In America, race and class are inextricably linked.
Whether by chance, or more likely, by purpose, that is the reality that we must live with. Most of the children who attend New York’s Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education and Straus School, and their parents, know this all too well.
Straus and Lower Lab inhabit the same building in New York’s Upper East Side—P.S. 198—yet the two schools couldn’t be more different. The only thing they share is the building. While they utilize the same halls and bathrooms, the two schools never interact, even during lunch or recess. There’s an even more striking area they don’t share—the front door. Lower Lab, along with its student and teachers, gets to use the front door while the Straus students are forced to go around the side of the building to use the back door.
In Steven Thrasher’s article, “Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School,” published in New York’s Village Voice, he describes the scene at P.S. 198 by saying, “If you’re a white student and you arrive at the public elementary school building on 95th Street and Third Avenue, you’ll probably walk through the front door. If you’re a black student, you’ll probably come in through the back.”
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Lower Lab’s population is 69 percent white students, and the rest primarily Asian children, who come from all parts of Manhattan, arriving in dark SUVs, taxis, and towncars. The Department of Education has designated Lower Lab as a gifted and talented school, only open to children who score incredibly high on standardized tests given at age four. Straus, on the other hand, is zoned, which means any child from the neighborhood can attend. As a result, its student body is 47 percent Latino and 24 percent Black, with most coming from lower-middle class families.
Dr. Pedro Nogeura, professor of education at NYU, and author of “The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education,” sees a problem. In an interview with the Village Voice, he notes, “When you send young kids to school where the racial lines are so stark, there is the process of saying there is something fundamentally different about us, which is why we can’t be together… What we have here is really Plessy at work: separate, without even being equal—but very much separate.”
Yet for us to cite Plessy—while both accurate and appropriate here—and leave it alone, does a disservice. We cannot just say that the schools are separate and unequal. This is obvious. We must examine how much of this issue is truly and exclusively racial. It’s also important to examine the effect this may have on the students.
That which children are exposed to during their formative years in elementary school undoubtedly shapes their perspectives, perceptions, and opinions for the remainder of their lives. And what does this social segregation teach them?
It teaches them to stratify and “other” people. This separation creates an “us” versus “them” mentality and draws a greater distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It also enforces the idea that social segregation is acceptable, even normal. It teaches, perhaps even forces, the students to place the people in their lives into categories according to what they have and what they don’t have—whether it be based on money, intelligence, or skin color. Although, because they live in America, they would likely learn this concept eventually, the fact that they’re exposed to it in a more obvious way at a younger age makes it that much more damaging to their socialization. The fact that they’ll learn more quickly to associate Whites with “haves” and Blacks and Latinos with “have-nots” before most would, means those concepts will have a firmer root in their minds and thus be much harder to change.
In his book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Carter G. Woodson, drives home this point by saying: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Although Woodson is referring more to the curriculum that a student may learn, his idea can surely be applied to the subconscious things that students learn as well—some of which may be more powerful than the written material. And not all of a child’s learning takes place in schools. Actually, what children learn outside of school either serves to weaken or to reinforce their formal education.
Perhaps more than anything else, parental involvement is paramount in their child’s educational process. If the parents are not actively involved in their child’s school work, striving to create environments that nurture good study habits and foster creative thinking, no institution, no matter how incredible and innovative, can overcome that. When parents are not critically concerned with and invested in the educational experience that their child is receiving—either financially or voluntarily—the child is the one that suffers.