Just how segregated are we going to allow our city schools to get?
The issue hit home after a recent viewing of HBO’s terrific miniseries “Show Me A Hero,” a true story about Yonkers’ efforts to desegregate its public housing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A federal judge ordered the city to build new public housing in white neighborhoods, and the residents in those areas responded with bitter protests. The case, and the city, became a touchstone for the issues surrounding court-mandated desegregation, then roiling the country.
While HBO’s filmmakers faithfully kept to their time period, dressing their actors in sideburns and white suits and having them drive around in super-sized sedans, the question has to be asked: How much has really changed in the last quarter century when it comes to the blending of our own city?
One side effect of New York’s gentrification is a hardening of the racial lines between neighborhoods. Hot real estate markets tend to homogenize cities, drawing together people from similar economic and social backgrounds, and pushing everyone else out.
And nowhere is the impact of that more apparent than in the racial makeup of our public schools. As our neighborhoods have become more segregated, our schools — particularly at the elementary level, which draw almost exclusively from kids who live in the surrounding neighborhood — have become much less diverse. On the Upper East Side, Upper West Side and Greenwich Village, particularly, there are public schools where the student body is 80 percent white, a five-minute subway ride away from a neighboring school where the student body is 80 percent African-American. This in a city where the combined African-American and Hispanic populations, as tracked by the Census, are bigger than the white population. As this newspaper noted in a story last year, in some of our pricier neighborhoods, it’s the private schools that have become the diversity option, given what’s happening to the local public school.
Last month, The Times chronicled rising tensions in Brooklyn over efforts to relocate students from a predominantly white elementary school in DUMBO to a nearby school that was not. Scenes from the complaining parents, in gentried Brooklyn circa 2015, would not have been out of place in the HBO miniseries set in 1987.
School officials can rightly respond that the racial makeup of the neighborhoods they pull from is out of their control. They don’t set the price of real estate. Yet this a “Tale of Two Cities” at its most fundamental level.
The federal judge in “Show Me a Hero” takes it upon himself to impose on Yonkers a solution it couldn’t come up with on its own. City leaders’ reluctance to comply nearly bankrupted the place.
Our city is heading down a similarly dangerous path. It’s now our leaders’ obligation to frankly acknowledge the problem of segregation in our schools, and start to work towards a solution, before one is imposed on them from the outside.