Race and the Schools: A Crisis North and South

In her speaking and writing, in her leslimony before congressional committees, and in her unflagging zeal for the improvement of the American community, AGNES E. MEYER has come to be recognized as a forthright and trusted authority on our public schools. The idealism which fires this article of hers will be found in two of her recent books, her autobiography, OUT OF THESE ROOTS,and her searching philosophical essay, EDUCATION FOR A NEW MORALITY.


Race and the Schools:A Crisis North and South


THE greatest single reward I have had as a result of my long and continuous efforts on behalf of our Negro fellow citizens is that we tell one another the truth — a rare achievement between the two races. Just after World War II, I was dining with seven members of the faculty at one of our Negro universities. In the course of conversation a young instructor said to me: “Mrs. Meyer, after Pearl Harbor I couldn’t help feeling a secret exultation that a colored race had clobbered the white man.” “My friend,” I replied, “never forget that despite failures and injustices, Americans have done more for the Negro than any other nation on the face of the globe. We fought a civil war to establish his freedom. Since then thousands of whites in high and low positions have exhibited an interest in the Negro’s welfare and development never before, shown by a dominant race. On the whole the treatment of the Negro in America constitutes not an indictment but one of the greatest achievements of a democratic nation.”

Now that the antics of Governor Faubus are being used as anti-American propaganda throughout the world, it behooves us to remember this long record. The desegregation of our public schools is a major social revolution. And when have vast social changes ever taken place without creating some regrettable manifestations of resistance? Instead of lamenting over Little Rock, we should emphasize that in the Border States from Maryland to west Texas more than 350,000 Negro children who formerly went to segregated schools have already entered mixed classes.

This is a good beginning. But I am deeply concerned that so few people recognize the extent to which the burden of guiding this major revolution is being thrown upon school boards, administrators, and teachers unprepared for so gigantic a task of social engineering. All this at a time when our schools are already bulging with pupils and our overworked and underpaid teachers are struggling to maintain educational standards in badly equipped schools. Ill-considered, hasty attempts at integration, especially when carried out in impoverished and overcrowded schools, instead of furthering the education of the Negro will surely result in the retardation of all students, white and Negro, and increase rather than alleviate racial tensions.

Before our emotions became overwrought, we were committed to the expansion and improvement of our public schools as educational institutions where the young can learn to live together not as blacks and whites but as American citizens. This is still our first objective. The education of the white child must not be sacrificed for the Negro, nor that of the Negro for the white, or both races will lose and the future of our nation be imperiled.

I shall not argue the right or wrong of a question to which a democratic people can make but one answer. Instead I shall make a plea both to Northerners and Southerners and especially to Negro leaders for moderation in their attitudes toward this difficult problem and in the interpretation of those words, “deliberate speed.” The chief responsibility for leadership is still that of the white population. And the Negro should realize, now that the power of the law supports his demands, that he is no longer in the position of an aggressor but of a partner in its orderly implementation.

EXHBIT NO. 1 of the disastrous effect of trying to do too much too soon is the report of the Commission on Integration accepted by the Board of Education of New York City. Its provisions have been worked out with complete disregard of the effect they would have upon the learning process and the orderly administration of the schools.

The racial situation is complicated in the borough of Manhattan by the fact that 34.5 per cent of its school children are Negroes, 32 per cent Puerto Ricans, and 33.5 per cent others, most of them white. The Subcommittee on Zoning demands that the effects of the segregated residence pattern be mitigated by establishing the objective of racial integration as a cardinal principle of school zoning. Geographical districts must be ignored and “a clear, positive zoning policy” established “to promote racially balanced schools.” It specifies in the paragraphs on high schools that every school ought to reflect the overall school population. In other words, every school in Manhattan should be one-third Negro, one-third Puerto Rican, and one-third white. As more Negroes and Puerto Ricans are pouring into New York every month, both groups would soon predominate over whites in every school.

