“Daddy, why aren’t people with white skin allowed to go to your school?”
So asked my then-5-year-old son, Simon, a new kindergartener in a diverse school just outside of Atlanta. He is white, like me, and his classmates come from all races and ethnicities. He knows where I teach, however — a high school in the city where all of the students are black or brown. The only person in my room who looks like him is me.
It would be simpler to lie to Simon here. You know, buddy, skin color isn’t important. People with white skin and people with dark skin are allowed to go to my school, because this is America, and the color of your skin doesn’t mean anything. It's who you are on the inside that counts.
There is just enough truth here to be tempting. After all, we are soon to see the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the case that led the Supreme Court to declare segregated education unconstitutional. However, court cases can only do so much — the school where I teach is in a hyper-segregated part of southwest Atlanta, where over 95 percent of our students are black and the rest are Hispanic. The area was an all-white suburb before Atlanta annexed it in the early 1950s, an attempt to devalue black voting power by adding white bodies. The move backfired after Brown v. Board when black families moved in and white families promptly moved out. After a short period of time as a bastion of the black middle class, the neighborhood has sunk into poverty in recent decades.
How do I explain this to Simon, the fact that large-scale neighborhood segregation too often goes hand in hand with economic deprivation. How do I tell him that it’s not that white people aren’t allowed, it’s that they are exercising their power to opt out? That Brown v. Board could only open school doors for black students, that it couldn’t keep white students from walking away? In other words, how do I explain the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow to a young child?
In the words of Leonard Cohen, “I did my best, it wasn’t much.” I’ll spare you my meager attempts.
It is tempting to relax into believing that we have made good enough progress on race. The week after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I showed a couple of political cartoons on my board as fuel for a victory-lap discussion. One of them depicted Obama scrambling up some stone steps, reaching a hand toward the top for a black man whose face is off panel. The stranger is much larger than Obama, more solid; he holds a newspaper with the headline, “I have a dream.” In class that day the cartoon felt like a valediction. In light of the subsequent decade, it has belied itself premature.
I owe it to my sons and daughter not to shy away from the difficult parts of our nation’s past. If I can’t explain how it is that black children came to be stuck at schools like mine — and rest assured that a straight line can be drawn from the decades before Brown v. Board to these still-segregated spaces — if I can’t face the fact that King’s dream is very much still in process, I will perpetuate a lie of racial inferiority that has obtained for far too long. Because what other lesson could Simon learn from an all-black school in constant threat of state takeover if I try to pretend that the playing field is somehow level?
We have come so far, yes. But we still have so far to go. We owe it to all of our children to figure out how to answer these questions, to reckon with the failure of Brown v. Board to provide integrated, high-quality education for all. We owe it to each other, to ourselves. The only way to exorcise the ghosts is to wrestle these painful truths.
Daddy, why aren’t people with white skin allowed to go to your school?
Watch out, Simon. I’m coming back for another try at a difficult conversation.