Workers Vanguard No. 1165
15 November 2019
Down With School Segregation, Legacy of Slavery!
We print below, edited for publication, a presentation by comrade L. Singer at a Spartacist League forum held in Chicago on October 26. It was first given in Brooklyn, New York.
Under the reactionary Trump presidency, which revels in unabashed bigotry, there has been a lot of feigned concern in the liberal, pro-Democratic Party bourgeois press about the perils of racism. In the past year, numerous articles reported that New York City has some of the most segregated schools in the U.S. and that only seven black students got into Stuyvesant this year. Stuyvesant is the top elite public high school in NYC that admits 900 kids out of a school system of more than a million students. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a so-called “progressive” Democrat, and schools chancellor Richard Carranza have postured as being for integration, proposing a few token changes that have been met with a vicious backlash. De Blasio had suggested phasing out the racist test that determines admission to the elite schools, proposing to let in the top 7 percent of students from every middle school. Predictably, the mayor abandoned this proposal.
Meanwhile, the same newspapers that claim to be so concerned about school segregation, like the cynical mouthpiece of the ruling class, the New York Times, publish scare articles about other tokenistic proposals, like the idea of getting rid of the elementary school Gifted & Talented programs. Journalist Jelani Cobb aptly described this alarmist campaign as making it sound as if de Blasio was declaring war on smart children. The point is to all but ensure that no change ever happens. Of course, we would support any measure that would provide even a scrap of greater access to quality education. But these plans will not affect the vast majority of NYC students, who would still be confined to underfunded and overcrowded schools that are little more than holding pens, complete with metal detectors, surveillance cameras and “zero tolerance” discipline enforced by armed NYPD cops.
By the way, I have a daughter who is in the Gifted & Talented program in her district. (There are multiple districts within almost every borough.) There are only a few G&T classes of about 35 kids for the entire district of over 30,000 students, and while the district is roughly 15 percent black, there is not one black student in her class. This one “gifted” class is in a school that is 80 percent non-white. If you don’t get into the class when you’re four years old, admission being based on a single test, it’s unlikely you ever will. Meanwhile, the same district has a 70 percent white school that is much better funded. Getting to go there depends on where you live. Parents in that zone don’t need to worry about kids getting into the G&T program because their school is better. So, getting rid of the G&T would actually do little to change the overall racial segregation of the schools. But even little things elicit a big racist furor.
NYC public schools are 70 percent black and Latino. While 43 percent of the city’s population is white, only 15 percent of the public school student body is. And much of that 15 percent goes to the best public schools, where the students are mostly white, while over 70 percent of black and Latino students go to schools that are less than 10 percent white. In NYC, a bastion of enlightened liberalism presently run by the Democrats, as is usual, there are two separate systems of education. Where a student ends up is largely determined by race and class. This is true all over capitalist America. And while New York has its particularities and special means by which schools are segregated, in every major city in the U.S. the reality of segregated education persists and has even worsened in the last few decades. So here we are, 65 years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and over 150 years after the victory of the North in the Civil War. So, why are schools still segregated?
As Marxists, we understand that black oppression is the cornerstone of American capitalism, a system built from colonial times on the backs of black slaves. This point is fundamental. In this racist, class-divided society, a tiny handful of people own the banks and industry. It is labor power—the sweat and blood of the working class—that is the source of the capitalists’ profits. Black people are specially oppressed as a race-color caste, segregated in the main at the bottom of society and confronted every day with the legacy of chattel slavery. Racial oppression is ingrained in the U.S. capitalist economy and every social institution. Anti-black racism is ruthlessly promoted by the ruling class to keep the working people divided and to conceal their common class interests against the exploiters.
An expression of black oppression in America is the racist rulers’ conscious and systematic denial of quality education to the mass of the black population. The capitalist class hoards the vast wealth of society for themselves. They run the education system to serve their interests, including by promoting bourgeois ideology. The elite schools are intended to prepare the next generation of technocrats, bureaucrats and CEOs. When it comes to the working class and the poor, including whites, the capitalists seek to spend on education only what they think they can realize back in profit from exploiting labor, and they also use the schools for military recruitment. The racist rulers see little use in educating the majority of black and Latino youth because as capitalism decays, it has no decent jobs for them to fill. The lives of the ghetto and barrio poor have already been written off as expendable, leaving them to die on the streets or to be thrown behind bars as millions have been.
The truth is that no reform under capitalism can fundamentally transform the social conditions that continue to imprison the impoverished black masses. The lack of affordable, quality housing is directly connected to the hellish conditions of the schools. Both are endemic to the capitalist profit system. Only the working class has the social power and class interest to wage an uncompromising struggle for quality, integrated education and housing for all. To win full political, social and economic equality for black people requires that the multiracial working class rip the economy out of the hands of the capitalists and reorganize it on a socialist basis, so that production is for human need, not profit. In order to wage this revolutionary struggle, the working class must become the champion of black equality. This also means organizing politically in opposition to all the agencies of the class enemy. The illusions that working people and minorities have in the Democratic Party of racist capitalism and war are a deadly obstacle to the struggle.