One gets the impression from this report that the minority group of white children exists only as pawns to achieve what are called “ethnically balanced schools.” The schools in Harlem, where the majority of Negroes and Puerto Ricans live, would have empty desks unless white children from distant areas were transported to them. Not only would free bus transportation become an excessive economic burden absorbing funds sorely needed for educational purposes; this merry-goround of pupil assignment would create administrative havoc, and the business of learning would become secondary to the use of the schools as social laboratories. The chief function of the elementary school as a community-related institution would go out the window. A school district must be a natural neighborhood if the educational process is to reach the child’s home. But Edward S. Lewis, executive director of the Urban League, stated that “it is much more important that children go to integrated schools than that the school be conveniently located,” and added that “the neighborhood school idea was being used to camouflage the real issue and need.”

In the periphery of concentrated Negro or Puerto Rican areas, whether in Manhattan, Bronx, or Brooklyn, reshuffling of the school population presents few difficulties. In these school districts, Superintendent of Schools William Jansen has announced the desegregation of 5000 pupils. This has steadily been going on in New York. It is an endless process of readjustment in any large city with heavy Negro concentrations and the steady migration such as is taking place in many of our Northern cities.

It is unjust that the Negroes and Puerto Ricans should be crowded into segregated housing areas. They should be free to live where they can afford to live. But this will take time. To rely upon the schools alone to compensate for this deplorable situation is “impractical, unrealistic and bureaucratic,” as the subcommittee report on community relations has the common sense to state. If administrative chaos reigns in the public schools, the education of all children is hampered. The best that can be done to desegregate elementary schools in several Harlem districts is to allow white teachers to teach in Negro schools and the displaced Negro teachers to teach in predominantly white schools. This has in fact been the practice in New York for many years. In other cities with large Negro populations, a firm policy of zoning which allows as much integration as possible on the fringe areas and permits transfers to other schools in all cases of hardship has been accepted without conflict. In Washington, D.C., in Louisville, in St. Louis, in Baltimore — where desegregation has been carried out firmly and peacefully — there are segregated schools in the midst of segregated housing areas. The extremists among the Negro leaders have expressed dissatisfaction, but the majority of Negro parents acquiesce to the inevitable. Nothing is more disastrous to good race relations in these difficult situations than the conflict between theory and practice which is going on in New York City.

To be sure, most New Yorkers discount the commission’s report. They maintain that it will not and cannot be fully implemented. Yet it has had wide publicity, which encouraged Negro and Puerto Rican parents to think that complete integration of the New York City public school system would begin this autumn. When they realized that their hopes were without foundation, about one hundred Negro and Puerto Rican parents expressed their disappointment by picketing near City Hall and demanding that the recommendations of the Board of Education’s Commission on Integration be carried out at once.

The New York courts will soon be confronted with this problem. Two cases are before them in which Negro parents from Harlem are suing for the right to send their children to white schools in other areas on the theory that the Supreme Court has pronounced all segregation as unconstitutional. If Negro children are granted the right to go to any school of their choice, the same right must be allowed white children. The pandemonium that would then ensue in a school population of nearly a million students would defy the administrative capabilities of any superintendent of schools.

THAT the political pressure of a large Negro vote has influenced the decisions of the New York Commission on Integration is indicated throughout its reports. Nowhere is it more evident than in the discussion by the Subcommittee on Zoning of New York City’s fine specialized high schools, which require stiff examinations for admission. At least two of these schools, the Music and Art High School and the Bronx Science High School, have earned a nationwide reputation. All of them have some Negro students but not enough to meet the new requirements of the Zoning Committee that “each high school population should reasonably reflect the ethnic make-up of the over-all High School population.” So the committee suggests that “present admission requirements be studied with a view to determining a method to identify potentially able students who have been environmentally disadvantaged.” In a footnote it adds that “program adjustment may be necessary for integration.” In other words, the special examinations for these superior high schools are to be circumvented and the curriculum adjusted for badly prepared Negroes and Puerto Ricans, although thousands of “environmentally handicapped” white children who could not pass the examinations have been refused admittance. Breaking down the standards of these high schools would deprive the bright Negroes who now go to them, as well as the white children, of an education worthy of their capacities.

In short, educational standards are of no concern to this Commission on Integration. Now is the time, says the report, to concentrate on racial problems. For example, the report on “Guidance, Educational Stimulation and Placement” points out, quite rightly, that a greatly increased budget is needed for specialized guidance services in all the elementary schools. This subcommittee concedes that such services are just as much needed in poor white areas as in Harlem but adds that “the Commission’s primary responsibility is confined to Negro and Puerto Rican children.” Since most of the white children in Manhattan’s public schools belong to low-income groups, the neglect of their needs in favor of non-white children is bound to intensify racial problems.

