politically, and presumably the Board of Education is more concerned now with satisfying the parents of poor students that everything possible is being done to give their children the best education than it is in satisfying the parents of good students that everything possible is being done for them. The latter of course generally have alternatives.
As to the other objective indices of inferior education. Large numbers of new schools have been built in the mainly Negro and Puerto Rican sections of the city—indeed, walking through Harlem, one almost thinks that there are scarcely any old schools still to be replaced. The Board of Education now makes vigorous efforts to assign regular teachers to the “special service” schools. Regularly appointed teachers are now centrally assigned, and the special service schools now have a greater number of regular teachers than the other schools.1 Indeed, since the substitute can still shop around for a job in the huge school system, while the regular teacher is assigned (as a result of one the most important recommendations of the Commission on Integration), the current report points out that some substitutes are avoiding taking the regular teaching licenses so as to preserve their freedom!
Yet all of this, one can predict, while it may mean better education and more service to the Negro and Puerto Rican children, will not get the Board of Education off the hook. After the report on all these efforts to promote integration came out, after it was pointed out that close to 30 per cent more professional personnel was being assigned to the special service schools, that these had a larger number of regular teachers, and that the new schools serving underprivileged areas would have and do have more of everything—lunchroom space and supplies, special facilities of all kinds, and the like,—after all this, the arrangements for a school strike continued to go ahead, and James L. Hicks of the Amsterdam News (the most important Negro newspaper in the city) wrote:
I opposed a school strike last year because I felt Dr. Theobald and Dr. Silver of the Board of Education could and would meet the demands of parents if given enough time. I know now that I was wrong. Dr. Silver and Dr. Theobald either could not—or would not—fully meet the demands made by Negro parents for better integrated schools for their children. I don’t know if they could have or not.
All I know is that Negro children are entitled to the same things white children are entitled to and they are not getting them and that it is the white people who are keeping them from getting what they are supposed to have.
That’s why if there is a strike this year I’m backing it all the way. . . .
This is not the reaction of all Negroes, for while the Amsterdam News was writing in this vein, the Pittsburgh Courier was in effect accepting the position of the Board of Education that relatively little could be accomplished through zoning, and the task was to make the education of Negro children, in the de facto segregated schools, as good as possible. It commented in an editorial:
New York City’s School Superintendent John J. Theobald’s report apologizing for the fact that so-called racially ‘segregated’ schools have not disappeared from the system is no cause for either concern or grief.
Indeed, this is inevitable considering that three out of five Manhattan students are either Negroes or Puerto Ricans, as are two out of five in the entire city.
Things being what they are in the local labor market low-rent housing projects will continue to be occupied by low-income groups which largely consist of Negroes and Puerto Ricans; while high-rent housing will continue to be occupied by high-income groups, overwhelmingly white. . . .
Despite all efforts of the school administration, there can be no increase in school integration as long as the present population trends continue—and we don’t think it makes much difference, no matter what the professional integrationists say.
The important consideration is that the schools be structurally adequate for the needs of the communities in which they are located; that the number and quality of teachers be adequate, and that the curricula not be inferior to that of schools in which most of the student bodies are white.
Much of the professional integrationist “reasoning” is based on the fallacious assumption that learning aptitude is somehow improved by racial mixing per se.
But this is not likely to be the politically effective position. The difference between one professional staff person per 20 children and one per 30 children is hard to observe; the difference between an all-white school and an all-Negro school is easy to observe. The difference between a good education and a poor education is hard to test; the difference between one color and another is easy to see. The Pittsburgh Courier’s position may comfort the Board of Education; but it still has to deal with Negro parents who will not send their children to all-Negro schools, regardless of what the Board of Education does for them, and regardless even of what the objective indices show. (The Board of Education report for 1958-59 points out that New York elementary school students—despite the fact that two-fifths of them are Puerto Rican and Negro, and one-tenth of them are language handicapped—score ahead of the national norm in mathematics. Graduates of New York academic high schools are still consistently better than the national average—but not many of the Negro and Puerto Rican students get to, or through, the academic high schools.)
