Class-Based Integration

So, hope everyone checked out Emily Bazelon's piece in the Times Magazine on Sunday discussing the merits of class-based integration. As it turns out, putting there's sort of an event horizon for schools in which too many poor kids basically make the school unmanageable. Emily highlights the very interesting case of a North Carolina school district where class-based integration has been a terrific boon for black kids:

Wake County adopted class-based integration with the hard-nosed goal of raising test scores. The strategy was simple: no poor schools, no bad schools. And indeed, the district has posted striking improvements in the test scores of black and low-income students: in 1995, only 40 percent of the black students in Wake County in the third through eighth grades scored at grade level in state reading tests; by last year, the rate had almost doubled, to 82.5 percent. Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much. Wake County’s numbers improve as students get older: 92 percent of all eighth graders read at or above grade level, including about 85 percent of black students and about 80 percent of low-income students. (Math scores are lower, following a statewide trend that reflects a change in the grading scale.) The district has achieved these results even as the share of low-income students over all has increased from about 30 percent a decade ago to about 40 percent today.

Matt, Kevin and Richard Kahlenberg are debating over whether a solution like this could be applied nationally. The consensus being basically, no, because we aren't going to blow up the system of school districts in this country. But to my mind, the piece helps us get out from under the cloud of pessimism that follows any conversation about the gap in test-scores. 

But there is something else at work here.  Her research on class and achievement is helpful because it really shows (to me) that the problem of America's racist past is that it basically affected a massive wealth-transfer out of black communities. More than that, I like Emily's piece because it exposes the lie that racial inequality is completely intractable. But that's never really been true. There are two questions here--how are we going to fix the race chasm, and how far are we really willing to go to do it? People like to focus on the former, because the truly frightening one is the latter. We're forever trying to achieve equality by not negatively impacting white people. You can look back at the War on Poverty and see how desperate folks were to make it look color-blind. How'd that work out? I think one of the reasons Affirmative Action was extended to basically everyone but white males, was likely, so it wouldn't be reparations. Ironically, class-based integration uses the same logic. I'm a fan because I believe in it on principle. But the politics of it seem to be captive to ancient formulations: Despite the fact that slavery and Jim Crow crippled black folks, we want to heal those wounds by inconviencing white people as little as possible. It's been this way since Reconstruction. If I'm pessimistic about anything it isn't not knowing the right thing to do, it's having the will to get it done.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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