Teachers also are to be “zoned.” They are “to teach where they are needed.” This means they can be forced to accept positions in difficult or problem schools in what are described as “high hazard environments.” It gives every principal the means for ridding himself of any teacher he happens to dislike. According to the New York Teachers Guild, several principals this autumn did not hesitate to make use of these coercive powers given them by the Commission on Integration. Had the report of the commission suggested higher salaries for teachers who volunteer for difficult schools, coercion could have been avoided. But the morale of the teaching staff was given no more consideration in the report than the rights of the white students who are to be pushed around arbitrarily to suit the commission’s purposes. If the plan for racial zoning goes through to shunt students all over the city by bus, the arbitrary transfer of teachers won’t be necessary. Instead of a few difficult schools, they will all be difficult, and the teachers might as well be left where they are.

Because the whole problem of desegregation of New York City’s schools has become an important political issue, it is impossible to foresee what may happen. Political leaders of the Northern Negro should make every effort to keep the desegregation problem out of politics. If they use their political power to overaccelerate desegregation regardless of the effect upon the schools, they will injure their cause and hamper the education of their own children as well as that of the whites. As one who has a long record of battles for equal rights for the Negro, I cannot be suspected of intolerance if I argue for an approach to the desegregation of schools in our big Northern cities that will not create havoc with their primary function of education. Whether in the North or the South, we must not allow the process of desegregation to wreck our public school system.

IF MODERATION is essential to successful desegregation of our schools in many Northern cities, it is no less imperative in working out the far more difficult problems which confront the school boards and school administrators in the South. Even if the question were not heavily laden with emotional overtones, it would tax the imagination of the wisest school administrator to work out a successful plan of integration for rural counties along the Atlantic seaboard, or in the Mississippi delta where the Negro population often exceeds that of the whites by a ratio of three or four to one. Moreover in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana the education of the Negro has been so shamefully neglected in many rural areas for generations that new teaching methods must be devised before these backward Negro children can receive the kind of education they need without sacrificing the progress of the small minority of white children.

One Southern school superintendent states the problem this way: “Wherever the Negro is in the vast majority, a longer preparation of the community, of the teachers, and of the curriculum is necessary if desegregation is to be successful.”

Even in the Border States, where the Negro population is not proportionately as heavy, the school superintendents had to proceed slowly. In the city of Louisville, for example, desegregation proceeded peacefully as a result of years of careful preparation, during which a favorable community climate was created. The problem was defined, studied, and discussed within the schools and with the numerous local agencies and institutions. Furthermore, Kentucky, though a Southern state, has a long tradition of toleration. Its university has been a forerunner in the field of integration in the Southern region. The University of Louisville also set an example of tolerance when it absorbed the two hundred and seventy students of a small Negro college without difficulty.

But chiefly the successful beginning in the Louisville public school system was due to the foresight of Superintendent of Schools Omer Carmichael. He “stuck out his neck,” according to local residents, in a statement which anticipated the Supreme Court’s action; he warned that compliance would take from two to five years to be effective and stressed his readiness to accept it as the law of the land. With this well-timed pronouncement, he enlisted the support of all likeminded citizens and crystallized the opinion of the timid and the wavering.

THAT foresight and careful preparation can result in successful planning even when the Negro pupils constitute a large majority has been demonstrated by school administrators in Washington, D.C. In this city 70 per cent of the student body are Negroes, many of them from superior homes. The school boundaries were redrawn, not as in New York by a separate commission, but by the school principals, both Negro and white, who worked together for the first time with professional objectivity despite a certain amount of race consciousness. A school system which in 1950 would not allow a Negro actor to appear before a white high school assembly, opened its schools in 1954 with Negro and white pupils attending classes together in 73 per cent of the schools, and white and Negro teachers instructing classes in 37 per cent of the schools. There were no serious difficulties. Transfers outside of the child’s school district were permitted only in cases of real hardships, mostly of an emotional nature. Despite difficulties of personal adjustment experienced by many parents, pupils, teachers, and officers during the transition period, they rose above their fears and prejudices to do a much better job than they thought they could.

