Race is the least of the problems

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The people of Mississippi have not been angels. The history of the Magnolia State and segregation invites the kind of scrutiny and criticism that has recently been visited upon the state. Media reports that the Walthall County School District has been ordered to stop segregating its schools raised the ire of most Americans because it was a reminder of a particularly ugly moment in this nation’s history—a history that Americans have no desire to repeat.

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Still it stretches the limits of credulity when a school that is 66 percent White and 35 percent Black is labeled a “racially identifiable ‘White’” school and the county supporting the school is depicted as filled with a bunch of ugly racists just itching to don the bed sheets and ride through the night terrorizing the countryside. Yet, that is exactly the case in Walthall County, Mississippi.

Walthall County is a rural community of about 15,000 people—54 percent of whom are White, 45 percent of whom are Black. The school district services a total of 2,500 students. At issue are Tylertown, which sits in a predominately Black community and has a Black enrollment of 75 percent, and Salem Attendance Academy, the “racially identifiable White school.”

Over the years the school district has allowed hundreds of White students to transfer out of Tylertown and into Salem resulting in race ratios the U.S. Justice Department finds unacceptable. In a written statement, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, said, “It is unacceptable for school districts to act in a way that encourages or tolerates the resegregation of public schools…” (It should be noted that the school district also allowed many Black students to transfer from Tylertown to Salem and, while the media accounts do not say, the numbers seem to suggest that a large number of Black students also transferred from Salem to Tylertown.)

Mr. Perez is legitimately concerned that if left unchecked the schools in Mississippi may slide back into separate and unequal institutions; kind of like schools in Detroit, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, (and other places).

In our haste to announce ourselves morally superior to those “rednecks” in Mississippi, we have rushed past a few facts, which also conveniently allow us to skirt some uncomfortable questions.

The Walthall School District is not preventing any student—Black or White—from attending either school. The district is not segregating the students; rather they are allowing parents to choose where they would like to educate their children and the people are making decisions that they deem to be in their best interests. To the extent that there is segregation it is a result of choices made freely. No doubt this is why the Supreme Court held in Green v County School Board that freedom of choice is not an effective method to desegregate schools. People tend not to willingly follow a bureaucrat’s carefully crafted race ratios. Here in southern California I have been afforded the right to send my children to any number of schools within Los Angeles, no matter that they fall out of my residential district. I am concerned when other parents are denied that same right regardless of whether or not I agree with their rationale. “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls…”

If all children in the district are free to attend whatever school they want, providing there is room, what is the state’s compelling interest in usurping the freedom of parents to choose where to educate their children? The reason is the stigma attached to Black schools. Salem is not really the problem. There are schools all over the country that can’t claim as diverse a student body as Salem. The real concern is the increasing number of Black students at Tylertown and the subsequent death of the school once it becomes known as a Black school.

Black schools are generally viewed as bastions of dysfunction, violence and academic mediocrity. In addition, much of the research being produced by social scientists regarding the racial achievement gap purports to show that academic deficiency among Black students is exacerbated by racial segregation. Columbia University researchers Douglas Ready and Megan Silander have determined that attendance at a minority segregated school contributes to the racial achievement gap for elementary school students. The study concludes that these gaps “may result in the loss of more than a year’s worth of cognitive development for Black students attending a high minority school.”

I remain unconvinced that sitting next to White children is necessary in order for Black students to be academically competitive. However, if in fact the research is true, why would any parent want to send his/her child to a Black school? The answer is that a whole lot of American parents do not.

Americans living in glass houses throw stones at Mississippi parents for transferring their children to a “White school.” Yet the decisions of these southern parents put them in the good company of parents—both Black and White—from San Francisco to Stamford. Cynics among us would point out that the current occupant of the White House is one of those parents. While residents of Chicago, the Obama’s enrolled their children in a school with only a 12 percent Black enrollment and a 70 percent White enrollment. The Obamas found a Black church; no doubt if they had wanted to they could have found an all Black school for their children to attend.

Finally, (file this under the heading of “misplaced priorities”), according to “the Children First Annual Report” of the five schools in the district, one of them is failing and four are in danger of failing. I would submit that race is the least of the problems in Walthall County.

(Joseph C. Phillips is author of “He Talk Like a White Boy” available where books are sold.)

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