Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

In Detroit, where Supreme Court killed busing plan, schools in city and suburbs are separate and unequal

January 21, 1992 



In Detroit, school desegregation is dead in practice, dead in theory and dead as an ideal.

Which is fine with Kwame Kenyatta, who has enrolled his 6-year-old son in Malcolm X Academy, a new addition to the Detroit public schools.

“I think he can get a better start in an African-centered environment,” says Kenyatta, who works the night shift as an attendant at a juvenile detention center.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court killed a plan for massive busing between mostly black Detroit and its mostly white suburbs. The decision doomed school integration in Detroit, where the student enrollment is now 90% black, and in many other big cities.

But like Kenyatta, school officials in Detroit are insulted by the whole idea that blacks need to go to school with whites in order to get a good education.

“Allow me to have the same resources other school districts have and I’ll educate the children,” says Frank Hayden, vice president of Detroit’s Board of Education. “Whether or not they’re sitting next to someone of a different color should not be the focal point.”

The latest wave of desegregation settlements give up on integrating the blackest inner-city schools, instead earmarking extra money to make up for past discrimination.

But skeptics abound. Experts warn that more money alone can’t make segregated schools successful.

“Nobody has figured out how to make separate but equal school systems,” says Harvard University political scientist Gary Orfield.

Atlanta tried, forgoing busing in 1973 in exchange for black control of a school system now 92% black. Today, Orfield says, Atlanta spends more on its students than surrounding communities, with poorer results.

Even some of the fiercest advocates of funding equity doubt they will win many meaningful victories.

“The prospects are grim,” says Jonathan Kozol, whose recent book, Savage Inequalities, details the dramatic differences in school funding between black cities and white suburbs. “I am certain we are going to see a continuation of gross inequalities for at least another generation and partly as a result, a widening and deepening of segregation.”

What makes the stakes even higher is America’s growing minority population, which by 1995 is expected to represent one-third of all public school students. “The demographics of this country will not allow the issue of race in the schools to go away. You can’t make a third of the kids invisible,” says Leonard Stevens, who was the court-appointed monitor of Cleveland’s school desegregation effort for 10 years.

Stevens worries about a society in which a black student in Detroit attends Malcolm X Academy while white students in the suburbs don’t even know who Malcolm X is. “If that’s not a formula for social dynamite, I don’t know of one.”

Desegregation, and busing, will not disappear overnight. Hundreds of districts remain under court order and many school officials are just as happy to leave it that way and not reopen old wounds.

But the broader trend is unmistakable. More and more districts will be emerging from court orders and moving away from busing.

Last January, in its first desegregation case in years, the Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma City was within its rights to end busing if it had done everything “practicable” to remove the “vestiges” of discrimination.

The Supreme Court stopped short of defining when desegregation has been achieved. It could address that question later this year in a case involving DeKalb County, Ga. The Atlanta suburb contends it has done enough, even though its voluntary busing plan has left most blacks in schools that are at least 90% black.

In Denver, the city’s first black mayor, Wellington Webb, also wants an end to busing.

“To a majority of people in this town – without regard to race, creed or color – it does not make sense to bus their kids across town just for racial balance,” says Daniel Muse, Webb’s city attorney. Muse, who is black, put his own children in private school rather than see them bused.

Seattle, the only major city to implement massive compulsory busing without a court order, is also edging back.

“I don’t think there’s much opposition to getting rid of busing,” says Reese Lindquist, president of the Seattle Education Association. “It disrupted community identification with their neighborhood schools, it’s been more difficult for parents to be involved in their school, and a lot of money and time was wasted.”

Cities in several states are trading desegregation for extra money to black schools.

In Little Rock, Ark., seven inner-city elementary schools get double funding under a recent court settlement.

“It sounds good,” says Superintendent Ruth Steele. But she worries it does nothing for most black children, because less than half the system’s black elementary students attend those seven schools. And she is troubled by an approach that says to the people of Little Rock, “If you have the privilege of going to a white school, you’ll get half the money. It’s an equity question.”

It’s also a powerful political question. How long will taxpayers, most of them white, support a system that provides twice as much money for a handful of black schools?

In Missouri, there also has been a backlash against a court-ordered desegregation plan for Kansas City that does not require busing but does require massive spending to improve the schools, most of it at state expense.

In New Jersey, Gov. James Florio incurred the wrath of taxpayers after enacting an ambitious “Robin Hood” plan to equalize school funding by taking money from richer communities and giving it to the poorer ones.

A few weeks before his assassination in 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at South High School in Grosse Pointe, the elegant old-money suburb hard by the decay of Detroit.

“There is no more dangerous development in our nation than the constant building up of predominantly Negro central cities ringed by white suburbs,” King told his audience that night. “This will do nothing but invite social disaster.”

In the years since, that buildup has continued unabated. The one hope for significant integration in the Detroit schools, and much of the urban North, died in 1974 when the Supreme Court rejected a plan for massive busing between the city and its mostly white suburbs.

Today the very idea seems long ago and far away.

“That was never going to happen,” says Thomas Woodhouse, the assistant principal at Pershing High School in Detroit.

Grosse Pointe busing its children to Detroit? “Absurd,” says Woodhouse.

Nor would he want his children bused out to the suburbs. Poor black kids can learn right where they are, he says. “If you expect them to excel, they will.”

Yet, by almost any standard, the odds are far longer. In every way, Pershing and Grosse Pointe South are separate and unequal schools.

Pershing spends about $4,200 per pupil. Grosse Pointe spends $7,000.

At Pershing the average class size is 33. At Grosse Pointe, 23.

At Pershing the mean combined SAT score is about 600. At Grosse Pointe, 979.

At Pershing, the dropout rate is close to 40%. At Grosse Pointe, it is about 2%.

On a recent morning at Pershing, Woodhouse expelled a young woman, one of 23 students caught in a surprise weapons sweep, many of them girls who said they carried blades for protection.

Meanwhile, over at Grosse Pointe, where the walls are made of marble and the cafeteria is adorned with a fireplace, assistant principal Bernard Le Mieux must attend to the misdeeds of a shy young woman with a clarinet. “So,” Le Mieux asks, “what are we going to do about your tardies?”

To travel the short distance from the gray urban nowhere around Pershing to the plush verdant comfort of Grosse Pointe is to ride the range of American life.

“It’s kind of a strange thing to go from falling apart to manicured lawns,” says Blair Hess, a senior at Grosse Pointe, of the abrupt dividing line between city and town, from “Checks Cashed” and “We Accept Food Stamps,” to weeping willows and a drug store quaintly called the Apothecary.

Hess visited Pershing as part of a one-day exchange program last spring. “I think our teachers are a lot better here,” he says. “Their teachers didn’t seem like they wanted to be there.”

But Rashieda Addison, a Pershing senior who visited Grosse Pointe in the exchange, is unjealous and undaunted.

“I think there’s education here just as good as in the suburban schools,” she says. And, she adds, the triumphs are greater. “There is so much trying to bring you down, to overcome it is such a big reward.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 28, 2022 at 12:39 am

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