That’s my second fundamental point. The Democratic Party, which postures as the friend of workers, black people and all the oppressed, is in fact their class enemy. All the Democrats, including those calling themselves “progressive,” represent the capitalist class and defend its interests. In recent decades, the Democrats, just as much if not more than their Republican counterparts, have maintained segregation in education and have made it, if anything, worse. The bipartisan attacks on public education have gone hand in hand with decades of sustained capitalist onslaught against the living standards of the working class. In the face of this unrelenting class war, the pro-capitalist union misleaders have accepted giveback after giveback, while binding workers to the Democrats. It is vital to replace these labor traitors with a leadership committed to political independence of the working class.
This leads me to my third fundamental point: the need for a revolutionary vanguard party. Central to the program of such a party must be the fight for revolutionary integrationism. This is counterposed to liberal integrationism—the idea that integration and equality can be achieved by reforms under capitalism. Liberal integrationism is basically a lie that amounts to prettifying the brutal reality of racial oppression. Revolutionary integrationism is also counterposed to all forms of black separatism, which, at bottom, are expressions of despair over the prospects for integrated class struggle. Our task is building a revolutionary party that arms the working class with the consciousness that the fight against black oppression is central to the fight to emancipate labor and all the oppressed from the bondage of capitalist exploitation.
The grotesque inequality between the filthy rich and the poor that is seen in all decaying capitalist societies is particularly acute in New York, the center of U.S. finance capital. When de Blasio ran for mayor, he did so promising to tackle inequality, much in the same manner as we see with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the current presidential campaign. At that time, a lot of reformist leftists were pushing illusions in de Blasio. His “tale of two cities” campaign slogan tapped into real anger among the vast majority in the city who suffered under ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rule. An actual capitalist worth more than $50 billion, Bloomberg and his Wall Street cronies swam in profits, while most everyone else either treaded water or sank deeper into poverty. He attacked the city unions, including calling transit workers “thugs” when they dared to strike in 2005. He closed schools in black and Latino neighborhoods and pushed anti-union charters, installing the citywide system of “school choice,” a fraud that led to even greater segregation of schools.
But de Blasio in office has shown time and again that, like those before him, he is the mayor of Wall Street, ruling on behalf of the financial titans who lord it over the working class—white, black, Latino, Asian and immigrant. Under de Blasio’s reign, billions have been dished out by the city to real estate magnates who throw up luxury skyscrapers, while slumlords hike up rents and drive working people and the poor out of gentrifying neighborhoods. As the homeless population in NYC continues to grow, one out of ten public school students is in temporary housing, including homeless shelters.
Admission to elementary schools is mostly tied to residential districts, and housing in New York City is segregated. In addition, the best middle schools and high schools have other means of keeping black and Latino kids out, including through screening for test scores, absences and lateness. You can have multiple segregated schools in one building. For example, at the John Jay educational complex in posh Park Slope, Brooklyn, there are four high schools, three of which are roughly 90 percent black and Latino. The other school, Millennium, is only 40 percent black and Latino and gets vastly more funding. One parent said: “It’s a Jim Crow system in Brooklyn in 2017.” That same year, after one of the high school principals, Jill Bloomberg (no relation to the other Bloomberg), tried to address segregation at her school and the greater resources allotted to Millennium, she was, no joke, investigated for “communist organizing.” The investigation was eventually dropped. But it testifies to how little has changed and why when the issue of integration is raised, so is the specter of communism.
Finish the Civil War!
When you touch integration, you are touching the question of revolution and the unfinished business of the Civil War. To understand why black youth, and increasingly Latinos, are by and large sent to unequal and inferior schools, one needs to understand the legacy of slavery in this country and that black people today constitute a race-color caste. This caste status was consolidated in the aftermath of the defeat of Reconstruction, so it’s crucial to know that history as a means to understand the present and the way out for the future.
American capitalism was founded on black chattel slavery. The consolidation of slavery gave rise to the concept of what was known as the “Negro” and “white” races. While the idea that there are different races is scientific nonsense, it is a social fact essential to understanding this society. The color line, developed to justify slavery, became permanent and hereditary. Black slaves remained black slaves, as did their children and grandchildren. The peculiar “principle” that in the U.S. determined who would be a slave was the “one drop” rule—one drop of “black” blood makes you black.
The veteran Trotskyist Richard Fraser underscored in his writings some 60 years ago how the concept of race was central to the development of American capitalism. He outlined how the material basis of black oppression drew upon a precapitalist system of production. Slavery played a key role in the development of British industrial capitalism and U.S. capitalism. British textile owners received Southern cotton, which was handled by powerful New York merchants. Those merchants sold manufactured goods to the South.
