the tweet heard ’round the world: a few words about segregation and educational options

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Monday, August 23rd, 2010

the tweet heard ’round the world: a few words about segregation and educational options

little rock arkansas segregation

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard ’round the world.

so begin’s ralph waldo’s emerson 1837 masterpiece, concord hymn. the line that closes the stanza, of course, has become a cultural idiom. the shot heard ’round the world is in reference to the american revolutionary war, specifically the battles of lexington and concord. indeed, those shots reverberated around the globe and set our nation on a new course.

and then—on august 21, 2010—there was this:

worth not just a read, but extended reflection for LR people / RT @GOOD: Are students pre-segregated before high school? http://su.pr/9msbx1less than a minute ago via Tweetie for Mac

which was immediately followed by this:

in addition to what the @GOOD article says, it’s also worth reflecting on “self-segregation” (parents who put their kids in private school).less than a minute ago via Tweetie for Mac

ah yes, the tweet heard ’round the world.

in the aftermath of, specifically, the 2nd tweet, my quick count of responses from fellow twitterers was 65. yes, 65 responses to my tweet. gee. sometimes heated, sometimes congenial, sometimes in the spirit of inquiry. always pointed, always passionate. one little tweet caused all this.

140 characters can, indeed, set off quite the series of passionate response. so, i thought it was necessary for me to expand my thoughts a little, offering equal parts clarification and apology (in the explanatory/defense sense of the word…not the “i’m so sorry” sense of the word).

before i go any further, though, let me just put out a few bits of helpful preface.

1. i’m a product of public schools. with the exception of a couple (random) years in quitman, i attended conway public schools (ida burns elementary, conway jr. high & conway high school) for the entirety of my childhood/adolescent education. so, i acknowledge what is seemingly a bias, but i’ll get to why i think i’m able to step beyond my singular experience.

2. my conway public schools education was particularly valuable directly in terms of racial diversity. while conway certainly doesn’t represent the kind of diversity found in little rock, i am thankful to have a relatively diverse experience in relation to national/state racial breakdowns. for example, in my particular classes in elementary school (which was the “poor kids/black kids” elementary school, at that time), for at least a couple years, i was either the minority or nearly 50/50 black/white composition (now the numbers are more like 32% black [39% minority], which is still far above the national/state percentages). (conway high school is comprised of 31% minority students, which, while lower, is still more than 10 points higher than the overall state percentages.) my first crush, for example, was on a little black girl in my 1st grade class. with just a bit of racial balance, the difference between black and white kids was literally only skin deep to a 7-year old.

3. i mentioned what could be interpreted on the surface level as a public schools bias, but there are well-thought-out and studied reasons for these feelings, beyond my direct experience (though i’m not one to devalue personal experience, by any means). i almost cringe pulling this card (because i cringe when i see people do this on the social web [blogs, twitter, facebook, etc.]), but i think it’s fair and helps to provide a little context in this situation. my thoughts on the racial/sociological impetus/impact of public/private/home schooling isn’t based on mere bias or speculation or conjecture or some kind of agenda. rather, the dynamics at play here are literally what i spent 3 years getting a master’s degree in. i have a master’s of arts in youth ministry. now, sadly, most people hear that and think that means i spent 3 years learning to light farts and plan lock-ins. because of those assumptions, the youth ministry program at asbury seminary is one of the most notoriously rigorous and multi-disciplined learning tracks in the seminary. i often tell people the more appropriate term for my degree is master’s of arts in emerging social anthropology. the ym program at asbury is designed to focus primarily on the social//cognitive/moral/spiritual/psychological development of emerging generations (from birth to adolescence to emerging adulthood, obviously dwelling most in the 2 latter fields of study). it is comprised of equal parts anthropology, sociology, psychology and general social dynamics theory. i genuinely loved it and has prepared me well for life far beyond youth ministry (which i spent nearly 10 years doing before now). again, i don’t like to pull the i-have-a-masters-degree-in-this card, but i think it will offer an opportunity to speak from the point-of-view of someone who has literally poured hundreds of hours into this very type of conversation/social analysis.

ok, i don’t like lengthy prefaces in my posts, but i thought those might help set the stage for everything else. so, take a deep breath and let’s get into the meat.

first of all, i don’t back off my statement whatsoever. not because i’m stubborn, but because it simply makes a fact statement, rather than some sort of indictment.

again, let me reiterate that my tweet/statement was/is not an indictment, but rather, a fact statement, rooted in sociological research and theory. at its most basic level, it carries no value judgment.