We can understand this Negro reaction to all-Negro schools. Negro parents cannot take the position that Irish or Jewish or Italian parents took before them—all this will change (or that perhaps some Jewish parents might well have taken in their paradoxical sense of superiority, “What do we need so many goyim for?”). Their history is different, their situation is different, their sense of self-confidence and self-worth is different.
Even so, all parents are very much the same: the Negro parents who don’t want their children to go to all-Negro schools are very much like the white parents who also don’t want their children to go to all-Negro schools, and it is equally difficult to say that either prejudice or self-hatred is the whole story. In both cases, parents want the best educational environments for their children; they don’t envisage the elementary school years as years in which their children must become precocious social workers, presenting models of good scholarship and good discipline in a sea of misery; parents would rather have their children go to schools in which they in turn were presented with good models to spur them to higher levels of achievement. It would be as wrong to say the motivation of the striking and distressed Negro parents is entirely to escape from their own kind as to say the motivation of the retreating white parents is entirely prejudice. In both cases there is a positive component; the desire to do the best one can for one’s children.
But what is the Board of Education to do? It needs the few good children (more than a few) in each school—they are important for the morale of the principal and teachers, as well as of other students. One might ask, why is the Board of Education so insistent on maintaining the principle of the neighborhood school? Suppose it were to allow parents who wished to be responsible for getting their children to distant schools to make their own choice. Suppose it would, each year, set up a list of under-utilized schools: many of these schools are in “good” neighborhoods, with established teaching staffs; and suppose the Board were to say, parents may now send their children to one of these schools if they wish. The Board may be afraid that chaos would result—yet one could predict that the overwhelming majority of the parents in the schools with high concentrations of Negroes and Puerto Ricans would continue to send their children to the nearest school—most of them (like most other parents, but in even higher proportions) don’t care enough about the education of their children to bother that much, and don’t know enough about different schools to know what good it would do if they did bother. The same home conditions that produce poor students would act to prevent involvement of the kind that might lead, if there were some system of permissive zoning, to mass exodus and disruption of the school system.
But more important probably in the thinking of the Board of Education than such possible administrative disorder (though this must certainly play an important role in any such huge organization) is the fact that permissive zoning would strip the schools that need them most of their few good students to send them to schools that already have enough.
And there are two further difficulties to permissive zoning as a solution to the integration problem. The first is: how can the Negro and Puerto Rican parents be permitted to choose schools for their children and other parents not be allowed to do the same? And if this right is given to other parents, would not the effect be to “de-integrate” some schools that now have a large minority of “other” children?
Conceivably the Board could limit permissive zoning to schools that are over-crowded. This would permit parents of children in overcrowded schools with high concentrations of Negro and Puerto Rican pupils to send them to other schools, but it would do little to bring “other” children into the special service schools.
Indeed, there are good arguments for permissive zoning. For example, it seems silly for parents in a city with hundreds of schools to be required to send their children to just one, as if they lived in a village. If they have a choice of more jobs and more entertainments in a large city, why shouldn’t they have a choice of more schools? And why shouldn’t a conscious effort be undertaken to make the schools different and distinctive, instead of the same. But even though I prefer the greater freedom of such a system, I do not see, for the reasons I have discussed, how it would further integration.
I began by saying the matter is horribly complicated; I hope those who have followed me this far will agree.
Of course, if one takes a long-range view one can think of possible solutions. Eventually the impact of a fairly good school system, non-discriminatory renting, the movement of Negroes and Puerto Ricans into better jobs, will reduce the gap between Negro and Puerto Rican students and “other” students. In the meantime, the Board of Education, with the tacit consent of the people of the city, pours in heavy resources to make up for the disasters of history, trusting that in some way the injection of money and personnel at this end will overcome generations of misfortune. Even so, it is not likely to get much sympathy for its efforts from the victims of the misfortunes. But since when have victims been kind to anyone—to their persecutors, to those who tried to aid them, or to themselves?
1 The special service schools have more regular teachers for a given number of students than the other schools do. However, since the special service schools have much larger staffs, their larger numbers of regular teachers form a smaller percentage of the total professional staff in these schools.