Although slavery and capitalism were intertwined, they were different economic systems. The Southern plantation system acted as a brake on the growth of industrial capitalism. Throughout the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, repeated “compromises” sought to offset what was called the “irrepressible conflict” between the North and South. However, each compromise only delayed the inevitable conflict and further entrenched the power of the slavocracy. It took a civil war to smash the slavocracy. The North’s victory was made possible only through the emancipation of the millions of black chattel slaves and the arming of 200,000 free black men and former slaves in a war that destroyed the slave system. There are many good articles on this history in our Black History and the Class Struggle pamphlet series.
On the eve of the Civil War, 90 percent of black people in the U.S. were enslaved, with nearly half the free blacks living in the North. Most of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision deals with whether black people who were not slaves were citizens of the United States. As Chief Justice Roger Taney, a white-supremacist, put it:
“The question is simply this: Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?”
And Taney continued that black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In other words, black people in the U.S. would forever be marked as inferior because their ancestors had been slaves. The Dred Scott decision would reverberate over and over, and still does today, as a definition of race-color caste oppression.
The fight for education has always been a hallmark of struggles by the oppressed for freedom. In the pre-Civil War South, slaves who dared to learn to read met the lash of their masters’ whips; those who dared to teach them faced imprisonment or met a worse fate at the hands of lynch mobs. Before the 19th century, only South Carolina and Georgia explicitly forbade the teaching of blacks. But the slaveowners learned from the example of slave uprisings in the Western Hemisphere, particularly the Haitian Revolution, which achieved independence for Haiti in 1804. The successful uprising in Haiti, as well as the Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey insurrectionary conspiracies and the Nat Turner revolt, were all organized and led by literate blacks. Laws were passed in all states south of the Mason-Dixon line making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write.
For Frederick Douglass, who fought his way out of slavery and became a political leader of the radical left wing of the abolitionist movement, there was great motivation to educate himself, no matter the cost. He wrote: “‘Very well,’ thought I. ‘Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”
It’s a common view in this country that the South was the seat of American barbarism, while enlightenment was to be found in the North. In reality, the South—because it is where slavery was dominant and where the overwhelming majority of black people lived after emancipation—represented a concentrated expression of the deep racist prejudice that permeated the whole country. Many of the concepts associated with the South originated in the North, found full fruition in the South and were exported back to the rest of the country. Segregation was no less deeply entrenched in the North than in the South. After the American Revolution, the idea of public schools began to take greater hold, coinciding with the expanding capitalist system’s need for basic education of workers. These were called common schools at the time, and in the North they were mostly not open to free blacks, and definitely not to slaves.
While slavery was abolished in most Northern states in the 1820s, these states offered little access to education for blacks. In most major cities, if there was any educational opportunity for black youth, it was in segregated schools. These were not public schools, but schools funded primarily by abolitionists and Quakers.
In some small communities in the North, black children were allowed to attend predominantly white local schools, but they were segregated. In a book I read on this history, a black man described what it was like going to school in Pennsylvania at that time, when black children were not allowed to drink from the same bucket or cup as the white children and had to sit back in the corner away from the fire no matter how cold the weather might be. This treatment of free black people in the North was an early example of caste subjugation: a population—officially free and not slave—could be segregated, discriminated against, and at times violently attacked, for no reason other than their skin color.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that major cities in the North started public schools for black youth, and these schools were inferior. Black parents called these schools “caste” schools. In Boston in 1848, a black printer, Benjamin Roberts, wanted his five-year-old daughter to attend the school closest to their home, which was a white school. Roberts sued the city of Boston on behalf of his daughter. His attorney was abolitionist Charles Sumner, assisted by Robert Morris, one of the nation’s first black attorneys. Sumner argued that segregation was a violation of the Massachusetts constitution and “equality under the law.” He argued that “the separation of children in the public schools of Boston, on account of color or race, is in the nature of caste, and is a violation of equality.” In response, Judge Shaw’s ruling against Roberts states: “It is urged, that this maintenance of separate schools tends to deepen and perpetuate the odious distinction of caste, founded in a deep-rooted prejudice in public opinion. This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.”
This 1848 ruling would later be cited in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case to show the compatibility of segregation and a mandate of equality before the law. In Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass’s young daughter Rosetta applied in 1849 to a private school. She was admitted, but she was told she wasn’t allowed to be in the same room with white students. Douglass objected, but he ended up having her privately tutored. In Illinois in 1849, the state legislature provided for state-supported public schools for the first time, but voted for them to exclude black children.
One of the most profound gains resulting from the defeat of the slavocracy in the Civil War was the establishment of a system of public education for all, black and white. V.I. Lenin, the revolutionary Bolshevik leader, noted in “The Question of Ministry of Education Policy” (1913):
“America is not among the advanced countries as far as the number of literates is concerned. There are about 11 per cent illiterates and among the Negroes the figure is as high as 44 per cent. But the American Negroes are more than twice as well off in respect of public education as the Russian peasantry. The American Negroes, no matter how much they may be, to the shame of the American Republic, oppressed, are better off than the Russian peasants—and they are better off because exactly half a century ago the people routed the American slave-owners, crushed that serpent and completely swept away slavery and the slave-owning state system, and the political privileges of the slave-owners in America.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]