Segregation lives on

The trademark stopwatch, with its notorious ticking second hand, held dual meaning this past Sunday. Not only was this the celebrated beginning of the long running news magazine, "60 Minutes," but this scene was symbolic of how time is running out for some Americans.

Leslie Stahl hosted this segment, which explored the so-called "desegregated" school system in Calhoun County, GA. The Calhoun County school system, which serves approximately 1,200 students, over 60 percent African American, was ordered to desegregate some 25 years ago. It is 1995, and school officials have, by all appearances, "abided" by that order. Looking outside of the classes, the casual observer will see African American and white students talking to each other and hurrying to class, side by side. But, when asked what goes on inside the classroom, the same observer will tell you, "It is all right there, in black and white."

The Calhoun school system practices racial tracking. Classes for higher achievers, where the college preparatory courses are given, are labeled the A and B sections. These sections usually had the better teachers, and more money and facilities. The C and D sections are reserved for the slower students, usually in need of remedial assistance. These sections were for those assumed to be on the vocational track. The A and B sections are almost all white and the C and D sections are almost all African American. According to one African American teacher (who was brave enough to be interviewed), in addition to many of the students and parents, African American kids were automatically steered into the C and D sections, their mental capabilities assumed inferior, while whites were placed in the A and B sections.

The parents of one African American student tried desperately to advance her daughter into the college preparatory sections, but was rebuffed repeatedly no room. When she was finally successful, her daughter went on to college to graduate summa cum laude. On the other side of the spectrum, the same teacher said she tried to place white students into the lower sections because they could not do the work in the advanced sections this was repeatedly blocked. Leslie Stahl asked the school principal about this and he readily agreed, there were some white students in the upper sections that should not be there. Why? "They are kept there for 'social reasons.'" Yes, he actually said that. Oh, by the way, all of the social functions on campus, i.e., prom, dances, cheerleading squads, are also segregated. The cheerleading squad for the football team, all white; the basketball team, all African American.

Why has all this come to light? An English teacher, white, and a 20-year veteran of the Calhoun system, was recently elected superintendent. Frustrated, critical of the system, and apparently all alone, he called in the federal authorities. The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights and the Miami Equity Associates, a federally funded civil rights organization, found students were being placed in sections based on their race, and not as a result of test scores, grades or teacher evaluations a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What did the new superintendent get for his troubles? Hate letters, bomb threats, oral consternation from white parents. Some parents have pulled their children from the schools. A white member of the school board said it was detrimental to the school system when they lose white kids and their families. The parents that were interviewed on the "60 Minutes" segment were visibly distressed by the actions of the new superintendent. They said he "ruined" the school system. One man said he had grown up in Calhoun County, attending the school system. He made a point to say that "there have never been any racial problems" until the new superintendent came along.

With the assistance of federal officials, the Calhoun County school system is on the mend, abandoning racial tracking and eliminating the classification system. What does all this mean? We are in the midst of a nationwide assault on affirmative action programs, with most opponents stressing that such programs are no longer needed. To speak in terms of race is now considered intrinsically divisive. Yet, discussions of glass ceilings, housing and employment discrimination, white flight, immigration, inner city schools, racial tracking, gangs, drugs, and violence all denote images of people of color in this society. This example of racial tracking, even under the guise of a federal order to desegregate, created a segregated community that, consciously or unconsciously, aims to keep the status quo.

Ultimately, the question remains; Is it at all sensible, or at a minimum, rational, for us to question the validity and efficacy of programs that take into consideration that racism still exist? Laws do not change attitudes, as racial tracking demonstrates. More importantly, is it wise for us to abandon substantive and procedural safeguards, based on the hypothesis that "we all can get along?"

David Benton is the president of the Black Law Students Association. His column appears every other Thursday.

Read Next Article