the fact is that “self-segregation” is a term that has been used by a handful of sociologists to refer to issues related to white flight and increasingly homogenous social patterns. in essence, the idea is that we live in a culture where blatant racism is egregiously taboo (as compared to just 50 years ago), so more nuanced forms of racism like white flight and “racial avoidance” is increasingly prevalent. so, for many people—**BUT NOT ALL**—in the name of “better education” (though the numbers would disagree) and “increased opportunities”, large segments of white people are flocking to private schools.

some of the push back to the tweet heard ’round the world was that private schools are, in fact, diverse and that i simply have a false or incomplete view of the diversity in little rock’s private schools. well, simple common knowledge told me, at the time, that my “assumptions” were correct. now, though, i’ve actually looked at the numbers and they have almost completely confirmed my suspicions. here’s the numbers:

[by the way, i’m intentionally focusing on black and white percentages. some people talk about “racial diversity” by including asians or other ethnic groups. yes, they certainly represent diversity, but let’s be totally honest: nobody’s fleeing little rock because of all the dirty, awful asians. right? right.]

little rock: 42% black (52% total minority)

public schools: %, +/- city overall % (% total minority, +/- black %)

central: 55%, +13% (61% total minority, +6%) (data)
hall: 80%, +38% (93% total minority, +13%) (data)
ja fair: 88%, +46% (94% total minority, +6%) (data)
mcclellan: 89%, +47% (97% total minority, +8%) (data)
parkview: 51%, +9% (61% total minority, +10%) (data)
mills: 64%, +22% (69% total minority, +5%) (data)

average: 71%, +29%

private schools (%, +/- city overall %)

pulaski academy: 4%, -38% (11% total minority, +7%) (data)
catholic: 3%, -39% (10% total minority, +7%) (data)
arkansas baptist: 3%, -39% (8% total minority, +5%) (data)
little rock christian: 1%, -41% (3% total minority, +2%) (data)
mt. st. mary: 4%, -38% (13% total minority, +9%) (data)
(and much to my surprise…) episcopal collegiate: 17%, -25% (18% total minority, +1%) (data)

average: 5% (3% w/out episcopal), -37%

where i am getting this data?? it all came from the u.s. department of education institute of education science’s national center for education statistics (a.k.a. the official database of u.s. school documentation). you can find it all by clicking the link associated with each school’s data.

indeed, the numbers—with indisputable clarity—confirm my statement. again, one could imply any kind of value judgment or indictment they’d like, but my point was simply to say that, yes, making the decision to place your child in private school is a decision to self-segregate. the numbers are clear.

what needs to be stated over and over is that regardless of intentions, segregation occurs. yes, you might have chosen a private school because of some special program or because you just really like the school or because you have money to burn, but it still creates the same outcome: racial segregation. one of the many jobs of a sociologist is to observe social patterns and accordingly report. the fundamental task isn’t to draw subjective opinions or form scathing commentary. it’s simply to observe and report.

many people got bent out of shape about the tweet, but it simply stated a very easily observable reality: racial demographics at private schools are incredibly skewed, relative to our city’s racial makeup. simply put: putting your white child in private school puts them in a self-chosen highly segregated educational environment.

so, i certainly have very strong feelings in terms of negative social implications from this data, but it simply wasn’t my point in the tweet heard ’round the world.

ultimately, as stated in the tweet, my goal was to get people to pause and think about something that we simply don’t think about too often. the choices we make for our children are deeply personal and intimate (i’ve got 3 of my own, so i know). nobody wants to screw up their children and it’s so easy to do just that. 🙂 so, it’s simply worth pausing to consider what it does to your child to place them in a pseudo-environment of racial sameness. i’m not assuming what your family’s educational priorities ought to be, but at minimum, i hope this whole conversation has given people an opportunity (including myself) to have a serious time of reflection on the long-term effects of our children’s social/racial/cultural educational environment.

maybe we get it right. maybe we get it wrong. but at least we’ve engaged in serious and substantive reflection.

5 Comments

  1. Amy B. says:

    This did make me do lots of thinking this weekend. And with all that thinking, I reaffirmed that I am proud of my decision to do right by my children. I reaffirmed that I despise self-congratulatory behavior. That I will not pander to other people's beliefs of what makes a "good liberal" or "good parent."

    The other thing I realized is that nothing is black or white (no pun intended), there are always shades of gray, and I would never presume to pass judgment on other parents without understanding their family dynamics or their personal needs. Even something as simple as a work schedule can dictate where a child is or is not able to go to school.

    Maybe we get it right. Maybe we get it wrong. Bullshit. There is no right or wrong. Maybe we're all just trying to do the best we can in a tough world, and the last thing we need is people telling us that if we don't send our kids to J.A. Fair or McClellan, then we're raising little klansmen.