The assimilation of such a large proportion of Negro students without retarding the education of the white children was no easy task. A majority of Negro children on the average are poorer, less well housed, and less healthy than the whites; they lag from two to three years behind white children in scholastic achievement. As the Negro has always suffered from socio-economic and cultural deprivations, these facts do not prove racial inferiority. Yet as facts they must be faced. We cannot ignore the difference in the social backgrounds of the two races, if the schools are to teach children according to their needs and abilities.

Thus the school authorities, with the approval of the biracial Board of Education, have worked out a homogeneous grouping at all levels, in order to reduce the range of differences in each class. For the senior high schools this has resulted in a foursequence curriculum or a four-track system, as it is popularly called. It provides an honors curriculum for the most gifted students, a regular preparatory and a general curriculum for the second and third groups, and basic studies in reading, writing, arithmetic, and social studies for the slow learners. This plan helps the academically retarded children, whether black or white, to catch up while protecting the scholastic needs of the brighter children of both races. Children in all groups have made remarkable progress as a result of individual instruction in remedial and developmental reading. As the gap between the brightest and the dullest children is just as wide among white children, even though more of them can qualify for the “honors” and college preparatory groups, this is the kind of plan which our educators should have devised long ago, not merely to achieve the utmost development of the gifted, but to give each child the kind of education best suited to his capacities. To condemn such homogeneous grouping as undemocratic is sheer nonsense, since it provides genuine equality of opportunity. As the Negro children predominate in the group containing the slowest learners in the Washington schools, some Negro leaders objected to the fourtrack system as “resegregation.” Yet the progress made by their children has reconciled most of the Negro parents.

That problems of social adjustment in the Washington schools are varied and serious, there is no doubt. But these do not fall within the scope of this article.

PERHAPS the greatest danger to the public school system is the legislation passed in four states, Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, to close the schools rather than allow one Negro child to enter a white school. Even the White Citizens Councils might hesitate to support such a radical proposal if they realized that it would not only jeopardize the agricultural and industrial future of their states but could weaken the nation’s economy and our military defense.

The public school has always been the mainstay of our social and industrial fabric. But today it has an increased and vital importance in our complex, interrelated technological society, due to our need for more and more highly trained people. Education is now the prime function of the modern state. The serious defeat we suffered when the Russians launched their satellites has belatedly awakened us to this elementary truth.

For the first time in our history we are running short not only of scientists, engineers, and technologists but of the brain power required to maintain and develop our massive and infinitely complex industrial organization. We need this educated man power, and the source of supply begins in the public schools! The colleges and universities, with the help of our progressive industrialists, are now doing their utmost to make up the deficit, but we cannot educate enough trained people by a crash program at the college level. Due to the neglect and impoverishment of our public school system, the nation, it is estimated, still plows under something like one half of its latent talent and potential leadership.

And yet in the face of this dire need, four Southern governors seriously contemplate closing the public schools rather than accept desegregation! The mere possibility of such irresponsible action is already affecting the schools in many Southern communities. The best teachers, both white and Negro, are being frightened away. The Southern Negroes are migrating to the North and West in ever greater numbers, especially from the agricultural areas. The South is even now importing skilled workers from the North. Unless it improves its public school system and gives both Negroes and whites the same opportunity to develop their abilities and personalities, the South will retard the industrial development which has given it such prosperity since World War II.

Education is a continuous process. It cannot be turned off and on like a water faucet. The public school system took more than a century to build, but it could be ruined in a short time. Its interruption even in four states would create a cultural gap that could not be repaired for years. The effects of mass migrations from the South to other sections of the country would create a multitude of problems impossible to foresee in their full dimensions. But this much is clear. The whole nation, involved in domestic turmoil, would be vulnerable to the “peaceful victory” which the Russians anticipate.

Where political and business leaders understand the relationship of education to industrial production, desegregation is being accomplished without opposition. In West Virginia, for example, there has been no friction. It is significant that Little Rock’s substantial citizens — its bankers, industrialists, and its liberal political leaders like Congressman Brooks Hays — did their best to avoid racial tensions which would make Northern businessmen reluctant to risk more capital investments in their city and state. Such leaders are aware that gradual but steady desegregation will be conducive to prosperity not only for the South but for the nation. They can surely enlist the support of “the silent South,” those who are opposed to desegregation in principle but are opposed to violence and mob rule. They can also win the support of the Southern working people who do not favor integrated schools but would not be willing to sacrifice their constantly improving living standards.

