Narratives of racial segregation in private and public schools in the South

A larger story about segregated schools in the South contains this bit about the competing narratives behind the more white private schools and the more non-white public schools:

According to one narrative, white leaders and residents starved the public schools of necessary resources after decamping for the academy, an institution perpetuated by racism. According to the opposing narrative, malfeasance and inept leadership contributed to the downfall of the public schools, whose continued failings keep the academy system alive.Hury Minniefield is a purveyor of the former narrative. He was one of the first black students to integrate the town’s public schools in 1967 through a voluntary — and extremely limited — desegregation program. He and his two younger brothers spent a single academic year at one of the town’s white schools. “Because the blacks were so few in number, we didn’t interfere with the white students too much and never did hear the ‘n word’ too much,” he said.

Despite his unique personal history, Minniefield does not believe the schools in Indianola will ever truly integrate. “It has not been achieved and it will likely never be achieved,” he said. “It’s because of the mental resistance of Caucasians against integrating with blacks. … Until the white race can see their former slaves as equals, it will not happen.”

Steve Rosenthal, the mayor, takes a different view. He argues that many white families have no problem sending their children to school with black students, but choose Indianola Academy because the public schools are inferior. His two children, both in their 20s, graduated from the academy, where he believes they received a strong education. “I would not have had a problem sending them to public schools had the quality been what I wanted,” he said, adding a few minutes later, “If there’s mistrust, it’s the black community toward the whites.”…

Students tend to offer the most nuanced perspective on why wholesale segregation endures. “It’s because of both races,” said Brown. “No one wants to break that boundary or cross that line. Both sides are afraid.”

And this is tied to larger concerns about segregation in schools throughout the country:

As the Atlantic reported last week, throughout the country, public schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the late 1960s when Indianola Academy opened. In many areas, they are rapidly resegregating as federal desegregation orders end. White families continue to flee schools following large influxes of poor or minority students. And in Indianola, as in the rest of the country, there’s stark disagreement as to why: Whites often cite concerns over school quality, while blacks are more likely to cite the persistence of racism.

As an urban sociologist, I can’t help but think that residential segregation plays into these issues across the country. Schools tend to draw kids from particular geographic areas and people are pushed into and also choose to live in particular places. Whites tend to want to live with other whites while other racial and ethnic groups have higher tolerances for mixed-race neighborhoods. One attempt to rectify this decades ago was busing students to different schools, something my current students tend to recognize best only when I mention the movie Remember the Titans.

But this may not explain all of the story. One way to segregated public schools is to have segregated neighborhoods. Another way is to simply opt out of the public school system. While the narrative about this decision involves a better educational opportunity or having children in a school with particular values, it is still tied to issues of race and social class.

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