The Dream in Black and White

New York Daily News, Monday January 18, 1999

Today, as America comes together to celebrate the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we also celebrate his dream — a dream of a world where skin color is not the defining factor, where the content of one's character counts above all else. Especially for children.

I have a dream that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sister and brother.

Yet 36 years after King spoke these words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, children attending most New York City schools, especially public ones, find themselves learning in a segregated reality — divided along racial lines.

Of the 1.1 million students in the city's public schools, only 15.7% are non-Hispanic whites, according to the Board of Education. Black students stand at 35.9%; Hispanic students, at 37.5%; Asians, at 10.3%.

Few schools, however, actually mirror those citywide totals. The vast majority of schools are dominated by one racial or ethnic group, with only a sprinkling of others. Some examples: At Public School 8 in Staten Island, 88.1% of the students are white; 2.1% are black. At PS 224 in Brooklyn, 97.4% of the students are black.

At PS 30 in Jamaica, 93% of students are black. Just a few miles across the borough, in Middle Village, is PS 128, where 85.8% of children are white.

At PS 6 on the upper East Side, 74.5% of kids are white. Just a few blocks uptown, at PS 133, 92.4% of the students are black.

We would expect these lopsided numbers in Mississippi, where the Confederate flag still waves and where race-baiting groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens is a popular social club, even among certain members of Congress.

But that this is happening in New York, with New York's children, ought to be a cause of shame. And alarm.

The findings, of course, are not news to the children themselves or their parents. They are accustomed to monochromatic schools and classrooms; some prefer it that way. There are many reasons for these divisions, some benign. Housing patterns are the most obvious, driven largely by income and choice.

But nobody should fool themselves into thinking that a virtual resegregation of the schools nearly 40 years after the height of the civil rights era is a sign of success. Children who spend their growing years almost exclusively with children of their own race will not be prepared for the multi-cultural world that awaits them.

The easiest conclusion to draw is that raw racism still lives. No doubt it does. But that's not the whole story. The Board of Education president is black, and the schools chancellor is black and many of the 32 school districts in this city are run by blacks and Latinos. The problem is more covert, more insidious.

The solution, even if it were possible, is not busing kids to "mix things up." In fact, there aren't enough white kids to really make a big difference. While there is some truth to the conventional wisdom that whites have fled the public system, it's more accurate to say that white families with children have fled the city — many of them in search of better schools. Of the 269,000 students in private and parochial schools, only 58% are white. Even if all those kids went to public schools, white students would still only number about 320,000, less than 25% of the city total.

The point is that, given the choice, those parents of any race who can leave public schools often do. It is not a coincidence that Mayor Giuliani sends his children to parochial school and Public Advocate Mark Green sends his kids to private school. Or that the two black members of the Board of Education, President William Thompson and Manhattan rep Irving Hamer, send their children to private schools.

Nonpublic schools are the model — discipline, high standards and accountability. And oddly, the Rev. King might even be proud: As a system, the private schools are more racially diverse than the public ones.

All loving, involved parents want the best for their children. This was illustrated three years ago, when the mayor got private donors to sponsor a School Choice Scholarship, where 1,300 kids got a chance to attend the private or parochial school of their choice. More than 22,700 parents signed their kids up for the lottery.

Unfortunately, most of the parents in public schools don't have a choice. That's why it's so important that all schools improve. Only then will we have real integration, because parents of means won't flock to certain neighborhoods for their "good schools" or abandon the system and the city. And parents of lesser means won't be stuck with the short end of the stick, where their children have to wade through years of poor education and fall further behind in the educational race.

That's the dream.

© Copyright 1999 Daily News, L.P.