Like most segregated black schools at the time, conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School were deplorable — the small brick school building, erected not two decades earlier to house 180 students, was serving upward of 450 all-black pupils by 1951. And if the physical conditions were bleak — students were reported to have used umbrellas indoors to avoid the deluge of rainwater that routinely fell from the porous roof — the educational resources were no better, with Moton’s science classes lacking even a single microscope for student use.
The NAACP had decided it would no longer devote legal resources toward ensuring compliance with Plessy’s infamous “separate but equal” standard, instead resolving to challenge de jure segregation in public education as such. The group thought the conditions at Moton would force systemic reform if taken to court, but would only take them to court with the consent of the student body. The all-black student body that year voted on the question: Would they fight for racial integration in a protracted court battle, or eschew the aid of the NAACP altogether and pursue equitable funding while remaining segregated? The proposal to pursue integration won — but only by a single vote.
More than fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Left has yet to make up its mind on the question of integration. Voices ranging from New York mayor Bill de Blasio to The Atlantic writer Jemele Hill have proposed radical changes to the way we approach the integration of our educational institutions, long considered to be a signature achievement of the civil-rights movement.
Bill de Blasio is weighing a proposal to halt most admissions to the city’s various “gifted and talented” programs, from specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant to special educational opportunities in ordinary public schools. A disproportionate number of Asian and white students are enrolled in gifted programs — the two groups accounted for 75 percent of enrollees last year — which, some say, creates a regime of de facto segregation in public schools. Maintaining strict racial quotas in public education is of such importance to the de Blasio administration that the mayor is earnestly considering removing race-blind programs that, at their best, are avenues to upward mobility for some of the poorest students in the state.
This is in stark contrast to Jemele Hill, who — though focusing on collegiate rather than elementary or secondary education — encourages black student-athletes to voluntarily segregate themselves at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Her latest piece in The Atlantic, “It’s Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges,” decries “the flight of black athletes to majority-white colleges,” a process that she insists “has been devastating to HBCUs.” That much is obvious, or at least should be so — as integration continues, racially homogeneous schools will inevitably decline. Hill’s critique is redolent of ones levied by W. E .B. DuBois around the time of Brown v. Board of Education; DuBois questioned the Warren court’s insistence that racial separatism in education necessarily fostered feelings of inferiority, highlighting the important role played by black-only public schools in black communities.
Hill relates how, in some cases, “black students feel safer, both physically and emotionally, on an HBCU campus,” and insists that, as currently constructed, “Black athletes have attracted money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them.” What if a movement began to, in effect, embrace de facto re-segregation?
“What if a group of elite athletes collectively made the choice to attend HBCUs?”
Intentionally sequestering many of the best black athletes and creating racialized sporting events would sow division — division that Hill and others doubtless feel already exists, on some more clandestine and metaphysical level. And perhaps the division is itself the point: If a mostly white Alabama football team were to play an all-black Grambling State team in the national championship, one can imagine the inevitable Ta-Nehisi Coates column remarking upon the latent symbolism in a crowd of mostly white Alabamians cheering for their mostly white college-football team against the “black bodies” playing for Grambling.
Racial integration was what the NAACP sought when it took the case of Moton High School. Many students within the school voted against integration, highlighting how polarizing the issue was at the time. So it remains: Bill de Blasio and Jemele Hill are both deeply involved and invested in racial questions, ones that can often veer into the realm of the abstract and incorporeal as slavery and Jim Crow recede further into the rearview mirror. Lives — from a poor Asian student who qualifies for a gifted program in New York City, to the black collegiate athlete who Hill claims is being exploited to “to make white folks rich” — will turn on the answer to the thorny question: Does the Left want integration, or not?