Is Commodifying Diversity a Viable Option for School Integration?

This week I had the privilege of participating on a panel about Matthew Delmont’s new book Why Busing Failed. When people think of the US Civil Rights Movement images come to mind about overtly racist Southern white people engage in violent political tactics to prevent black children from entering white schools. Though this was no doubt a vital aspect of the Movement, in this book Delmont seeks to complicate this image by looking at the key role that white communities in the North with the support of white politicians and the white-led media played in undermining integration efforts.

As a scholar who studies bilingual education in the Latinx community, I was particularly intrigued by his exploration of an alliance that developed between the black and Puerto Rican community to integrate New York City schools. In 1964, this alliance led a massive boycott of New York City schools in protest of continued segregation—a mobilization in support of school integration that has been pretty much forgotten in the history that many of us learn about the battle for school integration. He notes a primary rationale for the demise of this alliance was the Puerto Rican communities shift toward a focus on bilingual education and community control of schools.

There was certainly a tension between the goals of bilingual education, which were to instruct Latinx students bilingually, and the goals of integration which were to promote racially diverse classrooms. In many ways the goals of bilingual education were more naturally aligned with the goals of community control advocates who did not see integration as the solution to the educational challenges confronting communities of color and instead saw the solution in communities of color controlling the institutions that exist in their neighborhoods. This natural alliance is illustrated by the fact that within the context of the community control struggle in Ocean Hill-Brownville, a Puerto Rican principal of a predominately Puerto Rican school started a bilingual program.

While many white communities in the North were mobilizing in the ways documented by Delmont to prevent school integration, many of these same communities began to mobilize around dismantling bilingual education programs. Interestingly, one of the primary rationales for their objection to these programs was that they segregated students. As attacks on bilingual education became more pronounced beginning with the Regan administration some critics even accused bilingual education programs of “Balkanizing” the nation. In short, the only legitimate forms of segregation in US schools are those that serve the interests of white communities. Attempts by other communities to mold similar spaces for themselves have always been framed as a fundamental threat to the very fabric of US society.

After the systematic dismantling of bilingual education, there has now been a recent upsurge in dual language bilingual programs. Because they are open to white students, these programs have been framed as a possible path forward for integration efforts. Yet, the opening of these spaces for integration is available only because white communities have something to gain—bilingualism. That is, while bilingualism was seen as part of the balkanization of the country when it was reserved for Latinx students, bilingualism is now being reframed as a commodity that white professional parents can seek for their children to give them a leg up in the global economy. What are the consequences of relying on commodifying Latinx children in the hopes of improving educational outcomes? And what does this commodification of diversity mean for the black community that is the focus of Why Busing Failed?

In many ways, Why Busing Failed provides a compelling case of how the anti-blackness of US society is so pervasive that blackness is not commodifable for educational purposes. That is, while black culture may be commodifable, the diversity that black children bring to classrooms is not and their presence in schools cannot be used as a marketing tool for attracting white parents back to public schools. In this way, commodifying diversity for the purposes of encouraging integration will do little to address the continued segregation of the black community. One way that this can be illustrated is through the underrepresentation of black children in many of the dual language bilingual programs that are supposedly working toward integration.

And now that bilingual education has been re-framed as a tool for integration, what has happened to the community control elements of the advocacy work of the 1960s? Bilingual education is no longer framed as a political struggle but rather a choice on a menu of options on the educational marketplace. This is part of a broader discursive shift away from community control into a neoliberal framing of empowerment through school choice. In this way the burden of social change shifts away from institutions and toward individuals and segregation becomes about individual preference.

This shift toward individual responsibility has created wedges within communities of color in many urban areas. On one side you have black and Latinx advocates applying to open new charter schools to meet the needs of students of color. On the other side you have black and Latinx advocates demanding a moratorium on new charter schools because of the ways that they are undermining neighborhood schools. These two sides are fighting over the scraps that have been left to them as a consequence of neoliberal educational reform.

It would appear that attempts at integration have been politically incorporated in ways that benefit white communities. Similarly, demands for community control have been politically incorporated in ways that promote a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates existing racial inequities. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that attempts at educational reform will always be institutionalized in ways that reinforce existing racial hierarchies until we actually address the white supremacist framework that has made educational inequalities possible to begin with. What Why Busing Failed illustrates so clearly is that such an endeavor is much easier said than done.

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3 comments
  1. To your final point that we must “address the white supremacist framework that has made educational inequalities possible to begin with,” I fully agree. Though here’s the rub — I feel that such a framework can only be dismantled when white families live and work alongside other families. Marketing diversity may not be the answer — but I also don’t think this has to be viewed as a zero sum game. It’s not simply about black children in schools benefiting white children (or vice versa)–it can be viewed as a “win-win”: children are better able to assume and broaden their individual perspectives and build relationships in a manner that can benefit our society as a whole.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree with the sentiment behind integration and I certainly see why commodifying diversity might appear to be a good way to get the ball rolling. If you can’t get white people to support integration from a social justice perspective than trying to get them to support it because it is in the best interest of them and their children seems like a good first step. Hopefully, getting them into integrated schools will then lead them to support more efforts a integration. However, the rub here is that historically white resistance to integration with the black community does not leave me feeling optimistic that this is a viable strategy for attracting white families into schools with black children. I see how multilingualism has been successfully commodified in certain communities (bringing its own set of tensions) but have not seen examples of this working with the English-speaking black community. Time will tell if something changes.

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