Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Mockingbird Returns

Last week over on One Good Thing, Flea published an essay that recalls both the fictional Atticus Finch, from the 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and a real-life "man in grey" with the courage to run a gauntlet of religious and racial bigots to bring his child into an integrated school in New Orleans.

The man in grey was not the father of any black children, but of a white student, and the gauntlet of ignorance reserved special hate and bile for him, as this white man, a Christian minister, was betraying the members of that shameful gauntlet.  They could understand blacks trying to rise above their proper station.  But to have a white man, a minister of their own professed faith, willingly put his own child into that school, with the black child, was a betrayal that could not be allowed to pass unvoiced.

We recently lost a beacon in the area of civil rights, Coretta Scott King, and that, combined with Flea's post, reminded me of the past of my own natal city.  And reminded me as well that discrimination and segregation are still alive and well, but the driving impetus now is economic, rather than ethnic or racial.  Sadly the result is often the same as what was seen 42 years ago.

I'm from Boston, sometimes called the "Athens of the New World" for its diversity and access to institutions of higher learning, and well known as "a city of neighborhoods," where common racial, ethnic, religious, economic and national backgrounds work to sustain that diversity, but also supports a balkanization of those populations and their interests, where different groups tend to their own geography, and little drift between areas, resulting in a geographical stability that bred insularity in one of the cities that was seen externally as one of the most cosmopolitan and "European" in the United States.

During the mid 1970s, when the rest of the country was celebrating events leading up to the nation’s bicentennial, Boston was rocked by massive unrest that forever changed the perception of what kind of a city it was, both to the “outside world” and to its own citizens.  

This unrest was caused by a court-ordered scheme to desegregate the city’s public schools.  The effort resulted in violence against targets that would have been unthinkable in the past, and resulted in a final change in the makeup of the city as a whole, and a diminishment, both in perception and in fact, of the city.

Much of the resistance to the forced desegregation plan was just that – it was forced, not of a voluntary choice, and the citizens felt they had no choice.

After the first few years of forced busing, the tensions dropped off, but at the same time the racial makeup of the city as a whole changed, with more white families leaving, and the tax base of the city was further eroded by deterioration of the housing stock, especially in areas with a high percentage of absentee landlords.  When court-ordered busing was first implemented, the city’s public schools reflected an enrollment that was approximately 50% white.  By the late 1990s the percentage of Caucasian students in Boston’s public schools had dropped to less than 10%.

And the quality of public education accessible to the minority students in Boston, the original impetus for the landmark lawsuit that started forced desegregation in the city, has lagged far behind advances made in other cities in the Commonwealth, even in cities that are neither suburban nor affluent.

The change in the school system demographics resulted from "white flight" of relatively more affulent families to the suburbs, increases in the number of small private schools in predominently white areas and increases in enrollments into the neighborhood schools run by religious orders. Some of the flight from the school system was the result of racism, but more was the result of fear.

A fear that was fostered by the media reporting of crime and violence that spent more attention on what happened in the black community of the city than on what happened in the rest of the city. Part of that coverage was dictated by the fact that poverty breeds crime, and those in the black community tended, when they got a "leg up" financially, to themselves move to communities where they could own their own homes for their families to grow in, which meant that one of the moderating factors against crime, opportunity and visibility of success, left with those families. The underlying causes of poverty, and of crime, are complex and don't make ratings -- reports covering robberies and drug deals gone awry do. And that was the reportage that informed those who saw forced busing as a real danger to their children. And busing, 'though slow in coming, was implimented over a short period of time, without allowing those white families to see, and meet, the families on the other side of the city's divide. And no opportunity to see that those "others" had the same hopes, and fears, for their own children.

Would a more gradual approach to desegregation been more appropriate, or would it simply have perpetuated the problems, while substituting a sham of “separate but equal” schools?  We will never know.

What we do know is that voluntary and community-directed efforts at school desegregation have been successful in other cities.  But we still do not know if a city the size of Boston would have been able to overcome the institutional and cultural inertia that caused the misperceptions and hostility in the early years of the effort.

And should we view this grand, and ultimately failed, experiment on a wider scale – will the externally-imposed changes that are being implemented in Afghanistan and Iraq fare any better, over a population that has less in common with those doing the imposition than Boston’s neighborhoods had with the federal judge who imposed his will on the city’s schools?

(For a fuller treatmentof this issue, see the accompanying article Under the Fold)

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