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The Failure of Desegregation in Baltimore City Schools: An Interview with Morgan State’s Ray Winbush

10 Written by: | Tuesday, Nov 29, 2011 12:00am

What happens when Baltimore talks about race? City mom Edit Barry finds out when she calls Dr. Raymond Winbush — director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and author of The Warrior Method: Raising Self-Reliant Black Men — to discuss the failure of integration and the future of Baltimore City Public Schools.

*

If you look at a map of Baltimore neighborhoods by race, you’ve got what looks like a white puff of smoke splitting the city in half. The divisions are so clear here. There was an attempt to integrate the schools, but the result of it was to further segregate them.

To desegregate Baltimore City Public Schools sounds good. It sounds wonderful! Is that ever gonna happen? I doubt it, unless we find whites moving back to Baltimore in droves.

There are new parents living in the city now — highly educated ‘white’ parents making a middle class living — who need public schools. What should they be mindful of — as outsiders?

The thing is this (laughs) — it’s like the privilege of being white in America, and Baltimore is no different, is that white people don’t have to think about the interests of black people in anything.

But what if they want to?

I’m not sure there are a lot that want to. There are some who do. But they’re definitely in a minority. But listen. Flip it around. See, as a black male in America, I — and when I say ‘I’ I mean ‘black people’ — we have to understand white America. We do! The problem is that whites don’t have to know anything about black America and they could still be quite ‘successful.’ Whites don’t have to deal with people of color.

But we do. In this city, we do.

You do and you don’t. I pick up certain magazines and newspapers and if I were a proverbial man from Mars I could flip through some of the publications in Baltimore — I’m not gonna name any, but you know some of ’em — and I would say, ‘God. There’s no black people living in this city.’ It’s almost like we say, ‘We’re just going to ignore the fact that this city is 70 percent black, another, what — we’re not sure now — 10 to 15 percent Latino, Asian and then white. You know, we’re gonna ignore it. We’re gonna pretend.’ We don’t wanna deal with it.

But I want to deal with it.

You sound very sincere. Look, you’re dealing with it when you’re talking to me, by the fact that you attended the Enoch Pratt thing, and as I’ve said to well meaning whites around this world, what you’ve gotta do, you’ve got to make an effort to understand people of color. White people who wanna understand, deal with black people — they’ve gotta go out of their way.

You know the charter school City Neighbors?

Yeah, yeah.

When they talk about themselves on their website, they say something like, ‘We wanted a school where middle class and poor and rich and white and black students could come together in a community and learn together.’

Right.

It’s a liberal ideal.

It is. And I think it should be mandatory, and I’ve said this publicly, that teachers, students, and parents engage at least four times a year in an open, honest dialogue about race the way you and I are doing it right now. That should be built into public school systems around this country. In Baltimore, particularly. We have got to talk about his stuff.

So how can parents go for that ideal in their neighborhood public school rather than starting a charter school?

You’ve gotta be subversive. You’ve got to infiltrate the school board. Well meaning white teachers, well meaning white people, have to push the issue to school officials to do that stuff. And it can be done. But, see, they won’t listen to the black community. White parents have to get–

Let’s include under ‘white,’ like, Korean…you know–

Yeah, I’m talkin’ about Asian, blacks, I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a coalition in Baltimore called PARE — Parents Advocating Racial Equality — and it would be like a multicultural coalition of parents, teachers, students, advocating at school board meetings for a more just education system where everybody can learn from everybody else? I think that takes subversive activity just like Occupy Wall Street.

What if right now in Hampden you got 30 white people together to go down to North Avenue and say, ‘We want a more fair and balanced’ — I don’t wanna sound like Fox News, but — ‘we want a more fair and balanced class and race school system in America and we’re gonna sit in the lobby of the North Avenue building until it happens.’ Whites ain’t willing to do that.

I think we want to change things, but I don’t know if that’s the way to go.

So how do you think we should change it?

I think we need, first of all, to get more middle class parents to consider the public schools. The narrative is so ingrained now of you buy your starter home in the city, put your house on the market when your kid turns four, and either move to the county or send your child to one of the private schools. And you can get financial aid to do that.

Well, it is never gonna happen. That’s the cement. We’re never gonna crack it.

