The Perpetuation Of Racism In Public Schools

by E. Coe
VLIET / iStock

Many know about it, most ignore it, but no one stops it: As counties in the South go, one particular district is standard in every way. Churches galore, a large handful of banks on its main drag, and there is a farmer’s market with regular weekly hours. Schools are in the normal state of disrepair, and the money allocated to them is minimal at best. There is one thing that might set it apart from others, however. Tucked away in one of its small towns, a silent form of racism thrives.

The county seat of this district is predominantly African-American and has been for a number of years, and for a number of years, some residents have decided this is just not acceptable. Mind you, they don’t say this aloud. They aren’t picketing or tacking up signs segregating the town’s facilities. No one is even turning up the proverbial nose at a neighbor of color. They are very quietly taking the sleepy little town in their arms and slipping past Jim Crow without uttering a word. It’s all being done with paperwork. Yes, paperwork. It’s so simple, it’s terrifying.

Desegregation began in my hometown in 1967. I know this, not because I lived it, but because a dear friend did. She happened to be the first African-American to walk into an all-white school in our county. She, along with a handful of her friends, integrated the elementary school in our county seat. I have never heard a soul say that riots ensued or eggs were thrown. By all accounts she has given, there was discomfort in the air, but it dissipated. Children were taught. Life went on.

Let’s get back to that paperwork, shall we? I can’t be sure when it began to happen. My experience with it spans at least three decades, maybe more. There are a few different ways some parents in our district are exhibiting this silent form of racism. Of the handful of schools in our district, the county seat, naturally, serves the most students. Most of those students are from low-income households, and the majority are African-American. In order to tiptoe around sending their sons and daughters to this predominantly black elementary school, more and more parents are opting to falsify their home address.

Sad, isn’t it? Lying about where you live? Lying about the home you’ve built for your family and the place your loved ones cherish? Lying about the home you break your back to maintain? I have to give credit where credit is due. If their goal is to show utter disdain for people of color, they are doing a bang-up job of it.

Fudging an address is likely where it all started. A family member living within the more desirable school zone (one with far fewer black students) probably suggested his or her address be used upon school registration. Problem solved. In theory, this works until proof of address is required. Our county does, in fact, require proof of the parents’ address. Clever, or shall we say, especially determined parents have found yet another way to beat the system and keep their children from attending school with too many people of color.

I’ll jump right in. Light poles. Yep, I said it: light pole, utility pole, streetlamp. Call them what you will. Over the last dozen or so years, increasing numbers of parents are opting to pay for service for a light pole in a neighboring school zone in order to receive an electric bill they can use as proof of address. They want to live in the county seat. They want to maintain their membership to the local country club pool, pay dues to the homeowner’s association, and drive golf carts to the neighbors’ Super Bowl parties. They do not, however, want to move.

A light pole is where my mind goes when I think “address.” I know, it’s ridiculous. Imagine walking into your child’s elementary school and waltzing up to the registration table with a bill in your hand for a light pole and proudly handing it over as your child’s home address. You won’t hear these conversations take place. As I said, this is a type of discrimination that is very quiet. Takes some gumption. I take that back — it takes some stone-cold racist thoughts.

If you weren’t prepared for the Great Light Pole Reveal of 2017, you may need to sit down for this one. Imagine with me, if you will, the months before your child starts school. You aren’t pleased with the school she will be attending. It’s not the teachers, it’s just, well, you know, the environment. You and your hubby begin to brainstorm: What do we do? What choice do we have? Isn’t there something else we can do? You just aren’t into the light pole option your best friend’s cousin’s daughter chose. Both of you talk to friends, church members, and a few neighbors you trust.

Then your mom calls.

Your parents live in the oh-so-desirable zone. The one with, well, you know, the better environment. You talk. She talks. You talk. She talks. The two of you come up with the most logical solution to this most desperate situation. You and dear hubs will sign over custody of your daughter to your mom and dad! You heard me right, dear reader. People are signing their children over to family members so their children’s registration paperwork will have an in-zone address and they can attend the school of their choice. Now, mind you, these children are still living outside the zone of the school their parents have hand-picked for them. Their “paperwork,” however, shows an address within the lines on our district’s map. What the holy crap?

Have you ever in your life?

The first time (there have been multiple incidents of this) I heard this, I was speechless. Who does something like that? Giving custody of your own children to others simply to avoid sending them to an elementary school? My question is: What happens when you have a falling-out over how you are raising your children?

Actually, not just one question — I have lots of them. What if your mother decides to play the “Don’t Forget I Have Custody” card? Heaven forbid, your parents decide to actually take your children from you at some point. Is it really worth it? Is the paperwork worth it? Geez! How completely bigoted can a family get? The transfer of custody has boggled my mind. I cannot imagine any scenario in which I would ever feel so strongly about keeping my children away from another child that I would relinquish custody to any other family member. Even as I write this and reread it, I am incredulous.

As amazingly horrible as the above scenarios are, they are true. If you have read this far and still have doubts about the reasons some parents in my hometown are shunning our elementary school, I can understand. It seems so terribly desperate. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you are considering the staff, right? These parents, these light-pole-buying, custody-surrendering folks must not be pleased with the teachers and/or administration of the school. Am I right? Because nobody would be that prejudiced against children, right?

Try this on for size: Dissatisfaction with teachers makes perfect sense until you consider blatant facts. The elementary school rejected by the aforementioned parents is filled to the brim with teachers and teaching assistants who live, attend church, and socialize alongside the same people who desperately seek to place their children elsewhere when school begins each August, mothers who choose to give up custody of their sons and fathers who sign over their daughters rather than walk through those elementary school doors are not avoiding the adults. They sit in a church pew with these teachers. Carpools to dance class and softball practice are organized with these same teachers driving their children regularly from town to town. Sunday school lessons are given by these teachers to the very children who will never see them stand in front of them in a public school classroom. They have no problems with the teachers. Their problem is with “the environment.”

It is precisely what you and I think it is. It is an understated, unspoken, behind-closed-doors perpetuation of racism. We wonder why the Philando Castiles and the Sandra Blands die. They die because there is an underlying racist attitude that is never addressed. They die because racism hasn’t. There is still a movement in some areas of our country to segregate our children. Attitudes did not change when they should have. Tolerance did not grow into a yearning to understand or appreciate. The simple fact that a parent doesn’t outwardly use derogatory terms for a person of color is not enough.

Not using the N-word is not enough.

Not belittling differences is not enough.

Not criticizing the culture of another is not enough.

Some racism is quiet. I’d venture to say that much more of it is silent than we ever dare to imagine. I’ve seen just a fraction of it in my hometown. I feel completely safe in saying that the same type of discrimination thrives in small towns across the United States. Fighting tooth-and-nail to keep children from socializing with and learning alongside children of color is not a path we want retrace in this country.

Fifty school years later, folks, we should not still be having this conversation.