Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How we forget

From the late 1960s into the 1980s, Charlotte, North Carolina, created the most desegregated school system in the nation. An elaborate system of cross-town busing ensured that schools across the system were balanced racially and economically. Many Charlotteans believed that this inter-racial achievement played a major role in the city's growing prosperity during this era.

Charlotteans' pride in desegregation showed clearly in a once-famous moment in Charlotte's past, the day in 1984 that Ronald Reagan came to town. Reagan was tremendously popular in Charlotte, and the people who gathered to hear him cheered with gusto – until the moment he denounced school busing as "a social experiment that nobody wants." People who were there that day will tell you that the crowd went ice-cold at those words. Charlotteans were proud that their children were learning to live and work together. Even Ronald Reagan could not tell them otherwise.

Today, a decade after a federal judge ordered an end to busing for desegregation, the school landscape looks nothing like it did in 1984. High-poverty, high-minority schools cluster at the city's center. Low-poverty, largely white schools ring the suburban edges. In-between, parents fret about maintaining their schools' "diversity" – a word which has come to mean "a comfortable number of middle-class, white families." Far more students attend private school than did during busing's heyday.

As desegregation has waned in Charlotte, so has its memory. Many of the families who have moved to Charlotte in recent years have no idea that school desegregation was once considered one of the city's greatest achievements. Busing is most often invoked by critics who denounce it as a "failure" or as "social engineering." Memories of the sense of community, the openness of mind, the commitment to fairness that marked the busing era have largely faded from public view.

In the end, it seems, Ronald Reagan has prevailed. Today, the majority of parents – whether Democrats, Republicans or independents – subscribe to Reagan's vision of individual choice, regardless of the consequences for others. Parents with the money to choose their neighborhoods search out the "best" schools for their own children – generally those schools with low poverty rates and high test scores. Private wealth and resources now concentrate at those favored schools, leaving children in low-income neighborhoods with a far more restricted range of educational choices.

It makes me sad to see so many people who seem unwilling or unable to envision any alternative to these growing inequities. I think the loss of community memory plays a key role in this limited vision.

Peter and I believed that we could make a difference at Shamrock because we knew desegregation had worked in Charlotte in the past. We believed in the potential of Parker's classmates because North Carolina history is full of examples of working class communities where people seized on opportunities and accomplished remarkable things. Sadly, the history most people learn today – a history full of wars and laws and a bare handful of high-level leaders – barely hints at the possibilities that lie within all of us. How do we start to recover these other, more empowering memories?

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