I have to believe we can do it. Parents are organizing themselves to do it. Roland Park Elementary wasn’t the school that it is now except for a group of parents who got together and started sending their kids there. Now you have people lying about where they live so they can send their kids to that school. The change has to happen on a more personal level.

I think it can. But that’s not the only way. It’s a good way. It’s a more peaceful way, but–

You’re more radical.

Yeah, I am. I tend to be attracted to revolutionary movements. How do movements begin? Usually it is an individual saying, I am just fed up with this stuff and I’m going to do something about it. They garner the public’s eye and then people say, that’s what I feel, I wanna join that.

I think your dialogue and organizing is very, very critical. But you’re going to have to get to a point where you say, okay, now that these parents see the value of a public school education the way they do in Roland Park, we’ve got to do something more systemwide — and that’s when the rubber meets the road. I just try to get to that point as quick as I can, that’s all.

Edit Barry writes the blog Re:education in Baltimore — this story is original to Baltimore Fishbowl. Find her on Twitter@editbarry.

Leave a Reply

  • A BCPSS Parent

    Unless I read you (Edit) wrong, it seems that the approach you are advocating, to achieve integrated schools, is to first have non-African-Americans particapate and improve their majority non-African-American zoned school. Somehow by doing this there will be a sense of unity with all City Schools and people will just stop noticing the racial make-up of a school. On the other hand, a charter school that is open to any kid in the city and because of that at least approximates the racial make-up of the city, as opposed to a neighborhood, is not helping promote integration and racial understanding. I don’t see it.

    Since you mentioned RPEMS let’s look at that example. In my experience there wasn’t even unity between the two, racially disparate, halves of that single school. It was always finger pointing about those out-of-zone kids and keeping the middle schoolers away from the elementary schoolers and rules that middle school kids couldn’t go to local stores after school. Not a whole lot of understanding going on there.

    The way I see it, in a city that is 70% African-American, any school that is less than 50% African-American doesn’t reflect our city. Also any school that is less than 10% non-African-American doesn’t reflect our city. It might be arbitrary, but there’s a difference between majority and minority and having so few non-African-Americans that the odds are you’ll never be in a class with one.

    I believe that the reality of a zoned school is that it will never reflect the racial make-up of our city. If the zone is segregated, the school will be too. If the zone is diverse, I’ll bet the non-African-American parents are lying about their address to get into Roland Park, are sending their kids to private/parochial or, best case situation, are going to a charter school where more than half the kids are African-American.

    I think that working to improve your zoned school is a good thing to do, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see it as a step on the path to integrating Baltimore’s schools.

  • Leaves Bennett

    This is a fascinating dialogue, Thank you for sharing.

  • scientist

    I am really disappointed by Dr. Winbush’s vision of change. Although he claims to be very radical, in the end he is asking for a sit-in at North Avenue, as if North Avenue is such a concentration of power that it can achieve this goal of educational equity on behalf of the community by fiat. Not only does this seem naive to me, it seems inherently authoritarian. As a spouse of a BCPS teacher the thing that strikes me is the lack of parent involvement and the lack of accountability between parents and administration in BCPS schools. When teaching in a majority black school the principal in question was black. She was not held accountable in any way by parents for the disorganization and low expectations in most classrooms in the school. Even when classrooms devolved into chaos and fighting parents rarely if ever stepped forward to voice opinions about the school or press North Avenue for change. There was no active parent-teacher organization. Few parents even showed up to meet their child’s teacher. This is a far cry from the public schools I attended as a child. It is hard to imagine a middle-class parent, black, white, asian or latino, being willing to send a child to a school with such a high level of disengagement between school and community. To my mind this can only be addressed by the parents in the community embracing the importance of education and being willing to be active. If every principal in Baltimore city knew that their parent organization was going to support them if they raised standards or raise a ruckus if students were not achieving academically, the schools would be very different. I think parent orgainzation is the only practical route to raising the quality of education and attracting more middle-class parents of all races into BCPS.

  • A BCPSS Parent

    @Scientist
    Do you really think parents have the power to get rid of a principal? Even in a community with a lot of PTA involvement, a poor principal has little or no incentive to share information or power with a PTA. The only alternative parents have for a school with poor leadership is to get their kids out of there, which is why school choice is so important.