CAN it be done? Can we absorb millions of Negro children, many of them retarded, into our schools and at the same time improve the educational process for both races? Only if the American conscience is aroused and responds to the enormity of the problem. Large amounts of money will be needed by the states and communities to make a success of integration: We shall need more classrooms, smaller classes wherever possible, better school equipment, health programs, and auxiliary services, more and better-trained teachers, and psychiatric consultants and guidance experts aware of the stresses and strains to which the children, their parents, and the teachers themselves are exposed, especially during the transition period.

Skilled personnel in such numbers obviously cannot be produced overnight. The size of the problem that confronts us is alarming, and its very complexity tells us that progress is bound to be slow, especially in the plantation states of the South and in our big Northern cities where the Negro population is heaviest.

In the underprivileged communities, the school program will have to be supplemented by recreational facilities, especially for teen-agers, where Negroes and whites can learn to play together and by closer coöperation between the schools and the homes through a staff of visiting teachers. For the child’s environment is far more educational than the school, as our rates of crime and delinquency have long demonstrated. Actually one of the most valuable by-products of desegregation will be the revelation of our unrealized, unmet educational needs. As these inadequacies are uncovered, it is to be hoped that community pressure will result not only in greater local and state tax support but in strong political pressure for federal aid to our public schools.

THERE are certain aspects of desegregation which we must all keep in mind.

Free and honest discussion between Negro and white community leaders has become more, rather than less, difficult, especially in the South, because the races have temporarily been drawn farther apart as a result of turbulence and conflict. It would be well, therefore, if the Northern people would concentrate on their own serious problems of desegregation instead of pointing the finger of scorn. It is hypocritical to pretend that racial intolerance is confined to the South, or that the North’s part in this mighty experiment is less difficult. The self-righteousness of Northern liberals is just so much added fuel to the fires of Southern intolerance.

The calm deliberation of Negro leadership is urgently needed at this critical juncture when the emotional situation could improve or degenerate so rapidly. In several conversations with Negro intellectuals and officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, I had the impression that the Negro leaders themselves cannot agree on what they wish to achieve. In one Southern city which had done an admirable job of desegregation, even to the point of granting all students complete freedom of choice as to which school they preferred to attend, none of the local Negro leaders was satisfied with the “permissiveness,” as it is called, although the Negro parents were contented. All the leaders were critical of the Negro teachers who urged their pupils, especially the bright ones and the good athletes, to remain in the Negro schools. Another disappointment to these Negro leaders was the fact that numerous Negro children after attending the white schools for a year chose to return to their segregated schools. In other words the permissiveness for which the Negroes are fighting in New York City is anathema to the Negro leaders in cities that have adopted it. After one such lengthy discussion, in which I was the only white person, I said: “If God Almighty came down from heaven to do this desegregation job none of you would be satisfied with it.” My friends laughed heartily and agreed.

I believe that the Negro leaders who are pressing for immediate and radical desegregation are too unaware of its effects upon the schools and of the tensions to which it exposes the Negro child. They are too indifferent to the human problem involved. If retarded Negro children are demoted when they are transferred to a white school, this has a discouraging effect. If they are not demoted, many Negro children leave the white schools when they find they cannot keep up with their age group. Even under the most favorable conditions, such as those I have described in Louisville and Washington, the pressure on the Negro child confronted for the first time with a strange environment, higher achievement standards, and new social or cultural values is hard to bear for all but the most courageous and talented.

The teachers and the Negro parents are keenly aware of these psychological problems, but the leaders of the NAACP ignore them in deciding their policies. If the interests of the Negro child were more of an influence on these leaders, they would not persist in aggressive tactics in Southern counties where the predominance of Negro population makes the task of desegregation an extremely difficult social, psychological, and educational problem.

The words “deliberate speed” clearly indicate that the Supreme Court Justices did not insist upon immediate, drastic enforcement of their decision. These words are the equivalent of the Roman adage festina lente, make haste slowly. In a democracy, sound progress has never come about in any other way.