    And if all of that makes me "racist" or "pro-segregationist," so be it. I'll wear that label, because I'm nothing if not forthright and willing to stand by my decisions. Thankfully, anyone who knows me knows better, and those who matter to me aren't so small-minded and judgmental as to think that my choice of school defines me in that way.

    OK, I'm done with my rant. I'm off to listen to "Common People" by Pulp. That song has more insight than some facts and figures ever will.

  2. kinkymonday says:

    I felt really compelled to comment on this one even though I'm probably putting myself out there for some major backlash. First let me say that I'm proud of you for making such a bold and unfortunately, truthful statement. I also will agree with Amy's statement that there probably is no right or wrong answer. All of us are trying to do what we think is best for our children. Having said that, I think school choice perpetuates the problem. I hate that I have to be a part of it.
    My daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and what is a time filled with excitement for her is one of great anxiety for me. I live in a neighborhood where white people are the minority. In fact, in my neighborhood school there were only two white kindergartners enrolled last year and they were both boys. I am admittedly apprehensive about sending my daughter to this school, mainly because the school doesn't have a very good performance history, but also because I don't want her to be singled out. It's a big point of contention in my household now because my husband (who is bi-racial) thinks I'm on the slippery slope of racism. I, of course, think that is ridiculous. My husband is bi-racial, my stepfather is black; I feel pretty darn comfortable around the African American race. Honestly, I wouldn't want my daughter to go to an all white school either because I think it's important for her to be in a racially diverse community. However, I can't justify putting my daughter in a school that doesn't perform well on tests, where I think she won't be challenged, simply to prove that I'm on the up and up. Honestly, I can't afford to send her to a private school so I am exploring my options with charter schools. I would be interested in seeing the numbers on those, because I believe it would look a lot more like the public school numbers. The truth is, my daughter is going to make friends wherever she is, but I can't let her education suffer to prove a point.

  3. Hardin says:

    I have appreciated reading the blog post and Amy's response. I can say that I agree with a lot of both.

    I should say for the record that my wife and I have no intention of sending our son to a private school, despite the fact that we can afford it. I am a believer in public schools and we have made the decision that he will learn invaluable lessons about life, the world and socio-economic status in public schools that he simply won't learn in a private school.

    Despite my staunch belief that race is not at all a motivating factor for many who choose a private school, based on the objective numbers Ryan posted segregated learning is the end result.

    However, I completely agree with Amy that it's not black and white. This is an intensely personal decision and I cast no judgement on anyone for whatever they choose. Education choices in some way remind me of the whole breast feeding debate, where people on both sides dig their heels in and (understandably) take things very personally.

    Perhaps I'm a bit of a hypocrite though, if I'm just being honest. If we were to stay in Little Rock for all of Cash's school years, he'd go to Central. Based on academic achievement alone, there's not a high school in the state, public or private, that's as good as that school. Plus the racial and socio-economic diversity? It's the best high school in the state and one of the best in the country, so it's a no-brainer for me.

    But, if we were in another district where he would go to a grossly underachieving school (magnet system aside) we might have a different viewpoint. I don't know. It would be my duty as a parent to consider all alternatives, including private school, if I were convinced that he would be in an environment in which he would be at some sort of educational disadvantage.

    The point is that parenting is hard as hell. Amy is right that we're doing the best we can. And Ryan is right that in the end maybe we make the right choices and maybe we make the wrong ones.

    My hope is that when the rubber meets the road we can all encourage each other as parents along the way.

  4. k-man says:

    If you are white in Little Rock and choose a private school, you may not be pursuing segregation on purpose. But (I believe) you are missing an opportunity to participate in the slow march of history to a better place.

    That being said, Hardin has exposed my hypocrisy (Thanks!). We can't afford private, and intentionally moved to a safe neighborhood that feeds to Jefferson, PHMS & Central. If these weren't good schools, I can't say for sure what we'd do.

  5. Kyran says:

    I'm just happy when people in this country are having this conversation, period. We had it in our home when deciding whether we could, in good conscience, send our firstborn to one of this city's most exclusive private schools on an offered scholarship.

    I, who had grown up white, intellectual, liberal, was hung up on racial demographics. My husband, who had grown up in southwest Little Rock trailer parks in the bussing era, was not.

    After endless angst-ing, we realized that his so-called "integrated" education had exposed him to many more negative stereotypes than mine. And that ultimately, the values taught at home spoke volumes more than those we learned at school.

    We later switched from our very exclusive, subsidized private school to a wonderfully diverse neighborhood public school. I wish every neighborhood had one like it. Unfortunately, they don't, and I wouldn't ask a single family to sacrifice their child's education on the altar of political correctness.

    There are many kinds of diversity. It never ceases to amaze me how reductive my adoptive country is, in terms of always seeing it as black or white.

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