  • DR

    The part that stood out to me is where the author has to convince the professor that she in fact does care. She is a white woman who cares about the education system in Baltimore. It’s surprising to see just how surprising her passion is to Dr. Winbush. It’s easy for me say Dr. Winbush is cynical because I’m young and I still have idealism and I haven’t worked in this city for over twenty years but I think that is the most evident tone in his response. There is something critical that I think Dr. Winbush is missing. He isn’t addressing the developing paradigm that understands in order to make this city better we really cannot have and us vs. them mentality. White people do care. Is it necessarily the most sincere interest? That’s arguable. I think there is so much talk about moving into cities in order to maintain sustainability that people realize in order to keep people here the education system needs to get better. Therefore, we have to address this issue. Despite the potential insincerity, it may be awakening groups of middle class people to engage in the race issue. I think there are many white people, myself included, who genuinely care about this topic and are willing to invest their time and energy to see something change. At the same time, anything that involves race is such a minefield to have an effective discussion around because so many subjects are off limits. There are so many perceptions that are ungrounded, fueled with prejudice, take up space that prevent actual, productive discussion from occurring.
    I find this article refreshing because it does state an honest reflection of a racial perception of the city yet it still is far from giving something concrete to actually work with. I think influential black people in the city need to take white people up on the offer when they say that they want to make a difference, according the framework espoused by Dr. Winbush, that there should be a racial distinction between the two parties. Of course this insinuates that it will require white people in order to make the education system better which I find to be even more controversial. I think it would answer this important question that never was: “There are new parents living in the city now — highly educated

  • Michael McKenzie

    You cannot force integration,..the past 30 years have proved that. We can teach integration in the form of intelligent truth, which we have done a fair job of. Children usually learn prejudice from their parents. The first thing we need to do is let everyone go to the school of their choice; especially when the school is in their own neighborhood. Then we need to continue teaching that prejudice is based on ignorance, as we have been doing for the most part and our youth will come through pretty well.

  • Corey Gaber

    Thanks for this interview Edit and Dr. Winbush, I love people trying to inject racial conversations into the city dialogue.

    I posted this quote on twitter because it seemed relevant, “The luxury of belonging to the advantaged racial group is that ones own racialness is invisible to oneself.” (Lewis, 2004) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00237.x/abstract

    This is just one of many reasons that it’s difficult for white people to talk about race, and lends itself to Dr. Winbush’s comment about white people not even having to think about black people. The concentration of power and opportunity is so extreme that young black kids in school HAVE to learn how white people talk and emulate it, whereas white people aren’t required to go through black people to get anything, which further cements white people’s inability to understand the impact of race in this city/country.

    BCPSS parent mentioned charter schools being selected by choice and zoned neighborhood schools simply being assigned, but that’s not the case in Baltimore anymore. EVERY SCHOOL is technically a choice school. Students are REQUIRED to fill out their choice forms when entering middle and high school (I think at one younger point as well now), even if their parents don’t sign it the guidance counselor is supposed to fill it out with the student. They can choose from any school in the city.

    I’m also concerned about the idea that we need white people to infiltrate all black schools in order to save them. There’s plenty of evidence to show that if you allow white people a seat at the table of racial justice movements, even if the movement is predominantly people of color, the white people tend to take over and become the primary decision makers. In some sense this puts whites dedicated to racial justice in a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation, but I simply make the point to say that for people like Edit, there’s a delicate balance where you help organize, but you organize to build the power of the people in the neighborhood, until you’re no longer useful to them. At ACORN that was always the model, organize yourself OUT of the neighborhood.

  • A BCPSS parent

    I believe, at the elementary level (like Hampden elementary that started this discussion) there is no choice outside of charters.

  • Edit Barry

    What surprised me most in having this conversation with Dr. Winbush was that he didn’t question the assumption that integration is a worthy ideal. It’s an ideal most blacks seem to have given up on. DR is right that this piece gives nothing concrete to work with. A BCPSS Parent is right that s/he’s reading me wrong. I don’t advocate an approach to integration. I advocate getting more middle class parents to consider public schools. (That includes black middle class parents.) Schools where no more than 75% of students are eligible for free and reduced meals do a lot better than schools where that figure is closer to 99%. Class matters. I think class matters more than race. And that’s where Corey’s quote comes in. I have the luxury of thinking that way because my skin is the color of milk.

  • Racial Segregation and Busing | Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Inc.

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